Solano County Jail is a “maximum security facility” but it, like all other man-made structures, breaks down occasionally. On Monday, the 7th of September 2009, the tower guard announced that it was just “brought to his attention” that the water would be shut off for about an hour between 10:00 and 11:00 am. In his words, “I got no warning, so you get no warning.” It was 11:45 am.
At 1:30 p.m., a little less than two hours later, the toilet in cell 2H-11 began to run violently. There was no threat of flooding at that moment because the water was rushing down the commode as if it had just been flushed. The noise was unbearable but there was no damage or flooding. The toilets have a tremendous amount of negative pressure (I suspect to tolerate the unbelieveable things my colleagues put in them) and are extremely loud when they flush. The rushing water was not only continuous, it was disturbing. I know this for a fact because it was my toilet. I am the inhabitant of 2H-11.
I alerted the tower guard who, sarcastically pointed out that it “was a good thing it was draining and not backing up”. I agreed with him. He also pointed out that that “was happening to more than a few toilets; that they were looking into it; and that there was no reason to ring the tower… ever again”.
At 2:30 p.m., now three hours later, Officer Powell came by the cell “to check on us”. His shift was coming to an end, and for “check-out”, which was him passing information on to the shift that followed, he wanted to make sure the toilet was not overflowing. This of course, as I said, is three hours later.
Powell had “enlisted” one of the mod workers to enter a storeroom next to my cell to turn the water off locally. (I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t done that three hours ago.) With that maneuver, the toilet stopped running. He decided to see if it had “corrected itself” by turning it back on. It began its “white water descent immediately; Powell retreated to the safety of his desk-and left the water running.
At 3:00 p.m. Officer Smith, the second shift CO, did a “drive-by” but made no attempt to address the problem. (Frankly, that was expected. Smith wasn’t going out of his way to do anything. If it did not materially affect him, he simply didn’t care.)
At 3:30 p.m., another officer, who I did not know, came to the cell and shut the water off, again, at its source in a room next to the cell. We went from no water to water torture, to no water to water torture to no water four hours later. Officer Thompson, the normal second shift corrections officer, wasn’t far behind. He had to survey the problem also. In that regard the corrections officers were a lot like construction workers; it took one not to do the job, and three or four others to confirm that the first, in fact, had not done the job. At some point the water just stopped running and returned to normal. Apparently, whatever had taken place somewhere else in the facility was done? No one could relay what or how and sense it had stopped, no one cared to know.
The following morning at “unlock” I did get to do something I had wanted to do for awhile: talk with Ms. Jones, the classification officer. She was the person who, eight months earlier, had processed me into Solano County Jail.
She was standing at the floor officer’s desk in civilian clothes speaking with Officer Weary, the floor officer, and two other officers. One, a black woman dressed in uniform, had placed herself strategically between Officer Weary and the door, with her back to the day room so that they all could ignore any inmate attempting to get Weary’s attention. Over the past few months I’ve come to recognize it as a game all the guards play. The object is to see how long an inmate will stand there allowing himself to be ignored. The guards constantly display this “diligent readiness” with an air of superiority over inmates, and yet will go to incredible lengths – like pretending to be on the phone or busy at the computer-to ignore you.
I knocked on the door and pointed to Ms. Jones. She acknowledged me, although the guards did not. “Oh, I have no problem with talking with him” was all I heard her say. I assumed “him” was me and after she had put away her things she approached the door. I also assumed it was the female guard with her back to me who had made the inquiry. I stored away the notion that this made her an asshole, and I would be cognizant of that should I ever have to deal with her in the future. If an emergency occurred and one of them desperately needed help, I was the most qualified to render it, and yet, despite knowing that, they continued to drive this wedge between them and any compassion I might have for their predicament.
When the door opened I said “hello” to Ms. Jones and let her know I had a couple of questions I would like to ask her. I let her know that I had spoken with Officer Peretta, the other classification officer, and he suggested I speak with her since she had processed me in.
