Jail Tales

Reflections on my interactions with inmates

Nurses and paramedics are not only my preferred social group because I was once both, but because they tend to rack up life experience at a “dog years” pace, absorbing seven years’ worth of life experience for every one year of their careers. So much exposure to one’s fellow man in their most unguarded and pivotal life moments, one learns very quickly that few situations are black and white, and that the best and worst of human nature not only manifests in extremes, but often during the same events.

Some in the first responder professions or other helping professions can become jaded and judgmental after seeing human behavior without the filter of being in polite company. For me, it was the opposite. From my very first 10–39 (lights and sirens) call on EMS, I saw the environments that were the agar plates for some of society’s most aberrant behaviors. Twenty years later, I found myself working in a jail around those who grew from that culture medium. I saw sociopathy side-by-side with victims of circumstance, manipulators rubbing orange scrubs-clad shoulders with the mentally ill who only received treatment while in jail and re-offended when let out and had no access to their meds.

It was a job that made you think.

The jail held around 300 inmates, both male and female. If a sentence was less than two years, the inmate served all of their time at the jail, rather than going to a prison. However, all inmates stayed at the jail while awaiting trial. That meant we had parole violations, DUIs, and petty crimes, alongside the guy who stabbed both of his parents to death and another guy who had 26 counts of kidnapping children under the age of 14 and forcing them into prostitution.

By the time I left, I had racked up some death threats from an inmate or two. (You can’t scare me; I was taught by nuns!) Luckily for my fragile sense of self worth, most inmates genuinely liked me. Of course, my coworkers took that as a sign I was doing something wrong (being too nice), but I have no regrets. I tried to treat every inmate the way I would treat any patient at any hospital, despite finding myself in conversations that I would have never experienced in a more traditional healthcare environment. Here are a few thoughts and memories.

Offer Void Where Prohibited

One night I was passing out medications to the inmates on one of the cell blocks (called “pods”).
Passing meds was a nightly task that involved pulling a medication cart up to the door of the “pod” and handing out pills as the deputy supervised or didn’t, depending upon their attention span. The inmate had to swallow the medication in front of us, and then both the deputy and myself check the inmates mouth to make sure they swallowed the pill. (Saving a pill to sell to another inmate, called “cheeking meds,” was a common occurrence. Even a simple Benadryl had great value in a place where going to sleep was the best moment of your day.)
One of the inmates came up to the medication cart, took her meds, then handed the deputy an orange card and said, “Here you go Deputy. Now I think I’ll be on my way.”
 The card?

I had seen some of the inmates playing Monopoly before, but I didn’t even think of this card.
 I almost hit the ground laughing. Both myself, and the inmates on the pod were cracking up.
The deputy was unimpressed. “Do you know how many times people have handed me this card?” he said.
I said, “Well, this is the first time I’ve seen it and I think it’s funny as hell!” Which made the inmates laugh even harder, and earned me an admonishment from the deputy about the importance of not encouraging them.

Speaking of Monopoly…

Whitey Keepin’ the White Man Down

One of the more attention-seeking (and thus, in my eyes, more entertaining) inmates walked up to me at pill pass.

INMATE (IM): “Let me read this grievance to you, and you tell me how it sounds.” (A grievance is basically a written complaint. It can be submitted by any inmate, to any department of the jail.)
ME: “What are you ‘grieving’?
IM: “I was turned down for early release into a rehab program, for no reason at all!”
ME: “Aren’t you the one who told me that you started your criminal career at the age of eight?”
IM: “That’s not why I was turned down! Here, let me read this to you.”

