Thursday, October 6, 2011

Books & Things Thursday - WPA Jail Tour

This is the first in a series of posts about the WPA or, Writer's Police Academy.

It. Was. Awesome.

This was not a typical writer's convention and it was obvious that a lot of hard work went into making it come alive but it all paid off.

A big thanks to Lee Lofland - I'm not sure what his official title was but he was the point person, organizer, see-that-things-run-smoothly guy who kept appearing out of nowhere to set something right or take a picture and wham!, he was on to the next superhero feat.

The instructors were amazing, too. They were actual professionals in the all-emcompassing field of criminology.

And I'd like to give a shoutout to the drivers - especially Bunny who I miss!

Onto the first event (that started before the convention did):

My Mom and I won the lottery and got to go on a jail tour. A tour of a real jail. (You think Castle is cool with the writer-guy getting to be a part of amazing things generally reserved for the police or criminals? This Convention was fantastic.)

Not the real jail we went to

After some major trouble in West Virginia (I will post about that soon), Mom and I made it to North Carolina with like an hour to spare before the bus left for the jailhouse. We checked into the Embassy Suites Hotel, signed in with the WPA and met the bus heading for the Guilford County Jail in High Point, N.C.

(Other lucky winners got to go on ride-alongs. You know, where you ride along in a police car with an officer - Mom and I were so glad we got the jail tour because after two days in a car, the last thing we wanted to do was sit in another car all night!)

We were a rather large group and took up every seat in the jailhouse entry area. The officer started with, "Bear with me, I was unprepared for your arrival as this was dumped on me an hour ago."

Right there I remembered that cops are people with jobs just like the rest of us. Who else hasn't had the huge project dumped on them with no prep time?

Luckily for us, he's given many tours and slipped into the role perfectly. He answered our questions and soon took us through the metal detectors, up some stairs, through hallways and up (or was it down?) an elevator, stopping at every checkpoint and explaining the process from arrest to jail cell.

One of the things that blew my mind (and others as we kept asking the same questions because we couldn't wrap our heads around it) was the fact that one woman guard commanded a block.

(The female officers can watch the male blocks but the male officers cannot watch the female blocks for obvious reasons.)

Another cool feature of this tour was the fact this was the new dormitory style prisons that'll be built around the country. They're finally doing away with the prison bars and prison blocks and mess hall meals and so on and so on.

1.) I can't wait to spot this new design for the first time on a TV show.

2.) How will prisoners in fiction shank one another in those big gatherings in the cell blocks?

Back to the tour...

We stood in a circular room with many doors lining the walls on two levels. Two sets of stairs led up to the second level. Showers broke up cells every so often. The showers were a tight, claustrophobic fit with sheer walls on three sides and a shower head. The door was enough to cover the torso but you could see feet and heads.

The doors to the cells - I should refer to them as rooms - were solid doors with a long, narrow window. No bars - in fact, the only bars I remember seeing in the whole prison were the guardrails on the second level.

The area we stood in held plastic, really uncomfortable-looking chairs and a TV or two. By the main door was the guard station where a female officer sat alone. (We got to see the shift change and the new female officer take over and check every cell through the long, narrow window and do her duty. She was focused and practiced.)

We were surrounded by inmates. I saw lots of orange and hair and faces staring at us through those long, narrow windows. I didn't feel sorry for them - my instinct was to do so because no one likes to be trapped - but they're there for a reason. (Though, this was jail, not prison. These men haven't had their day in court yet.)

The officer-tour-guide described the different size cells and told us to take a look. We sort of stood there looking at one another. Who wants to peer into a jail cell with men inside? A few adventurous participants wandered toward some windows and I followed them.

At first, my mother staunchly refused to invade someone's privacy but I hissed at her that:

1.) the criminals (or suspects) are used to it as the guards do it all the time

2.) they were staring at us

3.) and most importantly - "When are you ever going to get the opportunity to peek into a real jail cell?"

Since Mom has no intention on embarking on a criminal career, she peeked in. I had my ear out for the whispers of the group and only looked into the cells that contained sleeping men.

No fuss, no muss.

That was the jail cells. One contained a bunk bed. They all held a toilet and sink, of course. Earlier in the tour, the officer said the inmates get one roll of toilet paper a week.

Our group consisted mainly of women and we all stared at one another. Some of us burst out laughing.

(As it turns out, the women get one roll of toilet paper at a time. The next day I did the jail searches class and Sgt. Netter explained the 'give-an-empty-roll, get-a-new-roll' deal they've got going on for the women.)

These are things you don't think about. (Not me anyway.)

The tour was supposed to last two hours but we went over time and the officer didn't mind a bit.

Let me OUTTA here!

I admit to feeling a little trapped myself. In my head, this was over at 7PM and the big clock said it was past 7 and we were still there, standing and listening and asking questions and being peered at from behind long, narrow panes of glass. I was on a tour and couldn't leave. For me, it was a psychological entrapment (if I'd had a fit or something, they would have escorted me out) but for these men, the ones before them and the ones who'll (unfortunately) come after - it's physical.

For a few lucid seconds I could feel the prison.

Not to speak for all of humanity but being trapped truly is a universally hated experience. (Hence, prison.)

I soaked up so much/many info., tidbits, visuals, smells, sounds, was overwhelming.

What a start to this unique and amazing convention!!!!!!!

EDIT: Check out my Mom's Blog Post about it.


Ellie said...

It was awesome. You see it on tv, but there's nothing like a real life experience.

Live Out Loud said...


But this jail we haven't seen on TV YET. I can't wait to spot it for the first time!!

It was so cool, the best part probably being the fact we could walk out again.

Life Ramblings said...

The jail tour sounds so interesting and must have been well worth the time.

Live Out Loud said...

Totally worth the time. It was fascinating, informative and gave insight into what police officers/prison guards go through on a daily basis. (They are NOT paid enough.)