FAIRMONT - Covering courts for nearly nine years, I've heard complaints about the Martin County Jail from all sides.
The sheriff's department and county face pressure from the state to do more with less money. Inmates complain about everything from the food to their treatment, such as being stuck in G cell, the isolation cell reserved for the most belligerent inmates.
A recent report of a man who spent four to six days in G cell renewed the issue. The inmate claimed he was in the cell for six days while the sheriff's office said he was only in for four. The new policy is a maximum of eight hours in G cell.
Sentinel reporter Jennifer Brookens enters G cell on Wednesday morning at the Martin County Jail.
"You don't really give a (expletive) about it," I was told a few months back. "You try spending time in a four-by-four foot cell ..."
I hear two sides of an argument from the public. Some believe anyone who has to be in jail should just be tossed in a hole and given some bread and water. Others cry foul with horror stories that rival war crimes. With two such extremes, the answer has to lay someplace in the middle.
Guess to find it, I'm going to have to go to jail.
I realize I already have an advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it: They know me, and they know my area of threat is that I'm nosy and a pest, but not dangerous to the well-being of the correctional workers.
So the idea of putting me in G cell is actually a plus for the jail, the sheriff's office and county authorities. My co-workers at the Sentinel thought it was a cool idea too. (Maybe everyone just wanted to get rid of me for awhile.)
My daughter burst into tears when she overheard the idea, and my mother looked absolutely horrified. They still don't know. Until now. (Sorry guys, but at least I made it back out.)
Sept. 24, 8:55 a.m.
I'm turning myself in.
First thing I did was use the bathroom so there'll be no need for me to squat over the hole in the floor in G cell.
A woman just getting out of jail asks if I was waiting for someone. Not wanting to really blow my cover yet, I say, "I wish." She's genuinely shocked when she realizes I'm going to jail. She wants to know my crime. I remain vague by saying it's something with my workplace. She says she'll pray for me. I'm grateful since the nerves are starting to set in.
I'm prepared for it, though. I only ask to be able to keep my pen and paper so I can take notes. Plus I know I will be isolated from other inmates.
And so it begins, with the typical buzzers and loud clang of the door separating me from the outside world. The hallways are narrow and everyone has to walk down the corridor single file. This is pointed out by jail administrator Mark Geerdes.
"If you were belligerent and fighting us and we're trying to put you in a cell, you can see where that causes problems," he says.
This was especially evident at G cell. The doors to all of the cells swing out into the narrow corridors. Since G cell is used for the most combative inmates, during a struggle the door ends up blocking the office and other staff from helping.
Before G cell, there is the booking process. A full booking takes about an hour, while the uncooperative or intoxicated can take up to two hours. My "booking" takes half an hour because we are able to skip a majority of the required paperwork. Luckily I don't have to give medical history, criminal history, the names of my elementary school teachers. (OK, just kidding on that last one, but you get the idea.)
"About 60 to 70 percent of the people that come through the booking process are just like you; they're calm and cooperative about the whole thing," said corrections officer Angela Becker. "There are some who don't want to tell us anything, and some that are too drunk to do anything."
Fingerprint time is a surprise. No inky fingers! The jail has been using a digital fingerprint machine since the late 1990s, and recently received the newest generation. The trick is to relax the hand and allow the officer operating the machine to move your hands and fingers as necessary.
I am alarmed for a moment when one of my fingerprints hits a "match" and the computer flashes this across the screen! The officer tells me to just ignore that and clicks it away. I'm still a little nervous about it.
I am also administered a breath test, and I pass with all zeroes. Officer Michelle Bell scares me with her straight-face claim that all inmates (meaning me!) are required to submit to a urine test. I start to panic, because I made sure I was on empty. If I drink water to pee, then what's my risk of facing the grate later?! Once I start stuttering out excuses, she lets me off the hook.
Then it's fashion show time. I was worried about horizontal stripes or bright orange. I got both. I later learned that the jumpsuits give away the risk assessment.
A bright orange solid is considered low risk, orange-and-white stripes are medium risk, and black-and-white stripes are high risk.
"So I'm considered a medium risk!" I exclaimed to Sheriff Brad Gerhardt. "Why would I be considered a medium risk?"
"Because you're a reporter," he replied with a smirk.
But one of the exceptions I received was being able to keep my street clothes on under the jumpsuit. And keep my own underwear.
"Normally everything gets issued to them, bra and underwear, socks, all of it," Bell said.
At this point, I would also have to lose my hair barrette, jewelry and anything else of value to be kept in the storage locker. I'm ready, just armed with pen and paper.
