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In the Mariposa County Jail, each ward is color-coded. Women are segregated by the determination of their propensity for violence. I suppose jails run that way, but this is the only jail I have ever been to, so I can’t speak for others. I am wearing a hunter green outfit; one size fits all. I am in the Mental Health Ward. Perhaps green is a soothing color.
There are 16 cells, 32 women, and one TV. A Plexiglas wall separates us from maximum security — those ladies wear yellow. They don't use their common area. I suppose the architect thought they would be able to get along. The “normal” inmates in a separated ward wear blue. We never get to see them.
I’ve gotten to know a few of the ladies I am in the dayroom with, the ones that are awaiting their trial like me. Linda is a homeless woman who gets caught stealing when the weather is rainy, like it is now. Bernice has an actual dent in her head from where her husband smashed her with his beer bottle. She laughs when she says the bottle didn’t break. June has track marks on her arms so bad she can’t straighten them. She likes to watch The Maury Show during our hour. She’s always the first at the TV. I don’t talk to everyone. No one ever asks what brought them to jail. No one wants to tell their stories. We are the unwitting freaks of a freak show. As fascinated by each other as we are repulsed. There is no room for shame here. We are a captive circus.
Regularly, because this is the where the looney chicks are held, there are voices speaking to voices. Public questions with secret answers. There is a woman next door, constantly reliving her rape, and that of her daughter. She screams out constantly and there is no one there to save her. During the hour we are wandering about in the dayroom, she pulls out her hair and grinds her teeth so you can hear the enamel cracking from several feet away. Her wild hair and feral eyes keep anyone from make any attempts to soothe her ravaged spirit. She is alone, surrounded by us.
A rattle of keys and gazes shift. They bring in a Brazilian woman. I am assuming she is Brazilian. She has intoxicating creamy brown skin and spits curses from a Portuguese tongue. Her black hair is matted and ragged, hiding her face almost entirely. Her breath heaves in and out as she is prodded forward. An indomitable spirit in handcuffs. A cell door slams and her nonsensical rage brings the ward cacophony to a jungle level. A different type of animal added to the circus. The smell makes us restless.
There are only a few of us released at a time for our hour of dayroom use. During my hour I walk the perimeter of the room. The 50ft square takes me past eight of the 6in windows on the lower level. I try to avert my eyes to show respect for what little privacy we are afforded, but honestly, curiosity always gets the better of me. I get one glimpse each as I pass by each slitted window. The Brazilian’s light is on. Her area is a fecal disaster. On the walls, the window, the sink, the bed. Toilet paper stuck to it, she is underneath her 2in plastic mattress, chanting and swaying. In a separate pass by her window, I see her stained green uniform on the floor, and feral eyes glowing from under her dark shelter.
An officer checks on her, taps on the window with her flashlight. Obscenities are exchanged in two different dialects. Keys jangle from the chain attached to the officer and the Brazilian’s door swings open. Wild and unexpected, a naked crazy woman erupts from the despoiled cell and runs from the officer with no place to go. Banshee screams fill the dayroom space, and the nine clad inmates watch as the woman eludes the growing number of officers. I notice her pubic hair is as wild as the mop on her head and the absurdity of the scene tickles me. Then, the nightsticks and pepper spray make an appearance. In this small space, there is no place safe. I back as far away as I can. They haven’t used it on her yet. No doubt they’re not interested in getting a whiff of the stuff either. They’re just hoping that the threat would be enough to subdue the inmate. There is a pause in the commotion as the woman and the officers’ standoff, waiting for the next move. Suddenly, the small naked woman is dogpiled underneath a mountain of heavyweight, blue female officers attempting to gain control of the scene. Face down on the hard grey cement floor, legs splayed and kicking, the crazy woman’s pubes are a pile as big as my head. With her struggle, the pile becomes alive and it seems as if a tarantula is attempting to break free. An unexpected addition to the circus. The laughter bursts from inside of me. The other inmates turn their attention to me, then see what it is I’m looking at, to share in the joke.
As the officers struggle to get the woman to her feet, the laughter comes to crescendo, like screaming monkeys. Our lives, these women, are our own joke. Our own sad entertainment. I hear applause of appreciation and feel the need to take a bow. I sweep my hands over to the Brazilian, now being escorted to solitary confinement, and the applause are shifted to her. Thank you, Ms. Tarantula. We needed that.