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Jail Work
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 his office.”

      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 running.

      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 made-up.

      I was aggravated. I was hungry. I wanted to leave. The sergeant at the release desk kept eyeing me. “Lt. Bloom,” I finally explained.

      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 said.

      “So Joe finally got his ass kicked outta here?”

      “You should talk to Anna.”

      “The wife’s not going too?”

      “She’s in charge now.”

      “Total bullshit,” he said, shaking his head.

      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 said.

      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.