Places: Cell No. 21, Oklahoma County jail
Published: October 27, 2009
Modified: January 14, 2010 at 4:37 pm
The stink hits me first thing. Human feces. Stale urine. Whoever occupied this jail cell before me left a fetid stew simmering in the stainless steel toilet, and if there’s any way to flush it away, I sure as heck can’t find it.
Talk about cruel and unusual punishment.
I drift over to the window — not a window, really, but a light source, a promise of something beyond these gray cinderblock walls. It’s a series of frosted glass cubes, about 45 of them in three rows raised more than five feet off the floor. When the jail opened in 1991, inmates discovered they could push the glass blocks out and worm their way through the hole, says Maj. Jack Herron, Oklahoma County jail administrator. One captive would’ve escaped if he hadn’t miscalculated how many bed sheets he’d need to descend six stories.
Now the blocks are covered by a lattice of metal wire woven together like a basket. If I push my nose against the lattice, I can see the world outside, distorted into something hazy and indistinct, like a mirage floating out in the distance.
In here are two bunks and a desk made of gray-painted steel. Air hisses into the room through a grate above the sink and toilet, which are fused together like conjoined twins. A plate of polished metal passes for a mirror; phone numbers are written on it in soap. To its right, an industrious inmate has scrawled a towering, shadowed cross onto the cinderblocks. It rises the height of 10 blocks and the width of 3 1/2. “LORD” is spelled out across the vertical axis, “GOD” across the horizontal. Given the stench in here, I can’t help but wonder if the author left out an O. “Good Lord” seems an appropriate response.
That’s gallows humor. There’s nothing funny about jail. I can leave whenever I want — I’m not a real inmate — but I can feel the years of guilt and despair that have pooled in this room like an underground lake, black and glacially cold. I lie back and stare at the empty bunk above me, imagining someone there. Could I sleep, even for a moment, knowing a real criminal was up there, or would I simply lie here afraid, measuring his breath and wondering if he planned to do me any harm? It’s not rape I’m worried about — that’s rare here — it’s violence. Nature red in tooth and claw. Men weren’t meant to be caged. What do they become when they’re deprived of freedom? What might they do?
I don’t want to learn those answers. I just want to go.
-Ken Raymond, Staff Writer