12 Days in Lockup

By Bill Crain

In 1997, when I lived in New Jersey, I read about the state’s proposal to hold black bear hunts. I was becoming very concerned about the well-being of nonhuman animals, and I testified against the proposal at public hearings. After the hunts began, in 2003, I participated in protests every year and was arrested several times for civil disobedience. Typically, I stepped outside an area designated for protesters. 

For a while my arrests resulted only in fines. Then, last year, I spent eight days in the Sussex County jail. This year I was sentenced to 15 days, beginning Jan. 2. I will describe my recent jail stay. Although it was shorter than that of most inmates, I hope my experience adds to people’s knowledge of what jail is like. 

I spent my first two days in medical lock-in. I was isolated in a locked cell until I received a medical exam and a more permanent placement. The cell door had a window, but it was so small that I could catch only occasional glimpses of other people. I was let out a few times — to see the doctor and nurses, make two phone calls (to my wife, Ellen), and take a shower. 

While returning to my cell on the first day, I saw a novel (“The Girl on the Train”) on top of a TV, and the corrections officer allowed me to take it into my cell. I had trouble reading because of the noise from the TV and because my cell was very cold, but the book helped me pass a few hours. I also tried to pass the time by sleeping, but the bed’s uncomfortable plastic mattress made this difficult. For many hours, I had nothing to do. The monotony was tough. 

After medical lock-in, I was assigned to the same cell but I now could leave it for extended periods. I could go into the small, common dayroom shared by two other inmates, O and R. 

Our unit was called the “overflow area.” It’s used when other units are full. It’s also used to separate some inmates from the general population. The jail staff wanted to make sure that I, a 74-year-old college professor, was safe. Staff members had placed O and R in our unit because they considered them to be too volatile and aggressive to mix with the numerous inmates of other units.

It seems odd to place two short-tempered inmates and me together, but one corrections officer told me that when there are just a few inmates in an area, they usually form friendships and relax.

O was discharged three days after I left medical lock-in. He was eager to tell me about his jail and prison experiences. I felt I was just beginning to know him. 

R was initially cool to me, even refusing to say hello. But after listening to O share personal experiences, R joined in. After that, R and I had many personal conversations.

R was recovering from a suicide attempt that followed his recent sentence. He believed the sentence was very unfair, and he fought with the corrections officers who tried to take him from the courthouse to the jail. An armored police squadron came in and subdued him. As R sat in his cell, he felt powerless; the entire criminal justice system seemed too much to cope with.

In addition, R’s marriage had recently broken up. Feeling helpless and without anything to live for, he tied bedsheets together and tried to hang himself. He passed out four times before a corrections officer found him. Blood was coming from his nose and mouth.

After his suicide attempt, R was taken to the psychiatric ward, given medications, and sent to the overflow area. To my surprise, he was upbeat and chatty with the officers he knew, but he hated one. He said the officer had insulted him just prior to his suicide attempt. 

One day this officer was assigned to monitor our area. Whenever he appeared, R hurled loud insults at him, to which the officer tried not to respond. 

The next morning a sergeant privately asked me if I felt safe with R, and if I wanted to be moved. I said I wanted to stay where I was. Later that morning, R told me the sergeant had asked him the same questions, and he also said he wanted to remain where he was. R speculated that the sergeant was worried about R’s feelings toward me because when inmates get angry at officers, they often redirect their anger toward inmates. R told me that this wouldn’t happen with me; he liked me.

The dayroom wasn’t as cold as my cell, but it was cold. We often wore blankets over our shoulders.

The officers and medical staff were friendly and tried to be helpful. The kitchen couldn’t accommodate my vegan diet and gave me some non-vegan items (like cheese), which I handed to O and R. They gave me some of their vegetables. 

During our conversations, O and R used so many prison expressions that they sometimes seemed to be speaking a foreign language. I frequently had to ask them to stop and translate. Here is an example of jail talk:

“He is in jail a long time because of his jacket [prior criminal record]. He’s upstairs with the jitterbugs [rowdy young adult inmates]. I didn’t like it there. A lot of them want to kick up [fight].”

O and R spent considerable time watching TV, especially shows about survival in Alaska and auctions. But they wished they had more to do. They envied inmates who had jail jobs like helping to deliver the meals. (I requested a job, but my sentence was too short.)

Inmates can receive books from the outside only if they are sent directly from the publisher. After medical lock-in, I had to wait two more days before I received three books my wife ordered. They were by Thoreau. After another two days, the jail’s book cart came around, and it had an old sociology book that I read from time to time.

An officer gave me a pen — a small, rubber pen that couldn’t be used for stabbing. I had no writing paper, but O and R gave me some of theirs. I mainly took notes on the Thoreau books, writing for 15 or 20-minute periods, until the TV noise and the cold got the better of me.

During my second week, I attended the hourlong recreation periods. Each day about 15 inmates exercised on the gym equipment, interspersed with walking. I only walked. Most of the men seemed to be in their 20s and 30s. They were full of high spirits, joking about gay behavior and talking about pro football. 

I had heard so many stories about jail abuse that I initially focused on my exercise and hoped I wouldn’t appear vulnerable. A couple of inmates recognized me from newspaper articles about a vigil the Bear Education and Resource Group held for me while I was in jail and an award I received from PETA. The inmates seemed happy about the articles. But when I said goodbye on the second recreation day, they seemed resentful. They barely mumbled goodbye.

That night, I thought about their reaction. It occurred to me that I had been acting like a young man who was focused on his image, whereas these inmates saw me as an elder and wanted some affirmation from me. I couldn’t think of a great way of doing this, but the next day I complimented one man on his numerous push-ups and another on his pull-ups. To my surprise, the entire mood in the recreation room changed. Everyone became friendly. When I said goodbye, they happily responded with expressions like “Peace, Bro.” 

I was given three days off for good behavior, shortening my stay from 15 to 12 days. One might guess that I felt happy as my stay came to a close, but I did not. Instead, I felt increasingly closed in and was troubled by irrational thoughts that I wouldn’t get out. 

Following my discharge I had upsetting dreams that I was still in jail. In one dream, I was forced to enter a small crawl space from which I might not return. After 10 days these dreams went away. 

Jail was difficult for me, but I believe it was worth it. I needed to make a statement about the terrible plight of the black bears. Since 2003, the state-promoted hunts have killed more than 4,000 bears, including cubs. New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, will place a moratorium on the hunts. It’s about time. 

Bill Crain is a professor of psychology at the City College of New York. He lives part time in Montauk.