Behind Bars

Last week I went to jail. The good news is that I was released the same day. The even better news is that I was never arrested, booked, or fingerprinted. I was just visiting.

Although I don’t write thrillers or cop dramas, I have occasionally written about people getting into trouble with the law. It’s not terribly difficult to conjure the images and emotions associated with incarceration. We’ve all seen countless Hollywood depictions, so we can guess what it looks like. The Internet can teach us about processes and procedures. And we’ve all faced enough trouble with parents or teachers or even real, live policeman to be able to tap into the emotion of it all. Filter all this through an able-bodied imagination and most writers would have little trouble crafting a believable scene or two.

Last week, however, my day job required me to visit an actual detention center.

It wasn’t scary, but it was creepy. It was neither hip nor cool; rather, it was stark and sad. The lighting was fair, but there was no dramatic soundtrack or a single person you’d describe as sexy. There were two lawyers present, one reedy and skittish, the other reminded me of a hot dog vendor. The cops were implausibly young (or perhaps I’m just getting old). Most were shorter and pudgier than I would have imagined.

In the waiting area, I overheard several clipped conversations between attorneys and newly released clients. I sat opposite worried parents and grandparents. One man wearing a Hilton Head sweatshirt paced and leaned, but never sat. He looked like any other worried father, probably an insurance salesman and an usher at his church. But that morning he was jittery mess of shame and resignation. His son had been locked up for failure to pay child support…again.

From there, a small gaggle of us “professionals” were escorted into the bowels of the facility. What struck me most was how normal all the inmates looked, their jumpsuits and orange Crocs notwithstanding. Metal doors kept clanging shut behind me as we descended echoey stairwells. The guards down below seemed even less imposing than the specimens up top. These guys were a bit pudgier, and way older. They had radios, but no discernible weapons.

Suffice to say, it was less than pleasant.

What struck me as I eventually emerged from the facility and climbed into my car was just how normal everyone seemed. The difference between those locked away inside and those roaming free on the outside was a simple decision or two. Accidents happen. Arguments escalate. Substances are abused and cloud our judgment. We all do stupid stuff.

I saw two prisoners get released that day. Neither looked like serial killers. They looked more like Kinko’s employees.

Sadly, the state is already building a new wing onto this seemingly new detention center. Our escort told us that if construction were complete, they could fill every cell of the new wing that very day.

This should inform our writing for sure. More importantly, it should inform the way we conduct our lives and teach our kids. Although I’m sure I’ll relapse soon, I have kept my speed very near the post limit, remained at least three car lengths from the nearest vehicle, and resisted the urge to text-while-driving ever since I walked out of jail.

The takeaways here?

If you write about incarceration, keep it real. It’s bleak, nothing remotely sexy about it.

If at all possible, don’t end up on the inside. It’s not a happy place.

If you know a cop, or happen to sit next to one at a coffee shop this week, tell them thanks.

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