Allegheny County Jail – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The first night was in the processing area.I desperately tried making phone calls,but the phone system only worked if you already had a wristband with a docket-identification number.You had to already be in jail to use the phones and make calls to try getting out of jail.
Intake processing was awful. I spoke with a nurse, answering questions about allergies and AIDS. She gave me some shot and it hurt like hell. Then I stood in a line, going through a machine that was blowing puffs of air.
“What’s that?” I whispered to the guy behind me.
“The machine? That’s the Tin Police Dog, it sniffs out drugs. See how it’s blowing air from the bottom? At the top it’s suckin’ the air back in and sniffin’. It works good, so if you got anything tucked, you better tuck it deeper.”
After the Tin Dog, the line stood against a wall, next to a pair of showers. We were called, one by one, to step up to a desk, where a jail worker gave us our wristbands with the doc numbers and handed out a roll of bedding, three sets of red jail shirts and pants, and a bag of toiletries. The blankets looked like house insulation, and most of them were full of holes. The shirts and pants were never the right size, it seemed. Standing in line, any hope of getting out already disintegrating, I just prayed for a decent blanket and a good set of clothes; I was going to spend a year or two with them.
“Hey, I got two soups for a good blanket,” I heard one of the men in line say to the worker handing out the welcome packages.
“You gonna be on level one?” the worker replied. “Yeah, I’m just in for DUI.”
“All right, two soups. I don’t want vegetable. I like chicken and chili.”
“Okay,” the man said.
The worker bent down below the desk and pulled out a roll of bedding. The blanket looked clean, new. There was even a pair of sheets. Nobody else had sheets.
When my name was finally called, I stepped forward to the desk.
“Anderson, Fredrick? That right?” the worker asked, reading from a sheet.
“Yes,” I said meekly.
“Here’s your band. Number 178822.” “So I can use the phones now?”
“Yeah. You set up an account with someone outside, your woman or your family, whatever, and enter that number into the phone to make calls.”
“Okay,” I gulped.
The worker laid my package down on the desk. “Bedding. Reds. Soap and deodorant. Here ya go. Next: Willia—”
“Hey, man,” I interrupted. “Yeah?”
My blanket was pink, dirty, and it had more holes than material. The clothes I could deal with, but I wanted a decent blanket to sleep with.
“Could I get a nicer blanket?”
“What do you got?”
“You got any items?” “Like what?”
“What do you mean like what? Do you got any soups or anything?”
“Soups? I just got here, what are you talking about?” “This is your first time, huh? If you don’t have any soups, y’know, Ramen Noodle soups you bought off of commissary, I ain’t givin’ you shit. You’ll get a nice blanket when you have some items to sell. Sorry, man.”
“Are you serious? Look at this damn blanket!” “You’re stuck like Chuck, my man.”
Before I could say anything more, a guard came out of one of the showers and pulled me in by the arm. I nearly dropped my shitty blanket on the ground, which obviously would have ruined it. In the shower room, the guard washed his hands after touching me and put on a pair of rubber gloves. The guy was a bodybuilder, well over six feet tall, with a beard and bald head.
“Put your shit on the counter behind you.”
I tried placing my stuff down, but there was a tray on the counter with cups full of piss. For many reasons, I didn’t want to touch the tray and move it; I tried putting my things down gently on the little space I had on the counter.
“What the fuck are you doing?” “I was just trying not to—”
“Who said you could talk, dickhead?! I said put your shit down, not pretend your fucking bedding is a ticking bomb.”
“Strip, get in the shower, don’t screw around and play with your pecker; just get in and out.”
I did exactly as he said. I jumped into the shower, washed as quickly as possible with as much soap as possible, not knowing the next time I’d get to clean myself, and jumped out. Naked, dripping wet, I stood in front of the guard.
“All right, squat down like you’re takin’ a shit.”
I bent down, almost slipping on the floor. I caught myself and squatted down.
I coughed. The guard looked at me. I hadn’t coughed well enough.
“Come on and COUGH.” I did. It was better, louder.
“Now stand up, turn around, spread your ass.” I did.
“Okay, turn back around, look at me. Open up your mouth with your hands, show me under your tongue, behind your teeth.”
“Great. Thanks. Welcome to the Allegheny County Jail, how did your ass taste?” The guard laughed and left.
Still wet, I put the red clothes on, as well as my shoes. I folded my old clothes and walked out of the shower room. A different worker called me up to the desk.
“Here.” I handed him my suit jacket, shirt, and pants. “What kind of shoes are you wearing?”
“I have no idea what that means. Lemme see ’em.” He peered over the desk and down at my shoes. “Yeah, those are no good. Does that have a fucking heel? Ha ha! Why would you even try to wear those? Lemme have ’em.”
I took off my shoes and placed them on the desk. The worker pulled a pair of blue canvas-top slip-on shoes, size ten.
“I wear a size twelve.”
“We’re out. The only bo-bos we have right now are eights and tens, a few fifteens. I actually gave someone a pair of fifteens earlier.” He laughed to himself. “Well, all right, go out this door, stand over there with everyone else.”
The lot of us waited as the others received their bedding and showered. After the last one finished, we were taken into a small holding cell.
Many of the men pressed their faces against the dirty Plexiglas, watching for movement of any kind. Some of them looked at the people in the cells next to us, which were out- take processing, the guys who were leaving the jail. Others watched for women. Most watched for guards.
“Fuck, man,” one said, “did anyone else have Housser in the showers?”
A bunch of people nodded. I nodded.
“He made me squat down and cough. I can’t stand that! He only does that to people he hates. I’ve been to the ACJ seven times, saw Housser five of ’em, and he still makes me do that shit! I’ve never just had to spread my cheeks and do the How’s your ass taste? thing; I’d rather do that than squat like a bitch.” “He made me do both,” I chimed in, not thinking before I said it.
“Um. Wow. He must have really not liked you.”
This is an excerpt from the book Prison Noir. You can order it from Akashic Books
ERIC BOYD donates plasma in Pittsburgh. His fiction has been published by The Missouri Review, Guernica, Cheap Pop, Fourth River, and PEN, among others; he has an upcoming story in Make Mine Words, a teaching manual for jails and hospitals, from Trinity University Press; the book will feature work by Joyce Carol Oates, Jamaica Kincaid, Tim O’Brien, and Denis Johnson, etc.
Boyd has attended the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, been nominated for the Pushcart, and is a winner of the PEN Prison Writing award (a program he now mentors for). His tumblr page EricBoydblog.tumblr.com is featured on the poetry section of that website, highlighting his daily six word stories/poems, as well as longer works. Boyd currently commutes to Brooklyn to attend MFA classes at the Writer’s Foundry.