"Dead girl walking," I yell down the narrow corridor as I'm led to G cell. Everyone laughs, but for the moment my smart-aleck sense of humor is stalled. I honestly feel like a condemned woman as I look into that tiny cell.
The mat on the little ledge has a filling that looks like the insulation I blew into the attic last year. Geerdes later tells me the material is flame-retardant, to avoid anyone setting it on fire. The clear plastic cover is so no contraband can be hidden inside.
The colors of "insane asylum yellow and puke green" definitely do not say, "Welcome." The officers and Chip, our photographer, are looking at me as if to say, "What are you waiting for?"
As I'm still trying to put some of my things into a bag for storage (this normally would've been taken care of already) one finally says, "You can probably keep that with you," referring to my purse. My purse! Which contains my cell phone and headphones. My surprise is obvious.
"What is allowed depends on the behavior of the inmate," Bell explained. "Sometimes someone is in here just due to illness. They can have books and things in here."
She then offers to get me a book, but I decline. I've got to keep focused.
"OK," I said, taking a deep breath and I step in.
I'm in jail.
"We can see you," a voice pipes into the room.
Sure enough, there is a wide-angle camera way up that covers most of the room. I smile and wave and can hear all the officers laughing in their office. I'm sure they're used to seeing less-friendly gestures.
I scurry around the cell a little bit. First things first, the cell is bigger than four-by-four. I'm about 5-foot-3 to 5-foot-5. Placing my feet flat against one wall, I can stretch out completely, with my fingertips brushing the other wall. There's more length from the door to the other wall.
I avoid "the hole." While corrections officer Dawn May assured me that, "We go through a lot of bleach here," I still stay as far away from the hole as possible. Just too gross. And with people watching? I don't think so.
After scribbling down a bunch of notes from my booking and some observations, I'm bored. I remember my cameraphone and start taking pictures, including a self-portrait I send to my co-workers and friends who will never believe that I'm in jail.
One is in shock and chides me; others think it's funny, and one co-worker even said it was "Hot!" And I wasn't even trying for the "babes behind bars" angle.
Speaking of bars, there are none to be found in G cell. All solid concrete and a heavy, metal door the color of pea soup. My only view of the outside world at this point is the tray slot through which I get to see a bunch of wires for all the equipment in the jail office.
I start to remember horror stories from G cell and I think I can still see marks, stains and graffiti from inmates past. Even as a person who is not stoned or psycho, I can see how being in G cell makes one feel like a caged animal. Maybe because we are.
But at the same time, if I had a laptop with wi-fi, I probably wouldn't care about leaving.
It is FREEZING in here. Even though I know it's 80 degrees outside, my nose keeps running and my hands and feet are turning purple. I regret turning down the socks now.
I was laying down just to see if it was possible to sleep in a bright yellow room with a fluorescent light shining on you. Was using the blanket in the cell as a pillow. Could wrap myself up in it, but I'm still too spoiled and prefer to have a pillow instead.
When I ask the sheriff and Geerdes about it later, it turns out this is just another of the issues facing the law enforcement building.
"There is no insulation in these walls," Gerhardt pointed out in his office Thursday. "In the winter, there are times I can see my breath."
Anyway, I can see how people could become confused by how much time is actually spent in G cell. There is no clock and with the bright light and no other view to the outside world, you honestly can't tell if it's day or night. I have to keep checking my cell phone to see the time, and less time has usually passed than I imagine.
Lunch time, and I wasn't expecting to get a meal. This takes me back to the last time I spent a significant time hanging around the jail, when the Sentinel began receiving letters from inmates about the less-than-appealing status of the jail meals.
The tray I am looking at would likely be considered paradise from some of the trays seen four years ago. A packet of Miracle Whip to go on the turkey sandwich, jello with fruit (giving a treat with nutrition needs at the same time) and even potato chips.
I know I have a half hour to go, but I'm cold and I'm bored. Geerdes comes over to chat and I end up getting sprung a little early.
He asks for my feedback. For me, it wasn't so bad. But I had lots of breaks, so I can't honestly tell people that I did "hard time."
Geerdes admits this was the first time ever a cell phone was allowed into G cell. And probably the last.
But Geerdes also points out that G cell is not always meant to be punishment.
"Sometimes we just need to hold somebody for half an hour while waiting for a court appearance," he said. "Sometimes we have inmates ask to be in there. The last person that was in there was having bad migraines, so we let her in there, we turned down the lights and we shut the tray door. It's a holding cell. It's not always meant to be punitive."