Diary of a Month in the Orange County Women's Jail
Note: This diary was related to our reporter by a source. The names of all women have been changed.
As I walked through the Loop at the Orange County Central Jail in Santa Ana, I wondered, "Does it always smell this bad in here?" I was going to spend a month here, thanks to a stupid thing I did—and it already sucked.
Loud shouts and catcalls greeted me and other new inmates as we passed through the men's section on our way to the Central Women's pen. The air was stale. My handcuffs were heavy and felt like ice. I couldn't walk too fast or too slow because I was cuffed to a woman behind me and in front of me. And jailhouse deputies looked at us, just waiting for an excuse to scream.
But that smell! It was a bouquet of back alleys and vomit, piss and shit, general B.O. and used tampons. Open toilets in the cells added more unspeakable stinks. I wanted to gag.
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Then a guard replied to what I hadn't meant to wonder aloud: "Yes, you just get used to it."
Oh, shit. The guard wasn't happy. It was going to be a long time.
I had no expectations of what I'd encounter during my stint at the OC Women's Jail. I'm a working-class college student with no priors and no family members or friends who knew about life inside. All I knew was what they show on Orange Is the New Black, as well as that OC's jails are fucked-up under Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
But now that I'm out, I can say that jail is far worse than what the media depicts or you can ever imagine. It's a place that constantly kicks you down. It's not just your freedom that gets taken away; everything that makes you human is threatened every minute. Dignity? Leave it outside. Comfort? Please. All you can hope for is to get out without being assaulted, whether by inmates or deputies.
And that smell? BARF!
Before you get assigned a bed, they move you from holding cell to holding cell, each crammed with 15 to 20 women. Many of them lay on the concrete floor, their bodies jolting and shaking as they withdraw from drugs. The deputies do nothing.
I'm assigned to Tank 5. My jailhouse clothes include black knee-high socks, used white underwear that goes up to my belly button, a used white sports bra with a brown stain from armpit sweat, a T-shirt, a ratty navy-blue smock, rattier navy-blue pants, and slide-on sandals.
I don't get to my bunk until around 1 a.m.—12 hours after the judge sentenced me. There's a gal above me, and one on each side. Only 380 women are allowed in Central at any given time, but it always feels triple that amount. I hit it off with Adri, a 45-year-old Chicana who has been to jail more than 10 times. "Look," she says in Spanish as she pulls a dime from deep inside her bra. She sneaks it in every time she's in. "So you can see that the security system here vale madre"—it's shit. We laugh, and she puts the dime back in.
A deputy orders me to make my bed; it's a thin, hard mattress with two sheets and a wool blanket. There's no pillow; those cost $4 at the commissary and are hard and small. I end up sleeping in my clothes and using the nightgown I was given (really just an oversized T-shirt) as a pillow throughout my stint, even though that's technically illegal—but no one notices.
I normally sleep with sounds of nature on my Pandora station—bird chirps, gentle waves, rainfall. Not tonight. Screams ring out around me, along with the clang of cells shutting and other women vomiting. This will be my soundtrack for a month.
"COUNT TIME COUNT TIME EVERYONE GET UP COUNT TIME."
That would be my daily 4 a.m. wakeup, and I eventually got used to it. But on that first morning, it's a nasty jolt. The nightmare was real.
Breakfast: soggy scrambled eggs, cheese, mayonnaise and mustard. I had just started to stomach the food when a deputy announces, "Five minutes." Suddenly, all the girls begin to shove food in their mouths as if they were in an eating contest. Guards count down the clock by the minute, as two of them walk around to make sure we don't take food to our bunks. "Pull your pants down!" one barks at an older lady. "NOW!" She complies; a bologna sandwich is tucked between her crotch and underwear. All the deputies laugh—but not us inmates.
I go back to my tank; my cellmates are waiting for me. Earlier, Brenda, a 22-year-old heroin addict covered in tattoos, had blown baby powder around the tank to take away the smell, if even for just a moment. They give me a quick rundown about how things work in their tank and who's who. They also show me some American Sign Language because some officers don't allow us to communicate with one another.