(Inmate assumes what I’m sure he considered to be his most “blackest” voice, but in my eyes, he only achieved Vanilla Ice-level street cred.)
“I have been turned down for early release into rehab. You are discriminating against me because I’m black. I feel like I’ve been played like a monopoly game…”
ME: “Woah, woah, woah! You’re NOT BLACK!”
IM: “Yes I am! I’m a person of color and I’m sick of the white man keeping me down! *Points to quietly-chuckling deputy* And this includes you, whitey! Yo’ keepun’ me DOWNNN!”
ME: “Listen, I’m so white that I cannot be spotted when I’m standing in front of snow. You are WHITER than ME. You are not black!”
IM: “I’m from Louisiana! I’m a cajun. That’s the same as being black. We’re discriminated against, locked up, oppressed by society…”
ANOTHER INMATE BYSTANDER (who happens to be black): “Get the fuck outta here!” *laughing*

Same Inmate, Different Day

This lesson in Using Other People’s Tragedy For Your Own Personal Gain™ occurred right after Katrina hit.
 Inmate: (After hearing from his cellblockmates that the doctor was in the building) — “I need to see the doctor! It’s an emergency! I’m in horrible pain! I’ve been in pain for weeks! You’re negligent for not doing anything to help me! I’m going to sue!”
Me: “Funny, but I have seen you every night, five nights a week, for two months now. You’ve never once told me you were in pain.”
Inmate: “It’s my broken jaw!”
Me: “You broke your jaw over a year ago, and have seen the doctor multiple times since then, never mentioning jaw pain. In fact your jaw works pretty well when you ask me every night if I have ecstasy on my pill cart, and your jaw was working especially well the other night when you put a stack of dirty bowls on my pill cart and said, ‘Get to the kitchen and do my dirty dishes, woman!’”
Inmate: (Switches from New York accent to Southern accent, and has tears well up in his eyes): “But the pain is intensified now because I can’t reach my family in New Orleans! My wife, my family, they could all be dead!”
 What I wanted to say: So, you think because I have a uterus that I am stupid and will believe this shit?
What I said: “Fine, the doctor will see you in a minute.”
 Inmate, who can’t leave well-enough alone: *insert violin music playing in the background* “My family lives in, um — well, the part of NawOwlans that was hit the very worst. And my wife hasn’t been able to get ahold of anyone on the phone.”
 Me: “I thought you said your wife lived in New Orleans and could be dead.”


One day I was doing a sick call on a very handsome inmate.
 “Nurse Mary, did you do something with your hair?”
 I ignore him.
 “You look very nice today.” 
 I ignore him.
 “You’re very pretty.”
 I couldn’t help but reply, “And YOU have been in here too long!”
 I suppose he thought I’d be more prone to try and get him some pain meds prescribed, but the truth is that I believed he WAS in pain and I was doing everything I could for him already.
 Flattery will get you nowhere when you are an inmate in a jail with no narcotic painkillers in its formulary.

Motion of the Lotion

An inmate in the maximum security pod was prescribed a cream for some ailment. Now, max lockup has a glass front wall to every cell, because these people are the worst of the worst and cannot be trusted. Also, the nurse has to go up to the cell and pass the medicines to these inmates through a hole in the door, rather than passing meds to a line of inmates as is done on other pods.
So on the day in question, the day nurse gave him his prescribed cream, and he immediately dropped trou and started pleasuring himself with it, while maintaining eye contact with said nurse because I assume his mother raised him to be courteous like that.
I was told this in report later that afternoon, by a still-tearful and thoroughly freaked out day nurse.
 As luck would have it, I was scheduled to see this very same inmate for a “sick call” that evening. (The inmate had submitted a form that said he needed medical attention for something, so he got a “sick call”.)
 The inmate, after being escorted to the medical unit with a deputy and in shackles, didn’t take long to get to the point.
 “I need you to prescribe some lotion for me.”
 I threw my pen down and said, “You don’t need lotion! You’re just going to use it to jack off! How stupid do you have to be to jack off in front of a nurse and then ask for more lotion later that same day? Let me tell you something! You are to NEVER ASK MEDICAL FOR LOTION OR CREAMS AGAIN, do you hear me?”
 “I never did that!”
 “Bullshit, you have been seen by many people doing it. We have you on video doing it.”
*thoughtful pause*
 “Except for that one time, I never did that!”
 Maybe it was the sincere look on his face, but this caused me to crack up for some reason. Modifying the lie mid-story.

