You recognize the visitor's door at the downtown jail because it is the only door that is open. A row of blowers lines the wall overhead, giving the feeling of a back entrance. First-time visitors look up as they enter - shouldn't there be a sign? Is this right? But you can tell the first-timers before they get to the door. Watch the approaches. Some are nervous: too much glancing around or too much looking down or straight ahead. Some are slow and sad. Some bear the confidence that comes with familiarity. Jack and Jill (not their real names) have been here before. Here and elsewhere, says Jack, who could pass for Tommy Lee Jones with a moustache. "I've been in three different prisons [on visits], all three of them county jails. North County, Vista, the detention center out here by Otay Lakes Prison, and this one."
The man they are visiting is Jack's son and Jill's boyfriend. He is charged with conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit robbery. "They always charge you with the worst scenarios," explains Jack, "because they can always come down but they can't go up. What he's charged with are various things intangible, so he can beat it; but he's on parole, so he could be in there another couple of years."
What to do for another couple of years? "I guess they have a lot of time on their hands. They can read, there's a rec room with one TV, and they can make phone calls, and that's about it. Right now he's trying to read self-help books, maybe change his way of thinking. He's started reading the Bible; most people do when they're in bad trouble. He calls every day. He writes once in a while."
Christmas is coming. "He'll spend Christmas right in there, just like any other day. We'll spend Christmas with the family."
Jill, concealed behind sunglasses and standing in the background, speaks up. "Life goes on here, not there." She motions her head toward the jail.
Jack shrugs. "All we can do is support him and visit him, but we didn't put him in there. Maybe this will teach him a lesson. I don't know."
Part of that support is financial. Visitors can put money on the prisoner's books, allowing him to buy "stamps, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, all your toiletries, because they don't provide you with that in there, just soap. And I guess he can buy cigarettes."
"No, no smoking," counters Jill.
"I guess he's quit," smiles Jack.
A veteran visitor, Jack praises the jail's procedure. "This is probably the easiest. The others are lines and mass confusion and metal detectors. Of course, it's a known thing; anybody that visits a prison or a county jail, you're treated just like one of them. It doesn't bother me, but new people, it does. The first thing they do, they're very rude to you, just like you're a criminal."
Case in point: Deborah, who is here to visit her "homosexual, HIV-positive, manic-depressive" son Jermaine, who's in for petty larceny. "They have a black book; you're supposed to look through all these pages and find where your son is. I wasn't familiar with the counties; we live in North County, and you have to look in San Diego County. Well, that was easier said than done. I asked a simple question, hoping to get a simple answer, and they were very rude. Inconsiderate. Unconcerned. Unprofessional. The officer was making it appear like I'm illiterate. I have a college education. He humiliated me in front of all these people. I don't have a criminal record. My son is mentally ill. Do I need to be treated like this?"
Deborah proceeds to draw me into her cause. She makes a series of accusations about discrimination against her son, his being prevented from participating in activities, his suffering mental and physical cruelty at the hands of the officers. Most of these accusations are vague, but she does make one clear claim, an alarming one, that her son's medical condition is documented, and that he has not received his medication while inside.
She is echoed by a silver-haired man in a teal sweater who does not give his name but is glad to give his story. His son is an epileptic asthmatic with an IQ of 70. Easily influenced because of a cognitive disorder, he participated in the theft of a TV from a hotel in 1991 and was sentenced to five years. He served two and did his time on parole.
This year, his meds were changed, and he went into a tailspin. He was arrested for stealing a shirt from Target, and because of his prior conviction, he was put in jail. "When he first came in, he had seizures; they didn't give him a bed or nothing else, they left him on the floor. He's got a medallion that says he's an epileptic. I called his doctor, and finally they're giving him his medication. The deputies don't have time for anybody. He's lucky because he has someone on the outside, but there are people in here who have nobody, and the deputies know it. This is the worst place in the world." This is a men's jail; most of the visitors are women. At times, the sidewalk outside hosts a parade of strollers. Small children abound, their cries, squawks, and squabbles adding to the closeness of the waiting room. "Room" is an exaggeration; it's more of a hall with chairs along one side. The walls are white, the white industrial floor is chipped, the windows let in a dusty haze of light. The TV mounted on the wall is not on, but the water fountain works. There is a smell of too many people. For most of the day, there are more visitors than chairs. Kathy takes her two nieces, Cheyenne and Kaila, outside in the sun.
