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by Myra Sherman
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. I had to rush back. He’d used the broken lenses of his eyeglasses. I
authorized his admission to the hospital and left the jail three hours later.
The inmate returned the next day with a bandaged neck.
“Hey, Zelna, Lt. Bloom wants you in
In the last ten months, I’d been
stopped at the door too many times to remember. The raspy intercom voice was
more of an order than a request. When custody staff called mental health came
It was one of those “if”
situations. If I’d left early, if night shift wasn’t late, if I’d called in sick
or if I’d never taken the damn job to begin with. It didn’t matter that I was at
the end of a ten hour jail shift and already late for my boss’s going away
party. That because of the party I was in heels that were killing my feet. It
was one more for my tally of reasons to quit. I was trying to pass the one year
mark for my resume, but wasn’t sure I’d make it.
I stopped at the vending machine
and gulped a caffeinated coke, then backtracked to Operations, a long
rectangular room crammed with clerks at computers. The shift commander’s office
was at the far end, past the release desk.
“He with someone?” I asked the
nearest clerk, pointing to the closed door.
She was young and very blonde,
suicide blonde. “No,” she said. “But better wait ‘til he comes out.” She
resembled my husband’s new receptionist, a little more blonde, a lot more
I was aggravated. I was hungry. I
wanted to leave. The sergeant at the release desk kept eyeing me. “Lt. Bloom,” I
After twenty minutes Bloom opened
the door. His closed briefcase was on top of his cleared desk. No one was
holding him back, telling him to stay on Friday night.
“Got a 187 from Juvie, on mental
health for protective custody,” he said. “Rashard Johnson. It’s a CYA—high
priority.” He handed me Johnson’s intake forms. As we left his office he winked
at the blonde.
“So what’s with your boss leaving
so sudden?” Bloom asked. He was so close I could smell his cologne, a
ginger-lime that reminded me of Thai stir-fry.
“His new job wants him to start,” I
“So Joe finally got his ass kicked
“You should talk to
“The wife’s not going too?”
“She’s in charge now.”
“Total bullshit,” he said, shaking
I couldn’t have agreed more. Anna
had married into her position. She didn’t have a degree or clinical license. She
wasn’t qualified to work in the program, never mind run it.
After talking to Bloom, I went straight
to M module. It was 6:30pm, a half-hour past my quitting time. I thought about
seeing if my relief had showed, but the mental health office was on the
administrative floor, which meant using a keyed elevator. With inmate movements
I’d have a long wait.
Feeling unfairly put-upon I pressed
the module intercom and waited to get in. Through the glass security doors the
dayroom looked dark and empty. I paced back and forth. I wondered if there’d be
food at the party and pictured a white-clothed table heaped with salads, prime
rib, steamed prawns. A dessert bar with flan, brownies and make your own
sundaes. Working long days made me hungry. As my husband Tom liked to point out,
I’d gained ten pounds in as many months.
I pressed the intercom a second
time. It seemed the ultimate irony that mental health staff couldn’t get on the
mental health module without the deputy’s okay. I tried to think of a comparable
situation in civilian life—hospital custodians scheduling surgeries?
“Okay Zelna, good to go,” Deputy
Stubbs finally said. The speaker magnified his Georgia accent. He was an older
deputy, the type who’d never get promoted but was popular with the inmates. On
weekends he brought DVDs from home for them to watch. “On dinner lockdown,” he
The psych patients had the smallest
module. Although it was on the first floor, the low ceilings and exposed pipes
had a basement vibe. When I was tired or pissed off, I thought of it as the
dungeon. Lately it seemed I was always tired and pissed off.
I was trying to remember the last
inmate I’d helped or someone who’d thanked me when the gears screeched and the
outer door opened. Not that I expected thanks. The truth was I didn’t know what
I expected, or wanted. The outer door clanged shut and the inner door opened.
After a ten minute wait I was on the module.