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Jail Cell Hell!

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Jail Cell Hell!
by Meredith McGhan

This May, four Ann Arbor activists were sentenced by District Judge George La Plata to five days in the Wayne County Jail for protesting the Persian Gulf War. Meredith McGhan, Phyllis Ponvert, Gaia Kile, and Michael Kline were jailed for failing to dismantle a literature table they had set up inside the Federal Building last February. The "Peace Office" was erected to inform Ann Arbor taxpayers about the local costs of the war and ways to help stop it.
What follows are excerpts front the journal Meredith McGhan kept during her incarceration from May 13 to May 17,1991.

It seemed surreal at first. After the sentencing we were taken to the holding cell in the Ann Arbor Federal Building and forced to wait for about four hours. The federal lackies returned bearing styrofoam containers of greasy burger, tough, cold fries, and pungent coleslaw. It was the first meat I'd eaten in five months.

After we ate, the feds returned with shackles. They put chains around our waists and cuffed our hands, attaching the handcuffs to the chain belt. I looked at Phyllis. "Here's where they cuff us together," I joked. "How did you know?" the fed asked as he slipped an ankle cuff around my right foot, attaching the one on the other end to Phyllis' left. "Lucky guess," I said weakly.

Michael and Gaia were trussed up in the same way, and they followed behind us. A paddy wagon was waiting. We got in, joking about the unbelievability of it all. I felt like I was in a Terry Gilliam movie. The ride was pretty uneventful.
More comedy awaited us at the jail.When we arrived at the jail, the handcuffs came off with the turn of a key from Michael, Gaia, and Phyllis. Mine, however, would not budge. The guards, looking embarrassed and sweaty, tried about 10 different keys. Finally they decided to use the metal cutters. They tried to scissor through my handcuffs, but alas, these cutters were too small. I waited, holding back laughter. They returned with a frighteningly large pair of metal cutters. "Hold still now, ma'am. Don't cut her wrist," said the deputy who was holding my arm to the one at the other end of the cutters, three feet away.

Finally my hands were free. I was fingerprinted and taken to the "unprocessed" women's cell. Phyllis was already there. A half dozen women sat on narrow benches around the edges of the cell. I sat down next to Phyllis, realizing I was having a nasty nicotine fit. I bought a cigarette from a woman for a quarter. When she tried to light it with the last match in the cell, the match immediately fizzled. She slumped against the wall and sighed.

"I'm Rachel," she said. "What are y'all in here for?" Everyone pricked up their ears. We didn't look like we fit in - we still had all of our teeth and appeared healthy. The women were incredulous when they found out we were in for protesting the war. They told us how lucky we were to be serving a mere five days. I asked Rachel how long she was in for. "The longest eight days of my life," she said, her eyes starting to tear. She was shivering too, clad only in a t-shirt, green mudstained polyester pants and flip-flops. She seemed so scared. I didn't feel scared. Not yet.

A guard carne for us. She was a short, muscular woman with cornrows and elegant, gold-rimmed spectacles. Her nametag said "Baker." Her manner was brusque and authoritarian. She took us to a dressing room across the hall. The first thing I noticed was a hand-lettered sign on the wall that said "Woman wash behind yourself or else! " I wondered in dazed horror if that meant they were going to give us a rectal probe to search for contraband.

Baker ordered us all to strip. "Lift your hair. Lift your breasts. Spread your cheeks. Squat. Cough. Harder!" Mercifully, no rectal probe was applied.

"They're trying to get to us through humiliation," Phyllis whispered to me. That much was fairly obvious but I had other concerns. I wanted to call friends and family. The people who hadn't made the sentencing - including my parents and sister - would not know where or how I was.

I dressed in a jail-issued dark olive green canvas outfit and pink plastic shoes. I was lucky to find a pair that fit that weren't broken. I got my armband. "Okay, what do I do now?" I asked Baker.

"Don't you be smart-mouthin' off at me!" she snapped. My question had been the first thing that came out of my mouth that day that wasn't a smartass comment or a joke. It hit me that this wasn't "Monty Python." It was real. I was in jail. I would not be treated with respect. My intelligence was irrelevant. The reason for my incarceration was moot. I was a prisoner and I would be treated as such.

