24 Hours in the Guilford County Lock Up
The officer holds open the door of a cell measuring about 5 feet by 10. It is a little after eight in the morning, but the Guilford County Jail in downtown Greensboro is filled with noisy activity. In one of the cells ‘— maybe the one next door ‘— a prisoner is making a racket worthy of Marley’s ghost.
His shouts and chain rattling penetrate layers of thick concrete and echo off the dank, windowless walls. I wonder with a pang of fear whether I will be spending the next 24 hours in the sole company of this unseen malcontent. From the guards’ faces, I gather that questions are not welcome, but I feel like the only one here who doesn’t know their role by rote.
I close my eyes, pull the sweatshirt hood over my head and imagine myself on the hardwood floor in front of my stereo, surrounded by books and music in the fractured light of the window panes. For about 20 minutes I wait alone, wondering how long it will take before I resort to chipping the paint off the door, the obvious pastime of choice in this joint.
A guard rattles the lock and fetches me to the nurses’ station. A battered table separates us as she takes vitals and asks questions. About a third of the Formica is peeled off the surface ‘— like the prisoners are trying to dismantle this place one chip at a time.
That would be a slower demise for the jail than the one predicted by Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes. The jail is bursting with inmates, operating at nearly a third overcapacity, according to the minutes of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. If an inmate files suit against the county, officials may be forced to build another prison at a cost of up to $100 million.
For now the questions are for me:
‘“Are you an alcoholic?’” ‘“No.’”
‘“Drug addiction?’” ‘“No.’”
‘“Are you suicidal?’” ‘“No.’”
‘“Do you have reason to believe you have any enemies in this facility?’” ‘“No.’”
Someone takes my picture, and it is printed along with my name, height and weight onto a plastic green wristband. I’m surprised at how thuggish I look.
When I go back to the holding cell, three other women crowd the bench. One woman, Judy Cook, is on the fourth of seven day-long visits for a second-offense DUI and she explains how our clothes will be changed, and how we’ll get a bag of blankets and sheets and move to the cell upstairs.
Cook, a motherly type with wire rim glasses, doesn’t fit the profile of a hardened criminal. But she speaks with authority and all three of us newcomers listen attentively. Next time it might be me in her position, if I get arrested again for DUI in the next seven years.
One by one we trade our street clothes for a beige two-piece printed with the words, ‘“Guilford County Inmate.’” An elevator takes us up to the top floor of the jail ‘– the women’s wing. Outside its gnashing doors lies a pile of mattresses. Each of us takes one and our foursome is separated between the two cell blocks.
I want to climb onto a top bunk, close to the narrow windows bordering the room. But I’m scared of having to disturb another inmate to get in and out of bed, so I put my mattress on the ground, where all I can see is gray sky.
The room is L-shaped, with a row of thirty beds bunk style and seven metal tables anchored to the concrete floor. At the end is a low cinder-block wall behind which are three toilets and three shower stalls. This Tuesday the room is full, but not overcrowded, with a sterile smell like school.
‘“Are you a weekender?’” someone asks.
‘“No, just 24 hours,’” I say.
‘“Oh, you must not be that bad,’” comes the reply.
The other inmates dodge my attempts to find out what they’ve done. They all answer my ‘“how long have you been here?’” with ‘“too long’” and a heel turn.
Some of the inmates watch the television and others sleep. A stationary bike in the corner is used only for drying towels. Coverless books lean against each other on a small shelf in the back of the room. I pull the rough blanket over my head to get some sleep.
I think about my friend Brandi, who was in a car crash the weekend before I went to jail. A drunk driver hit her stopped car at 75 mph. He was running from the police and she and her two friends spent the night in the hospital. I didn’t complain about my impending incarceration.
‘“Trays,’” yells one woman. The shout gets relayed to the back of the room and the sleeping rouse themselves and shuffle to the front. An inmate hands us lunch and a mug of lime green liquid while the guard checks names off a list.
At the sight of lunch, my appetite turns to nausea. Two hotdogs, lumpy and sporting gray leopard-like markings, two buns approaching staleness, unidentifiable beans and green Jell-O constitute the meal. The inmates greedily split the spoils of my uneaten victuals while I content myself to sip watered-down Kool-Aid.
After lunch, excitement roils the cell as word comes round that canteen deliveries are on their way. Every week, inmates with money can buy extra items, which are delivered on Tuesday.
‘“Do you want a nutty bar?’” ‘“Um’…well’…I guess, yeah, thanks.’” It looks like I won’t starve after all. Pork Chop, an inmate with yellow ends on her brown tresses, comes over with a paper towel filled with Cheetos and iced ginger snaps. Some of the inmates on the top bunks rain Jolly Ranchers and Atomic Fireballs on those of us on the ground.
Part of the afternoon I spend talking with my neighbor on the floor, a parole violator named Jessie McNeill. She prints her name, inmate number and the prison address in impeccable handwriting so I could bring her back some books or send her a letter. Since she came to the jail three weeks ago, she hasn’t heard from her husband.
‘“All the time, God is awesome all the time,’” she says. ‘“Not just some of the time.’” The Bible resting next to her bed is opened to Psalms. ‘“He never put anything on you more than you put on yourself,’” she says.
Dinner arrives and there is some soggy but edible toast. Around 6:30 p.m. the cell goes into lockdown. The room, which has been filled with conversation all day, goes silent. All you hear during lockdown is pencils scratching letters to loved ones and the soft slap of prison-issue sandals against the concrete as prisoners walk to the toilets.
Lockdown lasts about an hour, or just long enough to make the prisoners restless. Afterwards it is noisy and chaotic and the guard, Ms. Johnson, comes in like a harried mother. Arguing prisoners are separated and final lockdown kicks in about an hour earlier than usual.
Night is quiet and sleep comes easy. Sometime well after midnight, the guards come in to get one of the prisoners and a group of about eight others gathers around her bed to divvy up her possessions: radio, T-shirts, socks and toilet paper.
In the morning there is another tray of uneaten food marking time until I’m released.
‘“Kingsley, Amy,’” the guard yells.
I jump up, give my toilet paper to Jessie and grab my stuff. The women say goodbye and I promise to bring some books. As I stand with the guard waiting for the elevator I ask, ‘“So, how long have you worked here?’”
‘“Too long,’” she says, and looks away.
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.