Everyone's nice to me so far. Brenda shares the jalapeño bean burrito and doughnuts that she bought from the commissary; I'll share my dinner with her in return. Another girl offers me peanuts. Miriam, a Vietnamese gangster, says I resemble Jessica Alba—thanks!
Maybe it won't be that bad, I think. But later on, I'll discover everyone's treating me nicely because they think I have drugs.
Mousy is the "tank runner," the prisoner whose orders we must follow. She assigns us daily chores such as toilet duty and folding clothes, and she hands out medical slips and "snivels," papers to write down concerns or requests for deputies. My first assigned duty: sweep and mop the day room. "Do your job right, truck," she tells the other girls, using prison slang for someone who doesn't do their chores well. She's tough but fair.
"Make sure to go under the bunks," she tells me as she nods in approval. After that, she allows me to choose which chore I want; mopping and sweeping become my Zen.
For lunch, we get a "sack lunch"—a brown bag filled with food worse than what you get at the cafeteria. If you don't behave or look at a deputy funny, you're given a sack lunch (also known as "sack nasties") for chow as punishment. It's always the same meal: a squished sandwich filled with mayo, mustard and soy meat; sweet cookies; and a fruit powder for which you have to buy a $3 cup to make it into a punch. It's as if they want us to get fat and lazy here.
I turn in a snivel to take educational classes, but Mousy tells me it might take a while to get accepted. So I join a Bible study group—no wait time for that. Most girls join because they give you the Good Book and a mini No. 2 pencil that you can take back to your bunk, which the girls then use to write in and smuggle notes to other people.
I wake up crying. I'm worried and missing everything that jail took away. I talk to my mom as much as I can, but it's expensive—a buck per minute—and hearing her talk about her issues makes me feel desolate.
Back at the bunk, I'm talking to Adri when Brenda screams at me to go to the day room because she's trying to sleep. I keep talking. A couple of days before, Mousy had lent me her deck of cards so Brenda and I could play, but Mousy got pissed because the joker was bent, as if someone used it to snort drugs. I don't use, I tell Mousy, and Brenda was the one who put them away. Brenda denies messing up the card, so I tell Mousy that I'd buy a new deck, just so everyone will calm down.
Brenda gets up and begins to talk shit about me to Miriam and Betty, a short, big white girl. "Yes, I'm talking about you," Brenda yells when she sees me mad-dogging her.
"I don't give a shit about a card, bitch," I yell back.
Bad move. Brenda and Betty tell me to meet in the bathroom. It's the only place in jail that doesn't have cameras, so girls fight there. The deputies know this; they tell us to "handle our scandals" in there so it won't disrupt them or make them do extra work.
I never wanted any confrontation here, but the anger, sadness, loneliness and desperation have built up. It's on. Mousy tells the two that only one of them can fight me—only thieves and snitches get jumped. Brenda has the real beef with me, so we walk to the bathroom and begin to brawl.
We're the same age, but Brenda is a lot bigger and taller. It doesn't matter; I corner her, and she never lands a punch. Patty, a 6-foot, 200-plus-pound lesbian, tells us to stop. I continue to swing, and Patty roars, "Let her go, dick!" She pushes me back. I'm done.
Patty tends to Brenda, her lover. I walk out with my head high. When she finally comes out, Brenda looks at no one and says nothing as she takes a walk of shame to her bunk.
"So what's up—you next?" Mousy asks Betty, who stays quiet.
I don't. "I'd rather squash this shit," I tell Mousy. "Don't talk to me or about me, and I won't talk to you—it's that simple."
Everyone had gathered outside the restroom to see who would come out first. They smile at me, shake my hand and throw out high-fives. Everyone stays up to talk about the fight, saying how they never expected me to fight like that. All the while, I lie in my bed, pretending to sleep—and smiling.
I submit another snivel for those educational classes. Deputies love to remind us that everything we eat and do—working out, reading the Bible, talking, writing, singing—is a privilege granted by them that they can take away. The deputies will punish us for the silliest of things; it's as if they want us to be miserable walking zombies so they have company.
