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.