A green fence edges the sidewalk from the intersection of the Armstrong Tunnels with the golden arches of the 10th Street Bridge. It ends at the walkway to the Allegheny County Jail where reside the presumed innocent with the presumed guilty. This stretch is broken only by the ramp leading down to the lower level parking lot for the jail. I walk this fence line at least once a week on either a Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Sunday. I have probably walked this block 40-50 times in the last few months. The first section of fence from the bridge to that ramp has posts twisted like a curl around the comb while the second section on the other side of that ramp to the jail has straight unadorned posts. I should amend that to make note of the concave sections where a vehicle may have tried to take a shortcut to that lower level parking lot. The fence won though, not giving up its strength.
Sometimes I stand on top of the concrete ledge holding the fence posts in place surveying this domain and beyond. Follow my gaze to the cars, trucks and motorcycles parked in the jail parking lot below, then beyond to the bikers, joggers, and walkers on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. Do these passersby on that trail look up scanning for faces at the windows of the jail or do they even know what is beyond the walls? Cars and trucks on the Parkway speed by that trail following the banks of the Monogahela River on the way out of town while those entering the city pass overhead. From this point, I can look across the river to the opposite bank where the South Side Trail follows along the river. Perhaps someone is standing looking back at me from that side as I have done before. If my gaze continues farther, it crosses the streets of the South Side to find the steps climbing the hills of the South Side Slopes. Eventually I break away to move closer to those locked doors of the Allegheny County Jail.
I travel light for my visits, carrying only a photo ID, a credit card to feed the ravenous city meters, my quarter for the locker to stash my keys and phone. I can feel the change that wraps around me as I approach the three flagpoles at the walkway edge and pass the concrete circular planter and walk between the railings with peeling red paint. Sometimes other visitors sit on the concrete wall benches arranged in a layered pattern smoking or talking. I walk purposely to my destination tracking steps and minutes on my Fitbit. As I reach the locked doors, or unlocked if the guard is watching for my approach, the shroud is complete as I enter. I am in jail now. The muscles in my face are tense, and I know that heartfelt smile will not come until I reach the visiting cell. My mind has been taken over now by caution and distrust. It is as if that buzzer unlocking those doors locks away my heart and mind. My reaction is involuntary; it is perhaps not reasonable to have these feelings. These guards and officers are not my enemies; they are very simply government employees—neither friend or foe.
There are a few visitors who are social with the officers as they begin to know each other in that way of frequent visitors to a place. Perhaps they know each other outside this building even. Jacob recently saw a young woman he had met from his previous position as an LPN. I asked if this person acknowledged him; she had known about his troubles from the beginning. He said he was not sure he wanted to acknowledge her. They did acknowledge each other though as good manners require. I understood what he was feeling; manners and upbringing require a certain politeness and civility. I try to be pleasant, but I am not sure I succeed. My mind keeps saying “Let go”; Jacob says “Let go”; I cannot yet let go.
I say these are not my enemies, yet sometimes we do not recognize our enemies. I heard the news report a few weeks ago about a jail guard arrested for trading favors for sex from inmates. His actions highlight a point. The incarcerated are at the mercy of a wide spectrum of individuals and personalities. This story of that guard is about the use of control and power over others who have none. I do not judge this guard from those news reports though. Have they told the truth and nothing but the truth? What have they left out? Have they given just enough to titillate and even incite? I think of the power of the media to influence our thinking. It is the things that are not reported that are scary. I think the news report is true, yet how can I be sure? My daughter told me yesterday that if she opened the dictionary to the word ‘jaded’, she would see my picture. I think that word is wrong, but I knew what she meant. My education and experiences the last 16+ months has been life-changing. My view of the the world has changed.
As always, some small event sparks my desire to put my feelings into words. This time it was my visit on December 11; I was early. I needed to use the restroom. I was buzzed in the door, threw my items in the locker and got into line behind the sign that reads, “Line up here.”. I wanted to get my visitor tag, use the restroom and walk up to Ross Street to run an errand. That was my plan; that should be simple since there was no one else in line. I “cooled my heels” a few minutes while the officer behind the desk fiddled on the computer and then picked up the phone, never acknowledging my presence. Others like lawyers, clerics, counselors, etc received special treatment at their own window while I waited. Finally, I went to the bathroom muttering under my breath, and then I left to run that errand. Again, the control is all one-sided or so it feels. Are these officers at the windows that busy with their duties? I do not think so.; I have been here many times while visitors wait in line and officers chat with each other. You are silent though; you do not want to miss that visit.
I got back from that errand with time to spare and traded my photo ID for that pink visitor pass. As I sat on the bench at the edge of the children’s play area, I thought about the poster on justseeds.com. Jail breaks up families. It is obvious here. I look around at each visit and observe the other visitors. They are mostly young, wives and girlfriends with young children in tow or at home. I am usually the oldest person sitting in that visitor area. Why are their boyfriends or husband incarcerated? We do not speak of that. No one asks such questions. The conversation is inane about clothing and children. I am always the worst dressed of these visitors wearing my usual hiking pants and shoes with little to no jewelry. The young women often wear their big hoop earrings and necklaces with tight pants and tight shirts and high boots. The boots come off and the jewelry comes off to go through the metal detector. I prefer to just walk through without the fuss. They wear their finest for those husbands and boyfriends though.
We are called to line up to be scanned again for contraband. We enter into another locked room to wait for the elevator. When we reach our floor, the officer asks as we exit the elevator, “Does everyone know where they are going?” Sometimes, the officer gets an answer and sometimes not. It is rude, but I never answer. It is like those events where the speaker begins by saing “Good afternoon” and no one responds. The speaker has two choices: ignore that lack of enthusiasm or try to drum up some enthusiasm. Here the officer opts for the first choice. I have talked before about the visiting accommodations themselves. There is no attempt at comfort or cleanliness in these visiting cells. I wonder how those young children are entertained in that small space. They are not allowed to bring anything with them so they must sit with their parent or on that dirty floor. If two of us visit together, we pass the phone back and forth or mime or talk loudly or learn to read lips. We move left to right in the seat, stand up-sit down, lean against the wall attempting to find some comfortable position. There are none. An hour seems short and also seems long. We talk about life inside and life outside as we bring our worlds together. We talk until the knock comes at the door signaling the end of the visit. We quickly finish the conversation, say “I love you.”. As I walk out the door, I look back and wave.
I enter the elevator to return to that lobby. We file past the counter to exchange the visitor pass for our IDs. Sometimes it’s self-service as all the IDs are laid out on the counter. Sometimes the guard holds them all as you speak your name so he/she can search the stack. I retrieve my driver’s license (that I actually like this time) and head for the locker. I quickly retrieve my items, collect that quarter back from the lock and head to the door where I might exit freely or might wait to be buzzed out. The feeling of lightness returns as I walk down that sidewalk. I look around and snap a photo of some new angle of this building. A couple weeks ago I glanced across the street to the concrete sides of the Boulevard of the Allies. Suddenly I see the spray-painted message, STAY STRONG. Is it for me or is it for Jacob or for all of us who enter and exit this building?