Taylor Pettaway: On the inside of the Carson City Jail
It has been more than a year since I started with The Nevada Appeal, and what a crazy time it has been. It has been filled with adventures, so to kick off my year anniversary, I decided to go to a place where no one wants to go.
I became a resident of the Carson City Jail.
A small percent of the population will ever experience what goes on inside a jail cell so I decided to spend some time in the detention center to find out what it’s like to be behind bars.
So, I was decked out in a pair of gray and black stripes, with giant orange plastic sandals on my feet, carrying my plastic bin containing my see-through plastic mattress and toiletries. (Plastic is a common theme, so be prepared).
I walked down the gray cinder block-lined hallway, my feet gripping those too big plastic sandals with Sgt. Brian Mays and Capt. Clay Wall flanked on each side of me. They explained to me what I should do so I could try to not stick out like a sore thumb. I was given a bunk assignment and a backstory. My story was I was arrested on a $500 failure to appear warrant and we decided to only have me stay in for 30-45 minutes so in case it became unsafe, I wouldn’t be stuck in there. We also decided my mother had already set up bail, so it was less suspicious that I was in jail for less than an hour.
As we passed through the two locked doors to get to the female general population cell, I couldn’t help but laugh. From fear? Nervousness? The laughable fact I had actually volunteered to do this? Probably all three.
I was pretty terrified — it was jail for goodness sake and I’m not the kind of woman who would do well in a cell.
I won’t lie, I’m a pansy; I wear a lot of dresses, I’ve never thrown a punch and to be honest I’m a girly person. I wasn’t sure how I would do in a locked room full of women who were probably a lot tougher than me.
I had no idea what to expect, the most I knew about jail was from watching “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix, so it was safe to say I was probably less than clueless about how things worked.
But as I stood on the other side of the door looking into general population, the laughter faded away. I took a deep breath and stepped through the last door that separated me from my freedom.
Jail wasn’t really what I expected.
The inside of the cell was blinding bright and filled with a few dozen women milling about. Unlike the men’s area which has individual cell blocks with a common area, the women’s cell is an open area with about two dozen gray, metal bunk beds for the inmates. A handful of women were in the bunks while the rest were clustered in the common area, watching television, playing cards or braiding each other’s hair.
It was a two-story area with beds on the top and bottom levels; on the first floor were the pay phones, a clustering of half a dozen plastic tables with a checkerboard painted on top, the television mounted on the wall, and the bathroom area and on top was a second bathroom. Everything was painted in varying shades of steel gray to give it a nice drab feeling.
As soon as I stepped into the cellblock, it felt like every face turned to me. At least I didn’t have to pretend like I was nervous about my first time in jail.
Right away, the problems started. An older woman came up to me and asked what bunk I was in and my mind immediately blanked; I couldn’t remember what number Wall had given me.
“I think it was FG 103,” I told the woman.
“I don’t think so, 103 is my bunk,” one of the inmates said sitting at the table.
I just froze and all I could think was “well, this was it, today was the day I was going to get beat up for taking another woman’s bed.” Now let’s revisit, clearly I don’t do well under pressure and I was standing in the middle of a cell block surrounded by inmates, holding this plastic bin, literally about to pee my pants from anxiety. What was I going to do, I had no idea where my “bed” was, I wasn’t sure how this woman was going to react to me trying to take her bed and I was convinced they were all going to figure out I was a fraud and kill me.
Thankfully, none of those things happened, it was actually completely the opposite. The first woman hurried off to the intercom next to the door to ask the deputies in the control room what bed I had been assigned to.
That was the beginning of what would be the most surprising 45 minutes of my life. We may have been in jail, but it felt more like we were at a giant sleep over… that we couldn’t escape from.
The women were extremely nice to me and after finding out I was new to the jail scene, they offered to be my guides through the process. I sat down at one of the plastic tables that already had four women seated at it: Jackie, Kayla, Terry and Nan.
Those four became my new jail friends. They explained to me what happens with lockdown, what you can and can’t do in jail and even taught me how to play Spades. Terry even told me I had a nice smile.
I found out Nan, an older woman who was busted for possession charges, was my bunk mate.
“Welcome to the trailer park!” she told me. Apparently we were now trailer park mates as well.
But these women were interesting to talk with, most of them had been in the jail for a while so they knew the ins and outs. I think the most surprising thing about my conversation with them was how accepting they were of their situation. When I asked them what it was like being in jail, most just shrugged and told me it was all right.
“I mean as (messed) up as it sounds, you get used to it and you just adjust.” Jackie said.
They told me stories about how they had a good Christmas in the jail; “decorating” with toilet paper and sitting up all night Christmas Eve playing “Never Have I Ever…” The girls told me while obviously not everyone was best friends, everyone did get along with each other for the most part. I think that surprised me most, I honestly was expecting some “Orange is the New Black” plot lines with women scheming to take each other out. But, I guess since they don’t have their own cell to go back to, to get away from everyone, they have no choice but to learn how to cohabitate.
I wasn’t at the table long before a voice came over the loudspeaker and told us to go into lockdown. Luckily, I had Nan to explain to me what in the world I had to do, because I was once again clueless. With lockdown, we had to stay on our bunks and just sit there. But it was during lockdown I got another glimpse at the kindness these women had.
Let us note again, I’m a short person; barely 5-feet 5-inches and with the slightly too tight stripes and oversized plastic sandals, to say I struggled to get onto my top bunk is an understatement. There aren’t any ladders or anything to get up and it isn’t an easy climb (or it could be my lack of flexibility and coordination that was really the issue). But my good pal Nan came through for me and got me a chair to climb up onto the bed with.
As I sat on my plastic mattress, I chatted with some of the women around me, and Nan gave me a book to read from her collection next to her bed.
Finally, my name came over the speaker telling me to pack up my things and head out. A chorus of goodbyes echoed behind me as the giant door slammed shut and I was once again free.
I had survived, somehow. I did almost get caught twice as the fraud that I was; once the women noticed we had forgotten a booking bracelet all the women wear and then another thought she had recognized me from when I had shadowed the officers in court that morning. Luckily, I was able to dodge their questions and they didn’t ask for further explanation.
I have to say though, I’m a little impressed because I don’t know how those inmates are able to spend months or years in there. At times, it didn’t necessarily feel like we were in jail — well, except for the voices yelling over the loud speaker and the whole can’t actually leave thing. But it would be a difficult life because all of the small things people take for granted on the outside world no longer exist; privacy for one, but even things like not being able to adjust the lights on your own, getting to choose which television station you watch, or even getting to wear a normal bra. It was just small things you forget you have every day that are no longer there and there’s really no choice but to make the best of it.
While I’m thankful the women were kind and thankful I never had to use the bathroom facilities inside, it’s not a life experience I would recommend to anyone. I think next time I will leave the incarceration for Taylor Schilling; she plays a much better inmate than me.