suicidewatch

The Sergeant introduces himself as Donnie. Donnie’s neck is the size of my thigh. It’s as if his body was over inflated with an air pump shortly after putting on his clothes. The fluorescent ceiling light amplifies the fact that his head is completely bald. His thick face is the shape of a honey-baked ham. Donnie, it’s safe to assume, spends most of his free time in the gym.

“Pretty interesting, isn’t it?” he says. Donnie can’t wait to show me around. He is wearing one of those button-down shirts with no collar. It’s beige, the same color as his snug fitting pants, and the top button is fastened. The sleeves are rolled up tight over his biceps in order to show off his huge arms. Nothing about his attire gives away the fact that he’s a police officer.

Donnie gets up from behind his desk only to demonstrate once more what a solid mountain of flesh he really is. I notice for the first time that his topsiders are the color of his pants and shirt. One big matching side of beef.

“I’ll take you back to the jail,” he says, escorting me into the hall. “And show you where he came in. What the process is when a person’s booked in.”

Having made our way into the beginnings of the jail proper, it’s apparent that bright orange is the new orange.

“OK. This is the booking room. Excuse me, gentleman,” Donnie says to three men in street clothes about to get patted down.

“You busy, Todd?” Donnie asks the officer in charge. Todd is putting on rubber gloves as he speaks.

“What do you need?” Todd says. With his navy blue undershirt visible beneath his brown uniform, he looks like a big circus bear.

“Questions answered,” Donnie says. He tells Todd what I’m up to, and asks if he remembers him.

“Sort of,” Todd says.

“You remember that one?”

“Basically, yes,” Todd says. He’s still fiddling with his gloves. Once he gets them both on, he turns to the prisoners and signals for them to line up against the wall. “Let me get these guys,” he says to Donnie.

I stand still.

“Let’s go guys,” Todd says. “Time to get touched.”

“OK,” Donnie tells me while Todd’s busy patting them down. “I’ll just show you this. Through 4 and 5 here, that’s just where the car would pull in. If you want to go out there and walk that’s fine with me, too.”

Donnie refers to two doors made of thick steel with the large numbers 4 and 5 painted on them in orange. Orange trim also surrounds them. The doors are on the opposite side of the room from where we entered. We pause while Donnie pushes a button connected to an intercom and wait for door 4 to open. Nothing happens.

“How come it won’t let me out of 4 and 5?” he says to Todd.

“How do you spell his last name again?” Todd asks me. He’s looking it up on the computer.

I tell him.

“Hi Donnie,” a new officer says who just walked in.

“Hi Rex,” Donnie barks back. “How come they’re not letting me through 4 and 5 here?”

“Push the other one,” Todd says.

“They’re not?” Rex asks. He looks puzzled.

“What’s that one for?” Donnie says, referring to the button to the left of the door he’d pushed before Todd told him to push the one to the right.

“I don’t know if it works or not,” Todd says.

“Thanks guys,” Donnie says after the door opens. “OK,” he continues. “When he came in the Police Department brought him in here through the two doors.”

“Would he have been in a squad car?”

“Yeah. He was brought up in a squad car. He would have been brought in here. Patted down. Out there at the scene first where he was. Brought in here and then again for the camera. He would have been patted down right here.”

We are standing in a space the size and character of a standard two-car garage. Donnie describes how he would have been handcuffed behind his back, and how the officers transporting him would have got out and put their guns away in a series of blue lockers attached to the garage wall prior to entering the booking room.

We re-enter through door 4.

“Hey Rex,” Donnie then says. “While Todd’s busy would you mind walking our guest here through what a person who’s arrested normally, what happens once they go through these doors. Would you mind doing that?”

“OK,” Rex agrees.

“This is Rex Miller,” Donnie tells me.

“Yeah,” Rex nods. Rex is a highly nervous individual who seems intimidated by Donnie. At least physically, the sergeant is everything Rex is not. It’s a good thing he’s not allowed a gun inside.