Kathy is tall. Her face is strong bordering on tough, but her voice is warm. She is here to see the girls' father, in for violation of parole. "Christmas is not going to be like it would be if he was outside, but my brother will make it the best way he can. He's strong. I'm going to spend Christmas with my nieces and with my family." Kaila, a blond angel, maybe five, clinging to Kathy's leg, tells me without the aid of front teeth that "we get to open presents Christmas Eve."
Her even blonder older sister Cheyenne adds, "I'm getting a bike from my dad." "He was getting a bike for them at the time when all this happened. He got all their Christmas presents."
The girls have bought their father tools. He fixes motorcycles. "He's probably going to be doing some time," says Kathy. "Christmas Eve he goes back to court. We'll know then. The girls have been going to every court hearing."
"They say, 'Kids, go out,' but we don't go out," boasts Cheyenne. "Sometimes I cry." Kaila's eyes are big. "That's my dad's home, prison is. He's been there for six and a half years; he only has two more prisons to go. If they allow visits on Christmas, we'll open our Christmas presents here."
"Right or wrong, we're gonna be there for him," concludes Kathy. "Being there for him" is what Jackie is doing for her fiance Alexander. Jackie is wearing a brown silk shirt, brown plaid pants, big gold earrings, and bright lipstick. Alex's is the story you want to hear, taking the turn you dread. In and out of jail all his life, he had gotten engaged, taken on the responsibility of fathering his son (Jackie: "He used to sag when I first met him, now he wears his pants up on his waist"), and gotten a regular, well-paying job with a construction company.
Then, the girl downstairs. Jackie claims the girl first tried to get Alex's son to sell drugs for her, then slept with him. (She was 25, he was 15.) Alex confronted her about it, she slapped him, ran into another house. He chased her. One of her boyfriends knocked him out cold. She pressed charges, claiming he had hit her. "He was on parole for domestic violence with his ex-wife, who he never hit, but you know, long story short, it doesn't matter as long as you're on parole. If somebody says it, that's good enough for parole. I've been with him for two years, and he's never put a hand on me." Jackie says the charges were later dropped, but since Alex ran from the police, knowing the parole mess he faced, he could end up doing six months to a year. "He's taking it real hard, but he doesn't feel too bad, because it was worth his son. "We'll marry when he gets out. We were thinking about getting married while he was in there, but his grandmother said nope, we're going to Vegas. She wants to see him in a tuxedo."
Jackie says that Alex eats "some kind of thick spread - it's like ramen noodles, oysters, and mayonnaise. They put it on crackers. It's usually what they eat in there to keep them fit." That aside, there is something to be said for prison food, especially if you're homeless. Steve, white moustache fading into thick stubble, has been in jail before. "They've got TVs, they've got books, or sometimes they play cards or dominos, things like that, and the rest of the day is made up of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast, sometimes they have some kind of oatmeal. It comes in a metal tray, an aluminum tray, so you can stick it in the oven. Usually scrambled eggs, a muffin, sometimes there's dry cereal, and they give you coffee. Lunch is a bag lunch, with a sandwich, and sometimes they have soup and things like that. Supper consists of different things. Sometimes it's spaghetti with meat sauce, and then garlic bread and salad and things like that, and then coffee again at night. It kind of tastes metallic, but it's all right as far as food goes."
Steve can remember a time when Christmas in jail meant turkey and stuffing, but he doesn't know if they do that anymore, and the other visitors seem doubtful. This year, Steve will spend his Christmas going to the "free food" places around town - Golden Hall, the Lutheran Church on Third and Ash, St. Paul's by Balboa Park, and St. Vincent's. "As far as eating, I'm going to be stuffed. I'm going to hit all the places." The joy of a full belly will be dampened by Robert's absence. Robert is in for violation of parole, and Steve is watching out for Robert's girlfriend, Modena Cheyenne. "This was going to be our first Christmas together," she muses. "He says, 'Don't worry about me because I've got a roof over my head, three meals a day.' He says, 'I'm the one who should be worrying about you.' "
Talking to Steve, I get the feeling there are worse fates than prison. "The day before commissary, they always have a poker game. They tear up old poker cards for chips, and you get so many chips for a soup or a candy bar. It passes the time."
Four o'clock, and the machinery that brings prisoner to visitor has begun to grind and drag. Things are running late, and since dinner is at 4:30, the few women who remain in the waiting room may not get their visits. A murmur goes up when this is announced, but no tempers flare. There isn't much point. The women go on talking about their children, who play on the floor. "This one isn't happy unless she's dirty. Look at this dress. I just pulled it out of the wash this morning." Mother dusts daughter off; they could be at the park.
"Would they do this for us?" a woman asks herself out loud. "No. They'd be watching a football game. They don't give a crap." But she doesn't leave.