Two weeks ago, I turned on my household TV. A show called “Lock Up” was on. It featured explosive inmates and garish gangsters wreaking havoc in a San Antonio jail. Punches were thrown, tables were tossed, inmates and officers alike were harmed. I knew the media exaggerated these stories for entertainment purposes, but I didn’t know to what extent.
When we walked into the Arlington County Jail today, I knew we wouldn’t see anyone with their fists up, any tables toppled over, or any scratches on the inmates and officers. I didn’t expect, however, that the facilitates were squeaky clean, the schedules full of rehabilitative therapy, and the inmates respectful of their officers.
The officer who showed us around said most of the shows took place in booking rooms. In the booking rooms on TV, unruly drunks frequently lashed out at everyone in sight. In the booking room we visited, there was a lot less action and a lot more waiting. Two men in chairs fell asleep waiting for officers to summon them. A few more men, held in a windowed cell, paced around the room or twiddled their thumbs as they waited. A woman, sitting a few chairs over, watched us with wary eyes as she, too, waited.
Out of all the people who were waiting, the sight of one man touched me the most. He belonged to the group in the holding cell. He was tall and broad-bodied, but seemed gentler then the rest. His eyes were cast down, even when we approached the cell. I focused on his face and found he had grey hairs in his beard. In fact, all of his hair was grey. I thought, imagine growing old but still unable to stay out of jail. It was not with a scornful tone, or even a petty one, that I thought this. My inner voice was pitched in empathy.
At that moment, the man looked up and into my eyes. Under normal circumstances, I would quickly divert my gaze. But the man radiated an unthreatening energy. And logically speaking, he was safely behind bars and would likely forget my face as soon as we left. So I kept looking at him as he looked at me.
His eyes captured something television never could. Without words, I understood his boredom. I could feel his numbness. I could sense his emotional spontaneity and fallacy in logic; yet the placidness in which he submitted to his surroundings. I could recognize how, as I was reading him, he was trying to read me. It is one thing to observe inmates from a faraway screen amidst potentially staged scenarios. It is entirely different to stand five feet from the accused, raw with emotion, facing real sentences.
I was previously skeptical of the media’s portrayal of jail. I barely believed inmates were constantly hot and bothered; always up to something. Upon our visit to the Arlington County Jail, any remaining misconceptions I had were easily shattered.