Donnie tells Rex what’s going on.

“Remember that guy?”

“Yeah,” Rex says.

“He’s writing about him,” Donnie explains.

“You’re not gonna use my name are you?” Rex asks. He’s honestly concerned.

Donnie and I laugh.

“When they initially come in they’re patted down again, making sure they don’t have any weapons or anything on them. Their booking packet is filled out,” Rex explains.

“Go ahead and have a seat cause that’s what he would have done,” Donnie says to me. He’s started to shoot the shit with Todd behind the main control center of the booking room. Todd’s just come back in carrying a shiny metal tray with his lunch on it. Pork tenderloin.

“Have a seat,” Rex says. “Empty all your pockets out on the table and everything.”

There’s a woman prisoner in an orange jumpsuit and white Nike tennis shoes making a lot of noise. It’s tough to hear what Rex is saying because of her.

“And then after you get all of their property off them the only thing they should have is basically their clothing. All the information is taken on them. Their personal information and stuff like that. At that point they’re fingerprinted.”

“You do palms here?” I ask.

“We just do fingerprints,” Rex says. “Pictures are taken. We inventory all their property. Do a medical questionnaire on them. Insurance. Do they have insurance or anything like that. They’re given the jail rules and visitation. Their money is counted and put on the books. If they’re booking right out we don’t change them over, but they’re just left in their regular clothes and placed in a holding cell. And if they’re staying they’re basically dressed out, stripped down if they’re staying, showered, and everything. And make sure they don’t have anything on him. Their clothes and stuff are put with the rest of their property. And we give them an ID band that goes on their wrist. And then they’re—

“Where are those things at?” Donnie interrupts Rex. He’s been half listening to us and half talking with Todd.

“They’re over here,” Rex says, pointing to the stack of bands above the booking table where we are both seated.

“OK,” Donnie says.

“They’re given a cell,” Rex continues. “And they’re basically put back in a cell block and they’re—

“By himself?” I ask. “Or would he be sharing it with somebody?”

“It’d be an open cell. Be in general population.”

“So how many people could be in the cell with him?”

“There’s one man cells and there’s two man cells. And then there’s B Block, which is an all-open dorm. Let’s say if he was suicidal or something like that, or a violent person, he’d be kept up here for a while. If he came in resisting or fighting or something like that he’d be left up here.”

“Yeah?”

“And if he was suicidal he’d be put up here in one of these special cells.”

“OK.”

“And observed.”

“So how long does this whole process take?”

“About an hour.”

“Gets printed. Gets his picture taken. Where’s that happen?”

“Picture’s taken over there,” Rex says, pointing to a big camera across the room. “They just line up against the wall over there and just snap a photograph of them.”

“Like the DMV,” I say.

“Want a picture?”

“Yeah. I’ll take a picture.”

“We’ll just make up a mock one,” Rex says, turning his head toward Donnie and Todd. “Mock booking packet or just take a picture of him? Donnie?”

“What?” Donnie asks.

“Mock booking packet?”

“Go ahead. Fill one out for him.”

“OK,” Rex says.

“That’s a good idea, Rex,” Donnie says.

“OK. Have a seat again then,” Rex instructs me.

“Walk him through the whole thing,” Donnie instructs Rex.

“Do his bags for his property?” Rex asks Donnie.

“Everything,” Donnie says. “Go ahead.”

Rex then orders me to empty my pockets and remove my watch. I give him my wallet first. Then keys.

“Count his money?” Rex then asks Donnie. “Should I count his money?”

“There’s not much to count,” I say.

Rex doesn’t count it.

“I need your pen,” he says. I remove it from my shirt pocket and toss it on the table. “You have any jewelry on? Necklaces or anything like that?”

“Nope.”

“All of this would be taken,” Rex explains. He then instructs me to stand up, put my arms out to my sides, and spread my legs. I get patted.

“I need your belt, too.”

I take it off.

“OK. That everything?”