While suppressing laughter, I responded, “If you want to jack off, buy your own lotion. The taxpayers are NOT going to sponsor your masturbation habit! Now get out of here!” 
The next day I get called to the max lockup area to see another inmate. The jackoff boy saw me walk in and started screaming at the top of his lungs: “NURSE! NURSE! I NEED LOTION! NURSE! I NEED LOTION!” This went on for several minutes, as I was trying to talk to the other inmate. All of the other inmates on the pod were yelling at jackoff boy to shut up. He was surprisingly noncompliant with those requests. When jackoff boy saw me go to leave the area, he doubled his shouting.
 As I walked out of max holding, completely fed up, I turned to him and shouted, “Aw, just SPIT IN YOUR HAND!”
 This met to howls of laughter and approval from the other inmates in the area, and the deputies.
 It didn’t take long for word of my comment to spread to other areas of the jail, and some of the male inmates from the other pods thought it was infinitely funny to come up to me at pill pass and ask me for lotion or Vaseline, then crack up laughing. They were genuinely disappointed when I didn’t tell them to go spit in their hand.
 I guess they found it amusing that some old broad would even know about stuff like that. But of course I do, because as mentioned earlier, I was taught by nuns.

Tips for Work Release

If you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the law, try to get your lawyer to hook you up with some sweet work release action. You keep your day job, get to eat anything you want all day, wear normal clothes, and do whatever you want. You only have to return to jail at night to serve your sentence. Easy, right? Well, you can still mess it up. Here are some tips so that you don’t. Any resemblance to real events that happened the first week I worked at the jail is, of course, sheer coincidence.
 1. If your girlfriend (who is married to someone else) is the one picking you up and dropping you off every day, have her stay in the car. Don’t have her greet you warmly in the very-public courthouse.
 2. Do not choose the parking lot of the jail — which has police officers, sheriff’s officers, and surveillance cameras everywhere — as the place to beat up said girlfriend just after she gave you a ride back to jail for the night. Not only will charges be pressed, but officer eyewitness testimony and video presented in court is pretty strong evidence against you. Also, you’ll lose your sweet work release deal which included keeping your job, keeping your income, and obviously getting some stolen nookie-time with said girlfriend.
 When filling out a police report after having the shit kicked out of you by your significant other inmate, including the phrase “I love him so much!” in your written narrative is really not relevant.

I’m Glad He Lived to Tell the Tale

I was evaluating a newly-arrived inmate for a bruise. I knew him well; he had just been released about three days before after a stay of several months, and was back within 72 hours. Wish I could say that was a record, but it wasn’t.
 Me: “How’d you get this?”
 Inmate (in a self-righteous tone): “The COPS beat me up!”
 Me: “And why did they do that?”
 Inmate: “Because I wouldn’t drop my gun.”
 Me: *stares at him in disbelief*
 Me: “Well, I’m glad you weren’t shot!”
Inmate (apparently seeing the absurdity of his outrage at getting only a minor black eye while the cops wrestled a GUN out of his hand): “Yeah, that’s true.”
Me: “You know, this is why I watch so many hours of TV. So that I will know what to do if I am holding a gun and a cop tells me to drop it. Thanks to the magic and wisdom of TV, I am now armed with the knowledge that I should drop my gun if a cop tells me to do so.”
Inmate: “Well, something just told me not to let go of the gun.”
Me: “Well you should have listened to the other somethings in uniform with guns pointed at you who were telling you to let go of the gun.”
Inmate: (laughs) “Yeah, I’ll do that next time.”
I hope that for him, there wasn’t a next time. He was a good kid. Looking back on this conversation ten years later, with today’s problems with law enforcement and the public, I’m more aware than ever how differently things could have ended for this young man.

