County jail’s not like TV would have you think. The cells have doors instead of bars, then there’s a sink, a toilet and twin bunks with four to a room. A row of cells line the second floor, overlooking the rec room—called the pod—where 48 inmates share picnic tables, plastic chairs, a microwave and a TV that’s usually on Springer or Dr. Phil. It’s pretty cush. My first day in, an older inmate called off the social worker so he could ride out the winter with free heat and square meals.
That was Kenneth. He’s one of three white guys in A-pod, myself included. Most socialization is segregated by ethnicity. This being Washington County, about two thirds of the population is Hispanic. These are small-timers—vandals or aliens whose offense was not knowing English when a cop asked them something. From what I’ve seen, the white boys are the least savory of the lot. I’m the only one with a formal education. Kenneth had been living on the streets. He talks about his illiteracy as if it took him a lifetime to perfect. The guy called Noise is a druggie who yells after lights-out. He’s not much for conversation because he steers whatever you’re talking about back to the Arkansas decision to be methadone-free. This doesn’t leave me with a pile of options. I joined the contraband weight-lifting circuit, but boredom’s far and away my biggest gripe.
My third day in, they post a sign-up sheet for the gym and I’m one of only a handful of guys to sign up. Even folks who spent the morning running laps around the pod don’t sign. Turns out the gym’s just a basketball court with some benches bolted into the floor along the sidelines. No weights. No speed bag. Not even a jump rope. They put two pods on a court with a ball and some officers to ensure everyone plays nice. I don’t do basketball, so instead I’m calling score from the sideline, which brings me to the attention of Tucker, my old sparring partner.
“Enus!” Tucker says my name like he’s won something, then turns to the benches and continues the thought, “This is Enus Lockhart, y’all! Jasper Lockhart’s old man!” Tucker pulls me in for a hug, showing his friends how tight we are as everyone gathers around. “Last time I saw you, you was a middleweight.” He shadowboxes with wide elbows. “So, tell me about your son and how much pussy he’s getting.”
I give the crowd what they want, laying it on thick, embellishing on my imagination’s ideal for the sex life of a 20-year-old football star. Pussy’s a hot topic, and the crowd eats it up. When they ask how many and how often, I’ve got answers at the ready. Then I shake a bunch of hands—the gym’s new mayor.
When the pack disperses and I get to talking with Tucker, I ask him, “What are you in for?”
And he says, “You’re not supposed to ask that.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Just the way it is. Everyone likes keeping up the mystery. So, you still boxing?”
I say, “Not in 10 years.”
“Has it been that long?” I nod. Close enough. “Shit. We’re old.”
“You were always old,” I remind him. He’s got eight years on me. Always has. “So, tell me about this place, man.”
“What do you want to know? The food’s awful.”
I say, “I got that far.”
“Try to get a job. In the library or kitchen or outside—doesn’t matter. Fills the hours, and they pay you too. Not much, but more than nothing. Most guys are in here learning how to be better criminals, so you give them a sign you’re trying and they’ll help make it easy on you.”
“How safe is it?”
“Mostly safe. I don’t know. They keep gang members together—like, guys with the same tattoos can hang, but guys with different tattoos can’t.” The basketball game ends, and Tucker waves off joining the next one.
“Doesn’t sound safe to me. Last night they locked us down early. There was a siren and a whirly light and we weren’t allowed out till the morning. The rumor is someone got stabbed.”
“Yeah. Dude in F-block. I hear he’s dead now. But that’s jail for you. Violent offenders are in smaller pods with higher security, but there’s only so much they can do. A-pod’s not so bad. My pod’s one of the nasty ones.” He points to the court. “For most of them, jail’s just a wait station. Any sentence over a year goes to prison, so they’re just here pending trial. Look out for those guys. Some of them are looking to make a name for themselves.”
“That’s what I’m asking for—I don’t want my number called and was wondering if I should put a whupping on someone. Make a statement. I didn’t come here for the sex.”
He throws me this disbelieving look and says, all serious, “There’s gangs, Enus. Real gangs. Guys who’d die before they let their people down. This one son of a bitch got arrested just so he could kill this white boy in D-pod. They say he broke a car window and waited for the cops. These guys come in facing two-year sentences—20 months with good behavior—and now they’re looking at 15 to life. Too stupid for 15 years to mean anything to them, but that’s why they can make the rules.”
I nod, taking it in, and we watch the ball move up and down the court a few times. Then I say, “Kids on the outside are getting stupider too.”
“You talking about Jasper? We watch him every chance.”
“Yeah. He just turned 20. He knows he’s got a future in the NFL, and he thinks he knows everything else. Give a dumbass a look at some money and you’ll see just how dumb he can be.”
“Y’all ever make up?”
“Yeah. We patched things up,” I lie.
There’s a scuffle under the far basket. They’re all pushing and shouting, ignoring the ball, up in one another’s faces. The officers let everyone work it out without getting involved. In admissions they warn you against calling them guards. “This isn’t a mall,” you’re told, and the guy saying it is so scary even the guy with DT piped down for his spiel.
“Glad to hear it. We get the Hogs games in the rec room. They’ll even let you sign up for special permission if it’s a night game. Especially with you here.”
“Sounds all right. Too bad there’s no beer.”
“We take turns making hooch about once a week.”
“We brew it in the toilet where the guards don’t check. Make sure you get in that rotation and make a big batch when it’s your turn.”
“It’s foul, but it’s stronger than tea leaves. Ain’t nothing else going on.” He checks both directions as if freshly disappointed by his surroundings. “Just lasagna on Saturdays and hooch on the good days.”
“Shit. I already had the lasagna. Toilet booze might be the only thing that’d get rid of the taste.”
There are a number of hours the state lets you spend outside, and I’m spending mine chattering cold, pacing the wall that blocks the wind, shaking too much to get any reading done. I’d wondered why so few people signed up. There isn’t even a ball to throw, just grass-flecked dirt to the fence, then a lush field of brown on the side the officers aren’t patrolling.
A lot of what Tucker’d said is in the yard staring back. My pod is with a new one Tucker isn’t part of, and folks are broken into small groups with everyone next to the people that look most like them. I’m the only guy without an entourage, and I’m perfect-10 miserable, half reading Lonesome Dove when this top-bulked Latino in a head rag gets to howling. I don’t think much of it—people sometimes howl here—but then he’s whapping his chest and moving toward me.
“You think you’re something special?” he’s yelling. He looks dangerous. Not just big, but crazy. There’s no predicting crazy or stupid, and this guy looks to have piles of both. “I see you looking over here. Think you’re too good for the rest of us?”
“I’m looking at my book,” I tell him, holding up the proof.
“I know you’re not calling me a liar. You were looking at me, boy. So I want to know what you’re looking at me for.” Up close, he has a wandering eye and an overbite, like his parents wouldn’t spring for the nontoxic Play-Doh. It makes sense enough he’d be self-conscious, but I want no part of his something-to-prove.
I back away with my hands up. “Sorry, man. I wasn’t trying to look at you at all. It won’t happen again.”