“That’s it.”

“Go ahead and have a seat. And what’s your last name?”

I tell him and then spell it.

“First name?”

I spell it also.

“I’ll just make up a P.I.D. number for you.”

“All right.”

“Crime?” Rex then asks.

“Murder!” I say, excited.

“What should his crime be?” Rex then asks Donnie, who is now all the way across the room.

“Writing without a license!” Donnie shouts backs. He does so with great pleasure.

“OK,” Rex says. He writes it down on the booking packet.

“Libel, probably,” I then add.

“Yeah! Put libel on there!” Donnie yells at Rex. “That’ll make him one of the most dangerous people in the building.”

Too late. Rex has already put down writing without a license.

“Where you born at?” he asks.

I tell him.

“Your date of birth?”

I tell him.

“Hair, none?”

“By choice, partly.”

“Eyes, blue?”

“Correct.”

“How old are you?”

I tell him.

“Height?”

I tell him.

“Weight? Approximately?”

I tell him.

“What we do then is we transfer everything on here and you’re assigned that,” Rex says of the booking packet. “We won’t put you on the computer because it’s too much of a hassle to take it back off.”

“I don’t want to be on the computer.”

Rex asks Donnie if he should take me through the medical screening. Donnie says to just walk me through it. Rex does so quickly. He then explains how my property would be inventoried.

“You want to pretend you’re being extradited?” Rex asks.

“Why not.”

“We’ll get your picture and prints.”

We get up from the table.

“You got out of it, huh?” I say to Todd who’s still working on his lunch.

“As long as I don’t have to shove and print we’re fine,” Rex says, indicating he doesn’t mind doing all this for me. I’m not convinced.

“Not unless I don’t get my wallet back or something.”

Todd laughs.

“You need to relax your hands, OK,” Rex says. “We’re going first knuckle of every finger to nail side to nail side the best we can. All right?”

I try to relax them. It’s not easy, even though this isn’t for real.

He prints me.

“OK, there’s soap right there,” Rex says once he’s finished. “Wash up your hands.”

I do so, and then make my way over to the camera and then against the opposite wall.

“Stand with your toes on the line down there, and just hold this up underneath your chin,” Rex says of the mock booking packet. “Make sure we can get all of the information on the edge of it. OK, watch right along the edge, your fingers.”

“Can we do the strip search next?” Todd breaks in. “Strip search?”

“I don’t think we’re gonna go that far,” Rex says. Rex is not laughing like Todd is.

“No thanks,” I add.

“Cavity check?” Todd continues.

We all laugh this time. Even Rex.

“Don’t put those gloves on,” I tell Todd.

“I can put them on. It’s when I pull them up to my elbows that you need to worry.”

“Is that it?” I say to Rex after he snaps the picture.

“Yeah.”

Donnie asks Rex where they would have put him.

“Probably F Block,” Rex says. “Would have put him in F Block. People in there tend to be in for the more violent crimes. Murder, aggravated battery, rape,” he goes on to explain. “Sex stuff.”

“F Block?” I ask.

“Or they’re just a pain in my backside,” Todd moans. “I can tell you exactly which block he was in,” Todd then says and goes over to pull up his name on the computer.

I ask Donnie how many prisoners the jail houses at any given time. He confers with Todd and they agree on an average of about two hundred and fifty.

“Yeah,” Todd then says. “He was in F6. And he was in a single man cell.”

“We can’t actually go into his cell block,” Donnie explains as we’re getting ready to leave. “But we can go right up to the wall.”

“I need one of your wrists,” Rex tells me.

“You right or left handed?” Todd asks.

“Right.”

“Give him your left arm,” Todd says.

“It stays on while you’re here,” Rex says, fastening the red and white band around my wrist. I see that it contains a small copy of my mug shot on it.

“Unlike prison,” Rex adds, “you’re a name with a number here. In prison you’re just a number.”

Donnie thanks Rex and says it’s time for us to head back to F block. I ask Donnie to wait a second while I put my belt back on.