Across the hall was a room where they took us for screening. I sat in front of a man with a computer terminal and answered questions on my general health. "Are you depressed? Hear voices in your head?" "Ever thought about suicide?" And, "Are you homosexual?" On a sign it said, "This is not Burger King. We do not do it your way. This is the County Jail. You will do it our way."

After the mental health insty-quiz the group was taken to a larger holding cell where a phone sat miraculously in the center of the wall. One of the women, Suzi, looked around and asked in a quiet voice, "Is anyone else as scared as I am?" I tried to smile sympathetically but I could only muster a grimace. She got up and tried the phone. It worked. She got through to her husband. I was getting up to make my call when the deputy came and told us to follow her. I wouldn't see another working phone until my release.

When we got upstairs they let everyone but Suzi off the elevator. "I bet they're sending her to the Bam-Bam Ward 'cuz she admitted to thinking about suicide," one woman whispered.

After another interminable wait in another "bullpen" we were led to a cellblock, instructed to get a mattress pad from a closet and given ratty, stained sheets and a blanket. We dragged this stuff down the hall led by a guard who was Ms. Welcome Wagon compared to the others. Our rooms were tiny cells off the main block. Two women sat at a metal table in the common area. Though no one had been nasty to me, I was still nervous when meeting new people. However, there was an instant camaraderie even though Phyllis and I were the only ones incarcerated for political acts rather than drug or solicitation-related activities.

I spent the first hour or so in the cellblock studying the myriad forms oppression takes in the Wayne County Jail. Most notable are the "Rules and Regulations" which are posted on the wall and in every cell. "Prisoners are permitted to write to anyone, subject to censorship." "Headgear such as 'Do Wraps' are not permitted." "Failure to take prescribed medication is a violation, as are attempts to hide or save medication." Underlined for emphasis: "Any sexual misconduct or criminal act is prohibited and will be investigated for criminal prosecution."

The posted visiting rules said unmarried prisoners could have one friend visit. A sign next to it informed me that women had visiting on Saturdays only. However, when my friends and family members phoned or came to the jail they were told that my visiting hours would be on Sunday.

The jail is designed to be as unpleasant as possible. The absence of color is paramount. The walls are off-white, the floors gray, and the furniture chrome. My cell, shared with a woman named Angie, consisted of two metal ledges which became beds with the addition of mattress pads, a long, narrow ledge perpendicular to the beds which served as a desk, and a circular chrome slab jutting from a metal arm in the wall as a chair. The windows were two vertical panes of glass about two-and-a-half inches wide. The outside panel was painted over with an opaque, white paint which allowed the sunlight in but prevented prisoners from actually seeing out.  There were a few spots on each window that were worn away by the weather and through them I could see tiny bits of Greektown.

The radio blared disco. The echo was terrible. Phyllis and I agreed that this was a good way to subvert both concentration and conversation. Some of the other women appeared to enjoy it. One of them was even dancing. (This same woman would later ask me to write a dictated letter to her boyfriend because she could not write.)

Meanwhile Phyllis had asked one of the women - in what I carne to think of as the "control booth," a tiny room separated from the cellblock by brown glass, from which deputies controlled the music, handed out toilet paper, and generally kept an eye on us - about the phone. The phone in the cellblock didn't work, though the hours of usage were posted as 9 am to 8:30 pm. The other prisoners said that the phones had been out for as long as they had been there. They told her that we would be allowed a phone call when we were processed.

There was nothing to do but wait. I made my bed, crawled into it and fell asleep.

That evening they brought more women in. One of them, Lisa, was talking in wide-eyed panic about how no one had allowed her a phone call and her family didn't know where she was. She started to cry, saying she was up for 1-to-20 years for possession of cocaine. I told her I was interested in getting the stories of women in jail and she jumped at the idea of being interviewed. I had been allowed to keep my legal pad, and a felt-tip pen was lying on one of the tables, borrowed from the deputies to keep score during a card game. I spent the evening getting the story of how she had been entrapped into resuming her old drug habit by a professional narc.