To my amazement she asked me to step through the door out into the hallway and suggested I follow her into the yard (think room without a roof or ceiling) so that we could have some privacy.
This confirmed a couple of things about Ms. Jones – the most important of which was that she was a human being and recognized that what I wanted, what I needed, was what everyone needs: simply to be heard. “I was wondering,” I asked, “if you could tell me why I got housed in H mod. It’s pretty weird in there.”
She appeared to get defensive, at least her expression suggested that, and so I added, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not having any particular problem. I was just asking for clarification.”
“Well,” she said, “it’s really because of your celebrity. Put in the general population, it would have created too many issues and problems for you and us.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said, “but I wanted to hear it from you.”
“You can understand our point,” she continued. “We have to think of everyone’s safety.”
“Yeah, I certainly understand… Also, I’ve put in to work-off some time but never got a response except to say my application was on file.”
“There are a number of programs” she added “and I was wondering why you hadn’t taken the opportunity to get involved in them….”
“But we also have to allot them in the order they’re processed and needed.” She stared at me for a moment to let that sink in. “I do want to ask you, though,” she continued, “Have you’ve been eating enough? You lost a lot of weight since you’ve been here, and I just want to make sure you’re eating enough. You do have money and are taking advantage of the commissary, aren’t you?”
“I am, but I thought it was a good idea to lose a few pounds.”
“I don’t think so,” she offered. “I don’t like skinny. You’re a doctor and you know as we age we lose muscle mass. Are you getting to work out?”
I wanted to tell her the truth, to say yeah, but only when the mood strikes the guards, but I kept my mouth shut. Who needs the headache? “Oh yeah, I’m getting over here during the week to work out.”
There was a natural pause in our conversation and we both headed toward the door back into the hall. There our conversation continued. “You know,” she began, “we also have some other programs here you can take advantage of, like our drug and alcohol program.”
“I am aware of that,” I said. “I present a problem for those people, though, because I heard all the words but more importantly I went to Hazelden in Oregon for evaluation and I was discharged after three days. It appears I don’t have an alcohol problem, but I am a knucklehead for drinking and driving.”
Officer Weary sitting at his desk laughed when he overheard that. I guess, under other circumstances Weary was not such a bad guy. He was still a guard, but he didn’t go out of his way just to be mean like some of the rest of them. “My friends thought I was crazy to go there,” I continued. “What if they kept me? I just thought it was a chance I should take. If they cleared me, I was free and if they didn’t I could address the issue right there. I saw it as a win-win. They released me saying I did not meet the criteria for alcohol dependency and alcoholism.”
“Yeah, but what do you think?” she asked.
I took the opportunity to look her directly in the eyes. “I think there isn’t and never was an alcohol problem – that’s why I went there. But I know how people think – my denial was just going to be that, denial – and so I wanted the experts to say it. They did. The funny thing is that everybody then chose to ignore their own experts, so go figure. There is no satisfying most people. They believe what they want regardless of the facts.”
“So what have you been doing since you’ve been here?” she asked.
“Oh, I’ve been doing a lot. Let’s see…. I’ve read the Cleveland Clinics entire Review of Internal Medicine; I’ve read Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery. I’ve reviewed Osler’s Plastic Surgery. I’ve studied French and I’ve written three books.”
“Wow,” she said. “You have been busy… What’re your books about?”
“Well, the first is a self-help book, it’s about…”
“What’s the title?”
“The working title is ‘The Other Side of the Fire’…it’s about owning your life, taking responsibility and creating a plan for success, as you define success.”
“Un-huh,” she acknowledged.
“The second is entitled ‘Solano County, A View from the Inside.’ It’s more of a political comment on America; education; health reform; law and order – that sort of thing.”
She wasn’t really hearing me, but Officer Weary had perked up. He was intrigued by the title and wanted some indication of what I was going to say about Solano County Jail.
“You’re not saying anything bad about me?” Officer Weary asked jokingly (but with a tinge of sincerity).