If you make eye contact with them, they'll say, "What are you looking at?" If you smile or laugh in their direction, they'll snap, "What's so funny? Want a sack lunch?" If you look at yourself in the mirror on the way to the cafeteria, you'll get yelled at and written up. I was yelled at for walking too slow as well as too fast. I was yelled at for having my hands in my pockets after chow as well as walking with my hands behind my back. You can never win.
Today, Mousy tells our tank something that leaves me disgusted for the rest of my stint. "Ladies!" she announces. "Whoever is cleaning the showers is doing a shitty job!"
Fungus is building up in the shower stalls. Even worse, maggots infest the shower mats. Mousy walks over to the restroom and lifts a thick, black, rubber mat off the ground. With toilet paper, she grabs a black, penny-sized maggot.
"Who is going to clean them next?" Everyone looks at one another until a girl called Monkey volunteers, which makes everyone happy. She says she enjoys cleaning the restroom, but she never gives an explanation.
Sunday is Pancake Day—the only meal we all look forward to because they actually taste like pancakes. The rest of the day is uneventful until 10 p.m., when the tank above mine gets "tossed"—a random search. Deputies order the girls to put their hands over their heads, undress, get into their jail uniforms, and walk to the day room one by one. The deputies then start to flip mattresses and throw out contraband: food from the cafeteria, any fruit, pictures or drawings on the wall, newspaper clippings, stickers from fruits, and any art inmates have made. Anyone caught with contraband not only gets it confiscated, but they also get written up, which means the guilty must do chores between midnight and 3 a.m. We stay quiet; otherwise, we'll get tossed, too.
Whenever we leave our bunk, we have to scan our ID card to get marked; it's the same when we come back. The card contains basic information: name, inmate number, picture and a bar scan. When it's my turn to scan my ID, I tell the deputy I don't have a bar code, so she tells me to just pretend I do. I pass the ID through the scanner and fake a beep noise. "Are you being a smart-ass?" the deputy barks at me. I wasn't, but she sends me to the back of the line. Bitch.
After chow, I'm sleeping in my bunk when a sergeant inspecting deputies for the day asks to see my ID. My booking number, originally written in Sharpie, has faded. "How long have you had it like this?" he asks. The sergeant is so nice and polite—I'm shocked.
"Two weeks, sir," I reply.
"Really?" He sounds surprised. "And they haven't told you anything?"
He shakes his head and walks away. About 30 minutes later, I get a new ID. "Wow," I overhear one deputy say to another. "I can't believe she's been here for two weeks like that, and no one had done anything."
Later, I sculpt a Hello Kitty out of soap, which all the girls in the tank love. Some even offer to trade their commissary for it. But after dinner, we are being too loud, so deputies toss our tank. Goodbye, Hello Kitty soap.
Halfway done. By now, many of the girls have noticed I can draw well and braid hair, so they give me pictures of their kids to draw and ask me to braid their hair. I do my first portrait for a lady called Miss K. Any woman older than 50 gets called "Miss" out of respect.
Miss K won't talk to anyone, but I try to chat with her when she asks for my services. Turns out she has a 20-year-old daughter studying business in college—just like me. She hasn't seen her in years, which breaks her heart, and she asks for a portrait from a picture she smuggled in. When I finish it, she hugs me and cries—then she hugs me again.
I get a sack lunch today because I stood too close to a deputy.
In jail, we have to learn to live without the small comforts of everyday life, so women get down with their DIY. When our pencils get too small to hold, we fold cardboard and use the sticky label of a deodorant to tape it together. We play bowling using empty toilet-paper rolls and hardened balls of toilet paper. Makeup is illegal, but ladies use pencils to draw in their eyebrows and M&M's or fruit powder to stain their lips. Gotta look pretty, you know?
We have a TV in the break room, but we can't pick what we want to see; nine times out of 10, the Cooking Channel is on. It's like a sick joke the deputies play. I now hate Bobby Flay forever, and I didn't even know who he was before I came in.
Red Death is what we call today's meal: ground beef drowned in a red sauce and topped with onion. It reeks and tastes like tomatoes and onion left sitting in water for days—worst thing yet.
