So, you're going along in your everyday life, minding your own business when, lo, and behold, you look down and there are handcuffs on your wrists. You look up and there is a very serious-minded police officer before you and he (or she) is telling you that you are not going to sleep at home tonight. What do you do?
Well, theoretically, in the "I watch television, so I know about jail" sense, you act tough and nonchalant. Wrong. You get down on your knees and ask god to teleport your mother from Florida to the county correctional facility in your own home town. You cry and whine and wonder why other people can be such bad people and you make one single mistake in your entire pristine life and, "whammo", there you are, in jail and wondering if they're going to feed you. Forget about the phone call. You can make one. But no one will tell you how. And if you figure it out on your own, no one will answer on the other end.
Well, yes, in case you were wondering, in my never-ending quest to be the best darned investigative reporter this publication has ever seen, I broke a law and went to jail, just to see what it was like. Because I'm a good investigative journalist, a setup with my publication wasn't good enough. So I went out and actually broke a real law and got caught so I could come back to you, dear reader, and tell you what I learned. Really. I would never ordinarily break any laws. Breaking laws is bad.
What I found out was that, if you had, indeed, been a pillar of society up until you were arrested, and you are charged with an everyday crime, they don't really care all that much where you go or what you do when they give you your court date. "Yeah, kind of show up on this date at this time and give us a lot of money," was the attitude I encountered. And I didn't have to show up on the day in question. I paid a lot more money to a lawyer and got to go to California on vacation for a couple of weeks before I showed up.
But once I did show up, let me tell you, I was scared. I've seen "Scared Straight" and that prison movie where Linda Blair looked real pretty and was forced to get too friendly with a broom handle. I was practicing my karate moves and tough talk the whole way. I was going to do time. Two whole days of it. Who knew what might happen?
I'd like to tell you that I was the coolest customer that passed behind those locking doors (and I think they keep them noisy on purpose, so you hear your freedom clank away as the doors close). I really would like to tell you that. Actually, I was pretty cool. Heck, I was going to be there, regardless. Might as well keep an open mind and a lot of notes for the editor.
But the truth is, I had a mentor. She sat next to me during intake, and as one sad tale after another passed before us as we endured our interminable wait to have our basic freedoms curtailed, she gave me the scoop. "They're going to watch you shower and change. You will be frisked until house dust screams, "Scotty, where should I land?" And then you're going to go to sleep. Because that's what people in jail do. They sleep. That's because they drug the food. Or the water. I'm not sure which.
You laugh. Seriously, they drug something. When have you ever known 26 women of any persuasion to sleep thirty minutes out of each hour of any day? To a woman, we all slept like that, and had enforced nap time after lunch of which we happily partook. But wait, I digress, I promised you some survival skills, in the unlikely event that you should ever find your self in jail.
First off, forget Linda Blair and remember the manners your mother taught you. Don't ask them what they're in for until you know how many children they have. Start off with, "Hi, I'm Tedi (insert your own name here or stop reading at this point because you know what I'm going to say), what's your name?" Stick out your hand and shake hers. Smile.
Every single person who ever went to jail had someone teach them some sort of manners. Manners accord you instant respect. You can be quiet while you freak out in your head, but don't be rude.
Second, be self-effacing. If the bitch two cells down is complaining because you didn't wash your face before you came to the breakfast table, offer to take your breakfast back to your cell. Humble always plays.
Sing like Aretha Franklin. Yes, it's true, people sing in jail. If you can sing harmony, you're in the elite club. Next thing you know, they'll be sharing their popcorn with you.
Play volleyball and don't cringe when the ball comes at your face. If you can't handle that, do a few push-ups. But do them well or opt for crunches. Exercise is an obsession for those who find themselves incarcerated. My personal feeling is that, in jail, the body is the only aspect of one's life one still has complete control over.
Say, "thank you." A lot. As much as you should say it in real life, but sometimes forget. Feel grateful that people are being nice to you. You're in jail. They could be ripping out your vital organs with a dull spoon.
I know it sounded like a dangerous assignment. It wasn't. As my daughter said, "It sounds like a church lock-in!" There were a lot more rules than at a church retreat, but that was the ambience. Nobody I met said they were locked up without cause. We had all broken the law.
What I found was a community of women who, while they still had their own lives and own issues on the other side of the walls, were dedicated, while they were there, to making people feel at home. I never had to think about if someone was going to stick a shiv in my side. I mostly had to decide if I wanted popcorn more than the woman next to me did (I did, but she got my lima beans).
I came away with the basic impression that people are people, the world over. You don't have to scratch very far beneath the surface to find out they are just like you.
Thank you, women of cellblock A-3. You made my living nightmare just a little bit better. Girls, if you're thinking of doing something wrong tonight, think again. Or just don't get caught...
Your faithful reporter....