Sunday, July 08, 2007

A Shitty Little Southern Jail

Saturday, our local government held an open house at the Loudoun County Adult Correctional Facility (better known to the euphemistically uninclined as the County Jail). This august building in the center of Leesburg is about to be razed for a parking lot -- one suspects that having such a remnant of Jim Crow (built in the 1950s) lowering over what has now come to be known as Old Town Leesburg, a place of tony law offices, brewpubs and antique shops, may have had a slightly depressing effect on tourism. The new jail stands at the edge of town by the airport, well out of sight of those with Mad Money to spend on restaurants and tchotchkes.

Of course, we Jingos couldn't possibly stay away.

Here's the view of the back of the jail taken from the monumentally depressing Exercise Ground. The picture doesn't show it, but it's surrounded by chain-link fence and razor wire and signs that warned of dire consequences for that inmate so bold as to try to speak to passersby in the street. (Freddie impressed me mightily with his observation that the chain-link was so tight that you couldn't get a foothold if you tried.)

Sadness just drips from the walls of this place. I'm not a religious person, but I am a firm believer in Karma, and this place was just rancid with it. I couldn't help running Prison Movie Scenarios around in my head as I wandered the halls -- Cool Hand Luke, The Shawshank Redemption, Sullivan's Travels -- and realizing that even those gritty movies failed completely to convey the banal, routine moral squalor of this place.

Clearly, the Authorities had invited us in -- make it a family affair! -- to give parents the opportunity to impress on their children the horrors that await them if they stray from the Straight and Narrow. And indeed, many families with impressionable youngsters were there for that very purpose. I believe my own brood, being well beyond that age where they could possibly be (or, indeed, need to be) Scared Straight, took a rather different lesson from the day.

Here's the first sight inside the prison walls. It's an old church pew, modified for drunks. Yes, those are seat-belts built into the structure of the seats. I can't help but wonder if the attending gendarmes weren't just a little amused by the thought of a church-pew so modified.

Here's what they call a day-room. There were about eight of them through the building. The cells to the right remained open during sunlight hours to allow about 14 prisoners to mill about aimlessly, talking tough and, fuck, I don't know, raping each other. We found checker-boards, Monopoly boards, and the like still stored stuffed between the bars.

Although the Authorities had done their best to sluice away the unpleasantness for the guests, these rooms still emitted a fairly strong smell of urine and desperation.

I began to be fascinated by the remnants still left on the cell walls, unstripped by the cleaning crews. The object below appears to be some kind of scorekeeping system, but for what game I'm mystified. Still, you can see from the date at the top of the scoresheet how recently these cells had been occupied.

Oh: The glue used to hold the paper to the wall?


What the hell else are you going to use?

The everyday workings of the jail being described by the tour guides (deputies on overtime, chests puffing with pride at the the ennobling work they undertook) quickly lost any fascination for me. But what really begin to capture my imagination was the graffiti on the walls of the cells.

Here's one from the womens' section of the jail...

Much of the graffiti was rather unprepossessing -- lots of Bible verses, poorly executed religious iconography: Yeah, Sparky, tell Jesus how sorry you are you got hammered and smacked your (probably richly deserving) sister-in-law with a tire iron. That'll help.

But in among the dross there were some seriously affecting bits of work. At first I thought the author of the following was a Captain Beefheart aficionado in durance vile: Titled Spandex Enormity, this one had some real punch and drive:

I Googled "Spandex Enormity" and was disappointed to find it was actually a heavy-metal lyric the poor goober had scribbled on the wall in his boredom and desperation. (A lyric from a band who took Rage Against the Machine to task for selling out, but still...) There were scores of others in the same hand in that cell. I was disappointed to find I hadn't actually discovered a really-o, truly-o Prison Poet. Damn you, Norman Mailer!

Toothpaste seemed to be the medium of choice among the Displaced Latino School:

Lots of Gang Sign. Oh, lots of Gang Sign. But this one stood out for it care in execution. Somebody had a lot of time on his hands:

Don't ask me what the Star of David means. You'll have to ask somebody else.