But when we return to our tank, there's a surprise: The deputies have left the gates between tanks 5 and 6 wide open. It's like a free day, and many of the girls switch tanks for a couple of hours to mingle, sell or trade drugs, and other things. I don't feel like it, so I sit in my tank, baffled at how the deputies could allow this to happen—someone could easily get hurt or murdered.
Three hours later, the deputies realize their mistake during counting time; they make sure everyone is where they're supposed to be, close the gates and never talk about it again.
I don't think the deputies are going to respond to my education snivel. But I've made a friend: Hannah, a 44-year-old who only weights 80 pounds. We usually talk about veganism, religion, politics and our lives on the outside. She has an eating disorder and can't eat within the five-minute chow-time limit. So Hannah throws up after every meal, which messes with her anemia and low blood sugar—the deputies don't care.
Hannah had about $100 worth of commissary, but someone has stolen more than half of it today. She always gives some of it to the girls, but no one ever returns the favor. Hannah starts crying, and I feel for her. In here, it's all about looking out for yourself. I don't want to be like that forever—or even in here—so I cry with her.
That night, one of the girls from Tank 6 begins to sing, and no one shuts her up because she has a beautiful voice. She belts "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars, "Hello" by Adele and the old song "Angel Baby." The singing lightens the tension and comforts everyone as we drift to sleep.
I make ear swabs today by wetting toilet paper and shaping it into a strip with wide ends, then letting them dry. They work! Hygiene is important to me here because every day in jail is like a year on your body. I take a shower every day, but I wash my hair just once a week because the jail soap leaves your hair greasy and sticky. Many of the girls don't shower at all because they just don't care anymore. It's common to see wax oozing out of people's ears. Some of the women have scabies that eat at their skin. A lot of women have buzzed heads because the guards would rather shave them bald instead of providing anti-lice shampoo. It all adds to the Smell.
Of 40 girls in my tank, only four are completely sober throughout the month. The girls sniff crack, cocaine and heroin thanks to dealers who smuggle them inside by stuffing balloons in their vaginas and butts. Girls are so addicted that prostitution is common inside.
"If two girls come into a tank packing, they both have to fight each other," Adri explains to me. "Whoever wins gets all the drugs and gets to be the official tank dealer."
The deputies never bust anyone.
The Red Death is better today, only because it comes with an orange and bread—and it's the last time I'll ever have to eat it.
Today's the day! I give my information to Hannah so we can stay in touch.
I trade my clean clothes with some of the girls, and we toast my freedom with "pruno," which we had started to ferment a week before. It's not ready, but it's good—it tastes like a fruity, sweet apple cider.
I knew jail was going to be bad, but what shocked me was just how sloppy everything is. The idea of jail being a restorative place for inmates to learn their lesson and pay for their crimes isn't true. The OC Women's Jail is a place of daily degradations—you expect that from inmates stuck in a survival-of-the-fittest situation, but the deputies are worse. They want to do the least amount of work possible and not be bothered to protect inmates. And they insult you right until the end.
A deputy we all call Cruella de Vil walks me through the release process. "So when will I see you again?" she asks.
I look at her, confused. "Never," I reply. "I was in here for a mistake that I will not repeat. I'm going to continue my education, graduate and be successful."
"What school do you go to?" she asks mockingly.
"I study business at Cal State Fullerton."
"No, you don't," she scoffs. "I'm a Cal State Fullerton alumna, and they would never have someone like you there."
I just smirk and shake my head—fuck this.
I'm not like a lot of the girls inside, caught in a cycle of violence that almost ensures they'll return or go off to prison. Even though I didn't get along with most of them, I feel bad that they're probably in this life forever.
When the doors finally open on the streets of Sixth Street and Coach Dick Hill Way at midnight, I take my first breath of fresh air in a month. My mom is waiting, and we both cry. I missed everything: her voice, the smell of the world, the city sounds.
I am back on the streets of Santa Ana. I have my freedom back.
And I never got an answer to my goddamn education snivel.
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