At 10 pm the lights flickered, signaling us to go to our cells. Lisa said she was going to have a rough night because she was going through methadone withdrawal. I awoke at 5:30 am when they tumed on the lights and made us line up for breakfast - Cheerios, a Danish wrapped in plastic and sweating globules of sugary grease, a carton of lukewarm milk and a carton of fruit drink.
That moming, the radio blared Billy Joel's "Innocent Man." Rumor spread through the block that we would be processed at 2 pm. Another Dantean descent through various levels of Jail Cell Hell. A wait in a cell. Another wait in a very cold room adjacent to the processing station.

After an hour or so we went to have our vital statistics checked and to be asked another set of questions, mainly about our drug and sexual history. "Have you ever had sex with another woman?" "Do you feel suicidal?" "Nah," I told the nurse. "This place isn't that bad."

As I waited for everyone to finish their "physicals," a deputy approached me. "You look like a genius," he said, making me feel like a cartoon egghead in my glasses. "What are you in here for?"

When I told him it was for protesting the war, he said he'd seen something about our case on the news. "I knew from one look at you that you didn't belong here," he said. Apparently my appearance had not impressed Judge La Plata so favorably.

When we finished, I discovered that Phyllis had been allowed to call her son and arrange a Thursday visit . She had been lucky enough to ask the right deputy . The rest of us learned the hard way that the "one free phone cali" was a myth.

"You should have been allowed a phone call in Ann Arbor after your sentencing," a deputy told me. "It's not our policy to give out phone calls." I thought about the movie "Gaslight" and gave up asking questions.

From the processing we went to another holding cell where more disco was playing. A woman we called "Peanut" (she had been arrested for stealing peanuts from a grocery store) got up and started dancing. For the first time I feit like crying.

A few hours later they took us to the cellblock we would remain in until our release. There were a few books and magazines lying around, mostly Christian tracts and romance novels, but Phyllis and I took turns reading Simone Signoret's "Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To Be." Most of the other women passed their time emptying the toilet bowls in their cells and talking to the men on the floor below them through the air vents.

The commissary, a vending cart, came on Wednesday, and I bought sunflower seeds, trail mix and other things to tide me over. Jail food was for the most part inedible. It had the consistency of fresh vomit and was a different color every day. Beyond that I can't teil you anything about it, since I haven't the slightest idea what it was.

When Phyllis asked one of the deputies when we'd be getting out she also found out that the person who said her son could visit Thursday had been wrong.

The bleak, Kafkaesque ambience of the place, combined with the involuntary fast, was starting to get to me. My mind went wild imagining the jail losing our papers or screwing up our computer files so that we'd be here for five years instead of five days. If it hadn't been for Phyllis and the books, I probably would have really freaked out.

Time passed slowly. A new inmate joined us, a woman of about 35 named Deb. She said that she was serving 90 days for a variety of misdemeanors including resisting arrest. She had just finished 40 days in Eaton County Jail. She told me about her kids, an 18-year-old student and a two-year-old. She said she missed her youngest so much that the deputies at Eaton gave her a hot water bottle to sleep with. Like most of the other women Deb was picked up on minor violations but earned her living through prostitution and crack dealing. Like most of the other women, she said she was intent on staying clean once released. Deb also told me that Judge La Plata had sentenced her then-l7-year-old daughter to 10 days in jail for failing to pay a moving violations ticket.

Thursday Phyllis went to see the doctor for her arthritis. The doctor told her that her release date was Saturday, May 18. I had already reconciled myself to that possibility. The mattress pad was starting to get to me. I was in pain from cramps from sleeping on a flat surface. I took two Tylenols to sleep. The food I had purchased from the commissary was almost gone. I read a historical novel, the only thing left that wasn't a religious pamphlet. Finally I drifted into a medicated sleep.

At 4 am on Friday we were awakened and told we were going home. The procedure for getting out was the same as that for going in or being processed - plenty of waiting in various cells. Finally at 9 am we were free.
Judge La Plata wanted to make an example of us, to scare the peace community into obeying laws which exist to keep the people in a one-down relationship to the government. He probably hoped the experience would "teach us a lesson."

If any lesson came out of this for me, it is the validation of my belief that the system we currently live under does not work. The women I met were evidence that prostitution and drugs should be decriminalized. It makes no sense that alcohol is legal and cocaine still a street drug. Anti-prostitution laws are just as senselessly repressive as anti-sodomy laws. "The illegality of these activities does more harm to this country- and to underprivileged classes of women - than the activities themselves.