Here's a particularly ingenious bit of improvisation:

A prisoner, staring at the same bit of peeled plaster for eighteen hours a day, sees a duck -- and pounces!

As I said, the religious iconography was mostly amateurish and mundane, but this one showed some real artistic moxie:

Careful grayscale fading done probably with saliva and a fingertip. Over hours. Beautiful.

Wonder Woman (a studio art major and no mean critic of art) and I both agreed that this one was the prize-winner. If you had to describe it for a catalog, under "Medium" it would say, "Fingernail on Latex Paint." It's simply scratched into the jamb of a cell. But for composition, rendering skill and emotional affect, I give this one a major rave:

After this discovery, we got the fuck out of there as fast as we could, vowing never to drink alcohol, smoke crack, open a meth lab or beat each other with found objects ever again.

And you know what? So far, we've kept our word.


Will Divide said...

And you know what? So far, we've kept our word.

Let's see if you can still say that after payday.

blue girl said...

Great post, Jeddie. And scary and creepy and sad.

We went to Philadelphia for a long weekend last week. Driving through PA last Wed, we saw a huge prison. The first sign we were approaching the prison was an actual sign that said, "No stopping for anything." Or something like that. Then, about a mile down the road another sign that said you were leaving the prison's property, so I guess that meant you could stop if you wanted to. Anyway. I thought about everyone locked up in there on that sunshiney, hot July 4 holiday. And then, driving back on Sunday, when we passed the prison again -- I thought -- well, they're still in there.

I don't know why I'm telling you this, but it made me feel bad/weird/sad, etc.

Jennifer said...

If I recall, the pews I sat in growing up had mental seat-belts holding us in. They'd need real seat-belts today.

I like "my little ducky". I'm guessing its creator had many conversations with it.

The fingernail/latex paint piece was indeed amazing.

Matt said...

Great post, Neddie. It reminds me of a crazy article from the Times last year about a prisoner who paints with colors leeched from M&M shells.

Now, Blue Girl, I can't believe you came to Philly and didn't call me. What's up with that?! At any rate, given the subject of Neddie's post, I hope you had a chance to see the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Smokestack El Ropo said...

Oh: The glue used to hold the paper to the wall? Toothpaste. What the hell else are you going to use?

Dude, it's a jail; use your imagination. Or don't.

Neddie said...

Dude, it's a jail; use your imagination. Or don't.

No, it was toothpaste. I tasted it.

blue girl said...

Matt! I know. I feel bad. But, I *did* think of you a lot!

It was a spur of the moment trip. I should've emailed you. I'm sorry.

blue girl said...

Matt, we didn't see the Eastern State Penitentiary. But, The Skimmer *did* drag me down to South Street, where there seemed to be a lot of, um, folks that probably will end up at the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Although I loved everything about Philadelphia that I saw, South Street scared me a little. I had my purse ready -- (50 lbs of quarters at the bottom ready to whollop anyone who looked cross eyed at me)

Didn't have to whollup anyone!

Great city!


K'monr said...

There but for the grace of Karma go we.

Kevin Wolf said...

Haven't seen the inside of a jail since the tour of the cell at our local police station when I was a Cub Scout.

It would be instructive for a lot of law 'n' order types I know to take this tour and think about where all those people they'd like locked up actually go. You know, those "country clubs" I've heard tell of. "Three squares a day and all that, on our dime." Such a tour might get at least a few people to shut up about something they know nothing about.

On the other hand, as Richard Pryor once said about some guys he met when he was filming in a prison: "Thank God we got penitentiary!"

XTCfan said...

Which cell did they keep Otis in?

Neddie said...

Kevin: You should check out the "Common Misconceptions" FAQ at the LoCo Correctional website.

Questions like, "Why do we have to feed those cocksuckers?"

(Answer: It only costs about $3 a day to feed an inmate. Oh, I bet the grub's fabulous.)

Smokestack El Ropo said...

No, it was toothpaste. I tasted it.


XTCfan said...

"Our cost of feeding an inmate is approximately $3.00 @ day."

However, it is $25 @ night. The dinners are fabulous.