Life In Purgatory

NO COMFY CHAIRS. No potted palms. No People magazine. The waiting room at the Hennepin County Jail is a stripped-down affair. To be perfectly accurate, it's not even a room, but a subterranean hallway between City Hall and the Hennepin County Government Center. Located roughly under the fountain on the Government Center plaza, the hallway is low-ceilinged, gloomy, and moist. The walls look like one-way mirrors. The only air is produced by the lawyers, cops, and assorted citizens who swish past, avoiding eye contact with the dispirited people waiting for their jail birds.

There are 509 beds in the jail, and most of them are filled with men awaiting trial. Several holding pens can accommodate 30 or 40 extras each, drunk or otherwise down on their luck, held overnight or for the weekend. In the course of a year, about 5 percent of the county's population spends a night in county jail. All of them eventually pass through the steel security door in the basement tunnel on their way out. For most it's a moment comprising equal parts humiliation and relief.

A pair of solid benches flank the door. On a recent Friday, I share one of them with an older woman with painted eyebrows and her young friend. They talk in low voices while, down the hall, a man in a jogging suit fingers the improbable plastic plants, rasps a deep, unhealthy cough, shakes his head, and spits into the garbage can. Behind the door it's lunch time. Stay 10 hours or more in a holding pen and the meal is on the house. A man I'll call Jason finishes his sandwich, bologna on white bread with mustard. In the hall, no one is waiting for him.

Outside, the widow's lament: "I called 911," murmurs the older woman, running a hand over one leg of her black stretch pants.

"Did they charge him?"

The older woman looks around, then bends her head closer to her friend's ear. Her friend nods.

"It's weird how my mom knew."

"Well, someone must have phoned her up."

"No. She told me, she just knew something had happened."

The man in the jogging suit coughs again, bending at the waist.

A plainclothes cop stands in the hall with a search warrant, grinding his gum and trading guff with his friends walking by. They all tell him the same joke. "Going to jail, Pete?"

The door buzzes. Three swaggering men spill out leering. "Get the fuck out of here, now." They re-adjust their egos and wander off. With them is the man the women are waiting for. He is big and bewildered. He slicks back his hair and replaces an enormous black cowboy hat, pulls on the hem of a matching black vest. No one speaks, and for a moment the three just stand there in a tight cluster. The two women recede a little, adjusting to his presence. A sort of balance achieved, they head up to the street, still silent.

Jason emerges then into the tunnel, along with a burly biker and a frightened-looking reed of a man. Jason looks to the left and to the right. He shoulders his knapsack, hunching a little, and readies a smoke for the outside world. He's alone and glad for the company when I strike up a conversation. "They told me it would be 6:30 in the morning," he complains, his voice hoarse. He's a rangy 30-year-old, a roofer. His eyes are puffy, and he squints into the sun. His face is slightly pockmarked, and he sports a goatee that's becoming camouflaged by a two-day stubble. "Little stupid shit like that," he grumbles. "You ask them a question in there and they just fuck with you." His story could be carbon-copied every day: an unpaid ticket, a walk in the early a.m. that attracted cops' suspicion, a computer check that turned up a warrant. Fingerprints. Paperwork. Waiting in a holding cell all night. It's his first arrest, and his first night in jail. He's missing his bracelet. He's missing his sunglasses and his dignity.

"It's pretty much like what you see on TV," he says. "There's one toilet. No toilet paper, though, because everybody uses it for pillows. There were a lot of Indians--they seemed sort of like they just wanted to sleep. About 20 percent white. Everybody pretty much seemed to get along. Except with the sheriffs. It's the little shit. Like on the way out, they search you again and I just happened to have a Playboy magazine in my bag. They made certain to take it out and hand it to me separately so that everyone could see--just trying to humiliate me." He wipes the condensation off the side of his glass of water. The chichi downtown lunch crowd shuffles in around us, and he contemplates his freedom. "I'm going to walk home," he says. "I'm going to walk to the job site and see if I still have a job. And then I'm going to go out and get drunk."

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