Yes, Some Things Got On My Nerves

As part of the job, I had to give TB skin tests to new inmates. This involves inserting just the tippy-tip of a teeny-tiny needle just under the surface of the skin an injecting 0.1cc of liquid there.
It was for their safety. I mean, would you want to share a cramped cell with someone who has tuberculosis? Didn’t think so.
However, this part of the intake process was what made inmates whine the most. Yes, people who have the courage to use meth (containing God knows what) and shoot heroin would ask me with an accusing stare, “Is that needle clean?”
Of course it’s clean, and congratulations for finally caring, for the first time in years, about what’s going into your body.
Or the guy with tattoos covering all of his upper body saying he won’t take the TB test because “I’m afraid of needles!” Bullshit, tattoo boy. If you can get a tattoo, you can sit through a TB test that utilizes a needle SMALLER than what I used on 2-pound premature infants in the NICU. 
 But my FAVORITES were the ones in there for beating their spouse, assaulting someone else, or assaulting their kids. Seems the ones who are so quick to hand out pain to other people are the ones who whine the loudest about a tiny needle being inserted in their skin for three seconds. They’re also the first to complain about EVERYTHING — don’t like the food, don’t like the blankets, blah blah blah. Tough shit, Mr. Rambo Oh-So-Tough! Stop physically assaulting other people and you can soon be home emotionally abusing your spouse and kids to the point of suicide, while sitting in your favorite barcolounger and enjoying life exactly as you like it.

Food Sued

I had this conversation with various inmates at least 2–3 times a day:
 Inmate (in an indignant tone): The food here sucks! There is no excuse for it! I’m calling my lawyer!
Me: I haven’t tried it myself, but I’m sure it is pretty awful, you poor thing. In fact, I think the only people who get worse food are our brave military men and women serving our country and risking their lives every day in Iraq! I bet they’d trade their MREs for the food you get any day. *I smile sweetly.*
 Inmate: *Silence*

For the record, the deputies regularly ate the same food the inmates ate, so it couldn’t have been THAT bad.

Not Exactly ‘Orange is the New Black’

I’m often asked what female inmates were like. Most were very nice, and they were more apt to try and bond with you and be friendly.

Most were in jail because of drugs, or because they went along with their boyfriend’s crime ideas.
They could earn a “trusty” status, meaning they could have jobs working in the jail. They’d earn a small amount of money for this, and time off their sentence. Trouble was that the women weren’t allowed to do the jobs the male inmates did (no mixing of genders), so there was a shortage of female trusty jobs. They mostly cleaned the women’s pod and did library duties. Men could clean, work in the kitchen, and work outside. With more jobs, it was easier for males to get trusty status and earn time off for good behavior. Patriarchy, even in jail!
 Cliques were formed on the women’s pod and there was a lot of drama and some catfighting, but it would end in screaming matches mostly, not in the violence that men’s fights would. 
 The “bad” inmates were extra bad if they were women. But they were the rarity. 
If women did something wrong in jail, it was things like cheeking their meds and selling it to other people. They were more sneaky about it than the men, but they were also more likely to tell the deputies if they saw something like that. It was more of an honor thing; if the female inmates saw something wrong, they told. 
The inmates who came in withdrawing from meth were the biggest bitches on the planet. They’d look about 20 years older than they were. It was amazing to see them two weeks later, looking younger and acting a LOT nicer. This was true for males also, but with all, I had to be careful what I said. I couldn’t say, “Man, your appearance has improved tons since getting off that stuff!” because it would have been harassment. All I could say was that they looked like they felt a lot better. I’d think that people (especially the women) would stay off the meth if they truly realized how much better they looked without it. 
Male inmates worried about their kids while in jail, but most of the time their kids were with the mothers, and the male inmates were more focused on themselves and their legal issues of the day. Female inmates were focused on their kids first, and their desperation to get back to them. It was not uncommon to need to talk a hysterical inmate down because an ex was trying to use their jail term to get custody.
Many nurses hated passing meds on the women’s pod because they were always asking for things and were more prone to crying and needing someone to talk to. I didn’t mind this and would talk if I had time. I would also give ibuprofen for cramps, which other nurses refused to do. But I thought it was a reasonable request.
Once I gained the trust of the inmates, I found the female inmates stuck up for me more than the males. If a new inmate was rude or bitchy in the pill line on women’s pod, I found that often their behavior was different the next night. I have no doubt this was because the women said something to the “rude” inmate. 
I did get on the bad side of some inmates for not taking their crap, but I found for the most part if you treated them with respect, they remembered it and gave you less shit in the long run. This was especially true for the females. They had more “loyalty” and were very nice to the jail staff they liked.

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