The Fourth Floor

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I am watching prisoners file out the door to the vans that wait to return them to Chino. Orange jump suits with numbers and CDC blazing on their backs. They shuffle along in single file, hindered by chains around their ankles and wrists. All ages; all crimes.

Officers follow behind, thick with Mylar vests that shorten their waists. All wear sunglasses and keys dangle heavy off their belts and jingle the tune of freedom.

Our prison ward is on the fourth floor. Up an elevator and through a corridor monitored by cameras at every corner. The corridor is like a tube with locked doors on either end. If prisoners are walking, no one is allowed inside this area until cleared. Each door must be opened by an officer inside that manages the cameras. I have a female prisoner to interview and this is my journey.

After a scan of my ID, he pushes the magic button that opens the door into the jail ward. To the left, men are housed and to the right, women. I find an officer and give him the name of the woman I need to see and he unlocks the door. I step inside.

The female prisoner is pregnant. Her left hand is cuffed to the bed and she lays with legs open and her gown loose over her breasts. There is no modesty here. Tattoos cover her chest, fingers, arms, ankles, and the nape of her neck. They tell a story of family, gang, opinions, and lifestyle. Names of her boyfriends are inked across her chest and have a line tattooed through them as they have dropped out of her life. I count five.

She looks hardened by life, yet I notice she is only thirty-two. I ask when she will deliver and she seems exasperated to answer the question as if it has been asked a hundred times today already. She answers, “I dunno, maybe today.” I ask how many live births she has already delivered. She answers, “Nine.”

I go through the standard form of basic information until I come to the final question of who will pick up this newborn. She rubs her face with her free hand and runs her hair over to one side as she thinks. I wonder if she is going through the list of men on her chest, or wondering who can manage yet another of her children. She looks at me in a rather challenging way and answers, “I dunno know … Maybe my mom.” I write “unknown” on the form.

I finish the form and look up at the officer checking out her open gown. It makes me uncomfortable and I worry about what goes on behind the locked doors when no one like me is around.

I tell her good luck, thank the officer, and head for the corridor. I give a look to the one-way booth and say, “Open it.” I hear the click and walk through to freedom. For one quick moment, I am a prisoner in the corridor and a captive of the cloaked man in the booth. I think I hold my breath sometimes until the door on the other side clicks open to release me. I hate the corridor.

I worked the prison ward for a year. I averaged the number of children born to female prisoners by the time they were thirty-five. This is not scientific in the least, but my number puts it close to nine. It is astonishing considering some of these women have life terms, yet still give birth regularly. Opens many arguments and speculations, doesn’t it?

It is a costly privilege in terms of money and the future of the newborns who are rarely adopted out. The price includes the move to the Ward and as many as three officers present to guard a nine-month pregnant woman that is handcuffed to the bed. The officers read books, play games, or make calls on their cell phones.

This is only one story. There are too many others and now I only watch them come and go through the private exit to the vans. Shuffling and vacant and listening to the jingle of freedom .


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