A night in the ‘Pitkin County Hilton’
September 10, 2006
At the turn of the 20th century, more than half of Americans lived on farms. One hundred years later, there are more Americans incarcerated than there are living on farms.In some ways, jail has become as American as apple pie. With more than 2 million prisoners nationwide, America makes a statement to the world with the highest prison population of any country, both in raw numbers and relative to population.On a local level, every community must decide what kind of jail to run and how their inmates will be treated. And in that regard, the Pitkin County Jail is in a world of its own. While the rest of the country hovers at an average yearly cost per inmate of about $30,000, according the Department of Justice, Pitkin County spends a stunning $76,373.And it shows – in a jail that is among the most humane and least punitive in the country. In some ways, the Pitkin County Jail calls into question what jail is for. With that in mind, I set out to see what a night in the Pitkin County Jail felt like, who the inmates were, how I would feel wearing orange and how the food tasted.
Jail Administrator Don Bird wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into when I approached him about spending 24 hours in jail. “We don’t want to be doing room service,” he says.I am sitting in his office, feeling nervous. All of my previous experience with incarceration came from movies. A picture runs through my mind of the fire hose wash-down and delousing from “Shawshank Redemption.” I also imagine having to watch my back during a long night with metal bars, dark cells, inmates who communicate in grunts, and a steel bed with someone tapping out Morse code on the wall. But the Pitkin County Jail bears no resemblance to a Hollywood-style prison. “It’s like going to Disneyland,” says current inmate Buddy Morse. “I don’t think Aspen could handle a real jail. [Aspenites] wake up in the morning with flowers in their hair, skipping down the street. The jail suits the environment.”Indeed, the jail is nicer than many dorm rooms I’ve seen. The food is good. There are computers with games and TVs with cable. Depending on your perspective, it’s either admirably humane or altogether too comfortable. But either way, it’s still jail: The doors are locked at night, and there’s no way out. Sheriff Bob Braudis and Bird laid down the rules: I couldn’t be undercover, I couldn’t discuss specific cases with inmates, I had to respect inmates’ privacy, and I would be treated like an inmate. I would do chores, sleep in a cell and tell inmates who I was and what I was doing before talking to them. Photographer Paul Conrad could not shoot the face of an inmate without consent. People live in the jail, explained Braudis. And unlike prison, many of the people in the Pitkin County Jail are presumed innocent. In a county jail, people are awaiting trial or serving time for a minor crime with a sentence of less than one year.Bird said he would check me in just like any other inmate. I would don the orange, get fingerprinted, eat the food and follow the rules.
The Pitkin County Jail is a nondescript building behind the County Courthouse that dozens of Aspenites walk by every day. The office in the jail is through two locked doors that can only be opened one at a time. That’s where the jailers sit to watch the inmates. One wall has a clock with no hands that says, “Doin’ Time.” When I arrive, Sheriff’s Deputy Debbie Kendrick begins entering information into the computer about criminal and health history, as she books me on a “courtesy hold,” the same thing they would do if they were holding a prisoner for another agency. After I empty my pockets and take off my belt and shoes, they pat me down.”You said you’re nervous?” asks Kendrick. “But you know you’re going to leave tomorrow.”The jail population recently has been steady around 15, though it can go up to 32. Most of the inmates are being held for dealing drugs, previous warrants, fraud, theft and other charges. Pitkin County has seen just one murder in the last two decades. “Are you thinking of hurting yourself now?” asks Kendrick. “Umm, no,” I respond. These standard questions cover everything from medical history to current psychological state to previous arrests.”Do you share needles?” She asks. “Do you have vermin or jaundice?”Next I walk into a room with nicely folded piles of orange clothes. I put my clothes and belongings into a locker and change into the orange while a jailer watches.I think, “Do you have to watch me?” It is, however, a rule. No contraband – they need to make sure. “We don’t do cavity searches,” says Kendrick. “If someone really was a threat, we’d call a medic to do it.”
Once dressed in orange, I enter the main day room. It’s connected to a gym and a number of smaller rooms that resemble common rooms in a college dorm. Each of those common rooms has four or five single-person cells attached. The main day room has some big plants, a rug, tables, chairs and a food corner with a refrigerator, cereal boxes, dishes, utensils and a coffee maker. I introduce myself to some inmates who had already started Wednesday’s lunch of pizza bread, salad, cooked carrots and strawberry shortcake. I explain I am only staying for a day.”Short-timer,” says one inmate.At jails across the country, food is a big issue. Many meals at jails are made for less than $1 apiece. California, considered liberal on this count, spends $2.25 a meal for county jails, according to the Los Angeles Times. In Pitkin County, hearty, hot food comes from Aspen Valley Hospital at a cost of $8.45 per meal.None of the inmates have any complaints about food; it is generally agreed that the meals are pretty good.The issue that comes up more quickly is cigarettes. In Colorado, jails and prisons are smoke-free.”If I could just have one cigarette I could stay in this bitch forever,” says Buddy Morse, an inmate from Florida. “I’m a drug addict, alcoholic, but, yeah, a cigarette would be f—ing peachy.”
