You meet all kinds in jail. Before being processed, I’m sitting at a table with Allen Johnson, an editor at the News & Record, in for prostitution. Another N&R reporter, Mike Kernels, a real hard case, is charged with first-degree murder. Norma Dennis, from the Jamestown News, got pinched for armed robbery. It says on my rap sheet that I’ve failed to appear in court, a BS charge that I’m pretty sure I can talk my out of, though matters are complicated because the initial arrest was made on a felony.
Fortunately my lawyer is here, NC Sen. Don Vaughan, though he’s got problems of his own: misdemeanor larceny. Sitting next to him is Guilford County Commissioner Kirk Perkins, who failed to financially support a spouse while they were cohabitating. NC Rep. John Faircloth got a first-degree burglary conviction. Rhino Times reporter Scott Yost is here on a charge of death by motor vehicle. Mark Wheelihan from Harley-Davidson of Greensboro has a misdemeanor assault of a government officer.
We’re all chuckling about this in the officers’ cafeteria when Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes hoists himself from his seat and addresses the crowd to let us know we have 15 more minutes of freedom.
“If you don’t want to use the bathroom up in the jail cell, now might be a good time,” he says.
It’s the soft opening of the new Guilford County jail, and all of us here have agreed to spend the night — or at least submit to processing, placement and a modest midnight breakfast — so Barnes and his staff can work out the kinks in the system. To guarantee our spots, we’ve cut checks to charity, either the Special Olympics or the late Richard Brenner’s cause, the Carolina Field of Honor, a local memorial to those who served in the armed forces.
It’s the nicest jail I’ve ever been in — shiny, new and modern — but it’s still jail. And the guards have been instructed to treat us in the same manner they would any inmate who will soon be occupying this space.
“Treat [the corrections officers] with dignity and respect and they will do the same,” Barnes says to us. “If you don’t they will put you on the floor.”
We move to the initial holding room to appear before the magistrates, set up behind five thick windows, in small groups.
Major Julie Beane works to suppress a smile as she reads my file. “These are serious charges, sir,” she says. “This is a felony. Are you laughing?” I am, a little. She sets my bail at $29,000.01. “What’s the one cent for?” I ask. “Sir, that is my decision,” she says. At the window next to me, Yost’s bail is set for $1 million. We sit on steel benches as some are peeled off to holding cells and sobriety tanks. Barnes, sitting there with us, says he’s already learned something: the handcuff loops on the benches are to low for the prisoners to sign paperwork. He says he’ll be putting chains on them.
I strike up a conversation with family-law attorney Moshera Mills — she’s in for incest, but really, she says, “I have two small children at home, and any reason to get a sitter and get out….”
I understand, but at as the evening wears on, the exercise becomes more and more like real jail and not some lightweight charity lark.
Before I get to the classification rooms, I must surrender my money, my phone, my wallet, cigarettes and lighter, and my belt.
I undergo a thorough frisking — the first of many — and then am subject to a battery of questions: Am I suicidal? Disabled in any way?
Do I have heart problems? Am I epileptic?
The corrections officer notes that I have straight teeth and, from a pulldown list on his computer, classifies my speech as “articulate.”
They snap a mugshot, front and profile, and go through the motions of taking my fingerprints.
In a small classification room, they ask me if I’m in a gang or have any enemies —I learn that Johnson,Kernels and Yost have all listed me as an adversary — if I am a sexual deviant or have ever tried to escape from jail.
I get a short physical from a nurse and am then dressed out in an orange prison jumpsuit — “pumpkin suits,” in prison slang — and a cheap but comfortable pair of flip-flops.
They bring me up to the fifth floor in an elevator, but really it could be the second, or the 10th or the basement — there is no way of knowing. I’m in there with Johnson and Kernels — Yost bagged out when they started issuing the jumpsuits. I’ve got a box with a blanket, top sheet and mattress bag, a towel and washcloth, a roll of flimsy toilet paper and a few thin bars of soap, a small tube of clear toothpaste and a tiny toothbrush.
I make up the bunk in cell 5B-4, a space about one-quarter the size of my college dorm room with steel bunks bolted to the wall, a desk fashioned from shelf-like platforms that jut from the opposite side, a combination sink, toilet and drinking fountain made from stainless steel and a tiny mirror that I assume cannot be broken and made into a shiv.
I move out into the common area and sit. There are 12 two-man cells on each of the block’s two floors, three showers on each floor, rooms with video phones for visitation, a room for conferring with lawyers and a window from which a nurse will dispense meds. A recreation room at the rear is locked. In the common area there are six steel tables bolted to the floor where inmates will socialize, gather for announcements and eat.
It’s about 9 p.m. A guard begins reading the lengthy list of rules for the block. Among the literally dozens of rules: no loud noises, no talking on the second level, no approaching the guards’ podium, no handling the remote control, no watching music videos, no messes in the cells, no more than five pieces of literature in the cells, no sitting on tables, no weekend visits, no blocking or covering the vents, no more than 20 minutes for meals, no horseplay. And, of course, no leaving.
Lockdown happens at 11:30 p.m., and we each go to our cells, take to our bunks as the doors lock behind us. We sit amid the concrete and steel and cinderblock, listen to the noises of the facility — muffled voices, the clanging of closing doors, a whisper of air through the vents and water flowing through the pipes, the muted rumble of machinery and random electronic blips and bleeps.
We sit in our cells and wait for someone to come and tell us we can go home.