I saw my first jail in the early fifties with Cub Scout Troop 3588. Mr. McDowell—who later turned out to have a daughter too fine to shit—took us. I don’t remember much except the gloom and the astonishing thickness of the bars. It was just the lockup at our local police station at 93rd and Cottage Grove, but for eight- and nine-year-olds, it was San Quentin.
I next saw the inside of a jail nearly twenty years later with Pudgy Thompson in Chicago on a tour of the Cook County Jail. It was huge, grimy, dark, and loud. Pudgy knew Winston Moore, the notorious warden who took us around, and we got a good look at whatever he wanted us to see. The bars didn’t seem as thick as they had when I was nine, though plenty thick enough to contain any human. It once again occurred to me that whatever else I might do in life, one of the main things I wanted to do was stay the hell out of jail, and I consider that one of my major accomplishments to date.
I recently got a look at the Butte County Jail on a tour with the Butte County Behavioral Health Advisory Board. I was surprised. First, there ain’t any gloom in the Butte County Jail, other than the occasional attitude, I suppose. All of the walls and ceilings are light-colored and everything is brightly, fluorescently lit, and spotless.
The decor and spaces are Institutional Bland, which is understandable and unimaginative. I wonder what, say, Frank Gehry might do for a jail. Meanwhile, I’ve got to say that the Butte County Jail seems to be doing a reasonable job, given what the job is. Of course, everybody had known for a month which hour that Wednesday we would be there, so there wasn’t gonna be any blood on the walls.
Lately I had been thinking that locking people up is mostly a racket fed by biased prosecutors and judges and seen to mostly by bullies, goons, sadists, and now corporations. Now I’m not so sure. I thought there was a better way to deal with human transgression, and I daresay there might be, but I don’t know what that is.
We didn’t know what anybody had done to be there, although we did learn the code that determines what color clothing an inmate wears, fashionably orange more often than not. We saw a lot of inmates in various stages of their stays, intake and assessment and solitary and the protected populations alone and together.
I’m hardly ever afraid of anything or anybody, but when I saw one inmate in a little cell with his face at the glass and got close enough to look in his eyes, I was immensely grateful that he was on the other side of a serious steel door. He might be a genius or a budding saint, fine, just don’t let him out just yet. I’m real sorry he’s in that little room. That couldn’t be helping him much, except maybe keeping him from being hurt or killed by somebody who saw him coming and was in a position to do something definitive about it, but meanwhile please keep him behind that door, thank you. Don’t hurt him and don’t let him out.
We can’t know what it’s like for inmates with various mental illnesses. We heard mostly how things are set up and how the process works. It all made sense, of course, the way they explained it. We had several professional whatnots, a few lieutenants, a captain, and the sheriff his own self, and they all know how to explain. We even got a few words from the guy who owns California Forensic Medical Group, the company we—and twenty-six other counties—pay to handle mental health issues at the county jail. This guy’s got at least twenty-seven contracts and gets to Oroville about once a quarter.
I’m sure the Butte County Jail could be better and worse for people who’d do better as mental patients than inmates, and I think that’s more people than we know. I hope the Board can help institutional evolution along and get people with a mental illness what makes sense for them, courtesy of Butte County. Did you know that Medi-Cal stops when you go to jail? That’s absurd.