Lunch is at noon. Dinner is at 5:30 p.m. Church is on Wednesdays from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. for those who want to attend. Lockdown, when everyone goes into their cells for an hour, is from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. every day. Lockdown is either for shift change (3:30) or for visiting hours (6:30).On the night I was there, only two inmates got visitors, so for the most part the second lockdown involves everyone. Cell doors are also locked at night, because there is only one deputy on duty from 11:30 p.m. to 8 a.m.Jail is regimented. Time flies when something is happening, anything at all. It goes at a snail’s pace when there’s nothing to do. “It’s laid-back,” says one of the inmates, Dennis Baszile, of his average day. “We play cards, play Yahtzee, watch a lot of TV.”Looking at the clock makes time go slowly, while reading a book or talking helps it go faster. Even so, there are only so many channels, only so many crappy novels. Thus, nearly any event is eagerly anticipated and the inmates live and breathe on the schedule set by the jailers.During lockdown, the doors close, the TVs in the day rooms go black, and the jail becomes silent.In my room, the cement-block walls are lit by fluorescent lights. I have a tiny slit of a window that looks toward Smuggler Mountain, a small hard bed, toilet and sink. The beam above me, painted pink, bears the anger of a previous inmate who scratched Nazi symbols, “white power” and “f— you” into the cement with a pencil. My pillow is plastic. I wonder how much longer I need to stay in here.Probably the worst part of jail is the boredom. It creeps up and then hits you – there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, to do.At 4:30 p.m. the doors click open.
Dinner isn’t quite as good as lunch, but the blueberry cheesecake is darn good. During the meal I get in a conversation with two of the prisoners who wish to remain nameless. We discuss my reporting, including articles about a number of the people in the jail. The two are being incredibly polite but I can tell they’re making an important point about my writing. They’re not mad about the reporting, just gently taking issue with it.Finally, after about 20 minutes I stop them and ask, “so basically, when I report what the Police have told me, I’m just being a tool?”
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They both laugh, nodding their heads vigorously.”We all know what the man has to say,” insists one of the inmates. “It’s usually bullshit.”They don’t claim that the main facts are wrong, but that certain details are incorrect.I had actually written about most of the people who were in the jail that evening. However, until then, I hadn’t met any of them. I wasn’t supposed to talk about specific cases in the jail, but the fact that I already knew about cases made it next to impossible. More important, it’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind: their next court date, the next lawyer visit, the number of days until freedom. Jail immediately switched my perspective as a reporter. Before, I would simply read a police report and rework it into a story. But in jail, there was a feeling of helplessness each morning as inmates got up and scanned the local papers. They would read a story – however short – only to find that their life is laid bare in the community.Most of the inmates I talked with took issue with at least some part of the reporting, though usually it wasn’t the central facts of any given case. Instead of saying that they didn’t commit the crime, they claimed that police used corrupt or illegal methods. Just being in jail, after all, didn’t make them all guilty. At least some of the inmates may be as innocent as I.
The best part of any day in the Pitkin County Jail is volleyball. There is a certain depression that goes along with being locked away from society, but eyes light up at the mention of volleyball.Contact sports (in fact, any touch whatsoever) are not allowed in jail, which rules out activities like basketball and indoor soccer. Plus, the gym is so small that the lines for the volleyball court creep up the walls. Weights occupy the other half of the gym.Gym lasts from 8:30 to 10 p.m., an hour after evening lockdown ends. Most of the inmates go into the gym and divide into teams. I don’t know if it happens this way every night, but the teams naturally divide into Latinos and whites. And the Latinos kick our butts – in every single game. We probably play 10 games of volleyball, and they beat us every time.As soon as the game begin, people are yelling and jumping, swearing at missed shots, laughing. There is a good-naturedness to the whole thing; if someone misses or hits the ball out, there are no hard feelings. One inmate takes a solid elbow to the cheekbone.It feels, for moments, like high school gym class. There aren’t any bullies. No one gets mad or decides to quit. It is just a game of volleyball. For an hour-and-a-half, jail feels a lot less like jail. The boredom evaporates and everyone has fun.
After volleyball the whole jail is jazzed up. As 11:30 p.m. approaches, it feels like curfew at camp. Having to go to bed feels like a great injustice. The hour or so between gym and evening lockdown is probably the most energetic. Board games break out. TVs are turned up loud. Inmates slurp down coffee.Then, all too quickly, it’s 11:30 and I’m back in my cell. The door will be locked until 8 a.m., so I settle down with a book. The gentle glow of the fluorescent light flickers and outside it’s mostly dark.After I turn out the lights, the bed becomes a little harder and the room a little colder. The blankets are just the perfect length to cover either my toes or my shoulders, but not both. I go back and forth for a bit before nodding off.Fresh air On an average day, I go out running at 7 a.m., so that’s when I wake up. Without a clock, I just have to wait and wonder what time it is while it gets brighter and brighter outside. At 8 a.m. the doors click open, and I realize I want to go home. I clean my room, turn in my orange clothes, say goodbye to the inmates and walk out. Fresh air is like plunging into a mountain lake. I can’t believe how good it feels. The inmates back in jail are just getting up, making coffee and having a bowl of cereal. I am glad to be out.
I did 24 hours of time in jail. What I didn’t do was any time with guilt.The undercurrents of depression, anger and sadness came out on the beam above my bed and in the slouches of the inmates. Though people smiled and, at times, laughed, there was also a darkness that permeated everything. It seemed like most were doing what they could, making the best of a bad situation. But people were also thinking about crimes of the past or missing their family or wishing they’d made different choices. For all of those questions, for all of those thoughts, there was no outlet beyond a cold wall. Some of the inmates hadn’t bottomed out. Some were on their way or already there. Some were getting better. Whatever the case, it seemed to me that inmates’ fear and loneliness would stem, in part, from the fact that the progression of their lives had simply stopped.In jail, the only forward movement is one day at a time. Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org