The room was white, just white. From the ceilings to the floor, nothing but vast emptiness. People say white is supposed to be the color of purity, but as I stood there, and stared at that wall all I saw was immorality.
I didn’t want to imagine the bile, blood, or feces that had been splattered on that wall. I didn’t want to think of the stories this room had. The only thing I could think of was if I had to stare at this empty wall all day, I’d probably go crazy.
According to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 2.2 million adults were held in America’s prisons and jails at the end of 2016. Nearly 2.2 million have to stare at the blank wall every day.
Unlike those incarcerated, when the tour was over I got to leave. After those few short minutes in that cell, I promised myself I would never go back.
I had visited J. Reuben Long Detention Center, as part of a class field trip for a Criminology course at Coastal Carolina University.
“It’s important for me, as a professor to give my students as many possible opportunities as I can to apply the concepts and theories we discuss in class to the real world,” Schlosser said. “I want my students to see how the experiences of the inmates are different from those of the guards and the officers, and how the experience of being in a total institution like a prison affects everyone inside.”
Stephanie Maza, a student of Schlosser’s, had worked at the J. Reuben Long Detention Center before visiting for the trip.
“I learned how the justice system worked and realized how many flaws the justice system had,” Maza said. “I left because I knew I could make a difference in solving the real problems that occur. Being a correction officer doesn’t solve the problems, but follows guidelines.”
The correction officers gave us a tour of the entire facility.
“Going through the various sections of the detention centers, booking, medium level [secured areas], maximum level [secured area], [and] going into the empty cells at the “outside rec area”, gave me a surreal feeling,” said CCU student Gregory Stephens.
Officers went so far as letting students try out the straight jacket chair.
“The officers tightened straps around my wrists, forearms, and waist, as well as my shoulders and chest, like a tighter version of a roller coaster harness, and a “spit mask” was put over my head, which was a thin mesh bag placed over my face and head,” said Stephens. “I was only in the chair for about 3-5 minutes and my pulse and heart rate had quickened and my hands started mildly shaking.”
While viewing the facility, I started feeling uneasy. I was concerned about certain restraining methods, and how they might worsen the symptoms of a person with mental illness. I was distraught by the officers’ referring to people with mental illnesses as “cuckoos” and “crazies.”
There also seemed to be a potential issue of safety for transgender individuals.
“The officer informed us that the classification process is based on the biological anatomy, essentially below the belt,” said Stephens. “This brings up safety concerns for those individuals who have not been able to go through the transition process.”
I never felt at risk while I touring the detention center. I knew these people had committed violent crimes, and there are probably people here that I wouldn’t want to meet on the streets, but that wasn’t my concern.
Instead I feared the inmates would see my class and feel like a caged attraction. The tour mirrored a trip to the zoo, but instead of animals held captive, there were people- fathers, mothers, friends, cousins, sisters, and brothers. Although I remained nonjudgemental of the people in the orange jumpsuits, I couldn’t be sure the opposite was true. The viewing and inquisitive nature of the tour seemed to dehumanize the people locked in cells.
“I’m always uncomfortable in prison, knowing that there are people locked inside who have lives and stories and families who love them. Regardless of what they’ve done, [it] will always be tough for me to reconcile,” said Schlosser.
I felt unsettled when we toured the Maximum Security outdoor courtyard. The “courtyard” is a small concrete room where inmates can work out or have recreational time. The room is empty and the ceilings are tall, stretching high only to reveal two small windows at the which bring in a small amount of sunlight. Because of these windows, this area is considered “outdoors,” but the room is enclosed by four walls and a ceiling.
On the wall in this room were messages scrawled by inmates. The messages broke my heart. People were pleading to be saved, channeling their anger, and writing about how they were racially charged or otherwise mistreated.
“Free me I’m innocent,” was written on the wall, and I wondered if the person who wrote that was indeed innocent. Had they been kept in this concrete courtyard for a crime they didn’t commit?
After reading these calls for help and justice, I immediately wanted to leave. I wanted to feel the outdoors and see sunlight- anything to not be trapped in those small empty cells.