Jailed by Myra Sherman
Desperanto Press (December 2011)
I bet you’ve never read anything like Jailed before. This collection of 14 linked short stories takes you inside a California county jail—a “detention facility”—and doesn’t let you go. You see it from the perspective of the mental health workers who evaluate inmates on arrival to determine which ones are suicide risks. You see it from the perspective of unhappy guards and administrators. And you see it from the perspective of the inmates themselves.
Jails aren’t supposed to be nice places, and this one certainly isn’t: It’s a three-story cement block. “[T]he lobby air smells stale. The furniture is navy fiberglass, the floor colorless vinyl.” And that’s before we see the cells and the “rubber room” where suicidal inmates are chained to a chair to prevent them from harming themselves and others, where the smell of urine and vomit seems to be everywhere.
We expect the inmates to be less than thrilled with incarceration, but the book seems mostly about how the employees are also trapped in their jobs. Several of the mental health workers are here because there is no place else; in a down economy, the money to fund psychologists and social workers just doesn’t. So they work in the jail—making snap judgments on mental stability and suicide, sometimes with tragic consequences. They struggle in their personal lives with spouses who don’t understand what they’re going through. And they all hate their jobs.
Who can blame them? Here’s the opening of “Jail Work”: “On my first day of work at the jail, I was almost to the door when an inmate on the mental health module slashed his throat.” This is Zelna speaking, a counselor who, although she’s on the verge of quitting because the work is so stressful, becomes the Director of Mental Health for the jail over her husband’s objections. One more boulder in a very rocky marriage.
While this glimpse inside the jail is fascinating, there’s a certain amount of sameness to the stories. They’re grim and gruesome. Few of the characters—Zelna is an exception—are admirable. They seem to exist in the dark, inside the cement walls of the jail, with little or no light. They’re abusers or in abusive relationships. Parents are absent or, at best, distant and clueless. There’s no love to speak of. The jail is a miserable place.
Maybe that’s the point, or at least part of it. But while I recommend the book, I also advise against reading it one sitting. Take it a story at a time. Don’t let the book hold you prisoner. Escape into the sun from time to time.