“We do you up right here,” Donnie says. He’s clearly pleased with my reaction so far. “Can even put you in a cell overnight if you want.”

“No thanks.”

Once through the doors and back into a new maze of orange and gray corridors, it isn’t more than another minute before we’ve made it to the main cellblock. Donnie stops to talk to a guard via camera and intercom in order to proceed. Another buzzer goes off and we are now inside a very clean and modern-looking series of different glassed in areas containing rows of cells. It’s like being at an indoor zoo. Several prisoners stroll past us carrying lunch trays and wearing orange jumpsuits. All appear to be in their twenties. Donnie directs my attention to the cell number Todd pulled off the computer. I look through a giant glass wall at the block. It consists of two floors worth of cells with blue doors and large white numbers on the front. Steel tables and bench seats are built into the floor. There are about fifteen men milling about in the communal area of the block. Everything is terribly clean. Everything appears brand new.

“The very end. Up there at the top. See it? The very end,” Donnie explains. “We’re facing it.”

“So he’s just basically spending an afternoon and a night there and leaving first thing in the morning?”

“Which is uncomfortable enough.”

We both pause and study the men inside for a minute. Unlike back in his office and inside the booking room, Donnie is now all business. There’s nothing funny about F Block. We eventually leave the same way we came in and return to the booking room.

Donnie and I then review his booking packet.

“No suicide risk?” I note. “How do you determine that?”

“Todd, now there’s a good question,” Donnie says. He tells me to ask it again.

“How do you guys determine if it’s a suicide risk or not?”

“You get basic determinants,” Todd explains. “When they come in we do a medical questionnaire, like Rex, did Rex ask you all those—

“We went over it.”

“Are you afraid you’re gonna hurt yourself? If I get a yes or even a hesitation that’s gonna make me think. And when you get responses like I don’t care or I don’t know.”

“I don’t know?”

“Yeah,” Todd says. “You just keep an eye on them.”

“Then they get put into a different category or something like that?” I ask.

“Suicide risks are kept up here. They’re my company.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Special cell,” Todd says.

“Special cell?”

“We have what we call suicide watch rooms, one’s with the main camera on big windows. Two padded cells we also use on them.”

“How would someone kill themselves in one of those cells?” I ask.

“Very easily,” Todd is quick to answer.

“I mean they don’t have shoes on anymore do they? No laces?”

“They don’t have shoes on if they’re a suicide risk.”

“Why don’t you give him an idea,” Donnie breaks in, half joking.

“I’m not gonna do it, but I can show you,” Todd says. It’s the most excited I’ve seen him about anything.

“Has it happened?” I ask.

“No,” Todd says. “It’s not happened to date, but I’ve gone to school, and I’ve figured out how it could be done.”

The three of us walk into an empty cell near the red line on the floor where I stood earlier to get my picture taken. Rex is no longer around. Todd begins to describe all manner of bizarre, seemingly impossible ways someone could kill himself in the barren space. There is using your shirt to strangle yourself with the help of the metal grate on the floor. You could cut off all airflow by sticking your neck in the corner of where the concrete bed meets the wall. He goes over a few others that don’t make any sense. Finally, he claims, you could always just bang your head against the toilet seat.

“These all seem like kind of stretch,” I say. It’s clear to both Todd and Donnie that I’m not impressed with the demonstration. Todd quickly becomes upset. It’s the first time I’ve seen him doing anything other than smile and crack jokes.

“If they want to find a way they’re gonna do it.” he insists. It’s obvious he’s given the subject a lot of thought. Probably too much for his own good.

“But you said yourself no one ever has,” I press him. Todd has apparently never been challenged on his area of expertise before.

“Yeah,” Donnie then growls. Donnie strikes me as even more annoyed by my lack of imagination than Todd. “And anyway,” he continues, signaling in his tone that our time together is about to end. “I thought we showed you that nothing bad happened to the guy here.”