From the inside

Inmates and staff offer outsiders a look at prison life

Inmates and staff offer outsiders a look at prison life

October 01, 2007|By ERIN JULIUS

Editor's note: On a bright September morning, a photographer, videographer and reporter entered the Washington County Detention Center to chronicle life inside its walls. Hundreds of inmates and dozens of deputies live or work in the wire-ringed jail at 500 Western Maryland Parkway, west of Hagerstown. Capt. Rick Blair led the daylong tour.

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Tammy Fisher wakes up at 4:30 a.m., hating the idea of getting up so early for breakfast.

In fact, if she could change one thing about life in jail, Fisher said she would change mealtimes.

Breakfast at 4:30 a.m. is a bit early and dinner is at 3:15 p.m. That means that after that late-afternoon meal, the women go about 12 hours without eating, said Fisher, who is awaiting trial on a drug charge.

Elaine Whalen, 49, said that after breakfast, she sleeps until around 10:30 a.m., time for lunch. After lunch, she writes letters or reads. Some days she goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings.


Whalen, who also is awaiting trial on a drug charge, said she doesn't like to read, but has read every book in the detention center because there's nothing else to do.

Women in the Washington County Detention Center aren't locked in cells, but live seven to a room in the women's housing unit.

Some of the women wish they did live in a cell.

Living in the rooms on the women's side is hard because seven personalities are confined to one space, said Whalen, a self-described drug addict.

"You can't sleep when you want or read a book because everybody is noisy," Fisher said.

Deputy 1st Class Ann Churchey sits at a desk near the end of a long hall in the women's unit. Churchey was supervising 51 women on this day.

"We're just under capacity here," Capt. Rick Blair said.

On either side of the hallway are 10 rooms in which women live. Between the rooms, small courtyards can be seen through glass. The women can go into the courtyards during recreation periods.

Although the women are confined to their rooms much of the day, they move around more than the men, who are in another part of the building. Correctional deputies shepherd the women to a bright, open cafeteria for meals three times a day.

On this day, the women were locked in their rooms as a tour went through the jail. Inside one of the rooms, women sat on beds lined up against the wall.

The women keep their belongings in plastic crates that are stowed under their beds. Hairbrushes, deodorant, magazines and other toiletries are stacked on shelves on the wall. A TV is mounted to the wall.

The men

On a Wednesday morning, more than 30 inmates of all ages wearing orange jumpsuits lounged around the day area of their housing unit. Some were reading, others chatted.

Some used their recreation time to watch television.

Recreation time is from 9 to 11 a.m., and during that period, the inmates have the option of being inside or outside their cells.

A few inmates, clad only in shorts, hovered in doorways between their cells and the housing unit.

Two men did push-ups on the metal stairs leading to the upper level of cells.

"Every time I come to prison, I always get religious," said William Norman, who is known to his fellow prisoners as "The Deacon" or "Preacher Man."

Norman, 51, spends his days praying, exercising and reading his Bible. The Baltimore native is awaiting trial on charges of maintaining a common nuisance.

Tommy Smith, 27, and Charles Hull, 35, share a cell. Both work in the kitchen and use their time to work out and sleep, they said.

Smith, who was convicted of theft, does a lot of reading and decorates cards, he said, pointing to a stack of colorful notecards on a shelf. Books were stacked near his bed.

Hull was convicted on an assault charge.

The men had instant coffee, lemonade mix and mustard in their cell, as well as a stack of empty Cup O Noodles bowls.

Locking the inmates in their cells at regular times, such as when recreation is over, instills a sense of discipline, Blair said.

Norman said the deputies are a bit like "overpaid baby sitters," but said he knows that jail staffers do their best, and he tries to be respectful to them.

Inside interview rooms off a hallway leading back to the housing units, inmates consulted with their attorneys, most from the Office of the Public Defender. During such visits, prisoners are handcuffed to the wall for the safety of visitors and staff, Blair said.

Some inmates have jobs in the laundry, where they wash clothes and linens for the jail. No clothes are sent out to be laundered because that would increase the risk of contraband, Blair said.

The women have a separate laundry facility.

Two shifts of inmates clad in orange jumpsuits and plastic hairnets work in the kitchen, preparing more than 1,200 meals a day. At least one meal is hot and inmate diets are based on a 2,700-calorie-a-day diet, Blair said.

"The way they feed you is terrible," said Michael Yeagy, 47, who is serving time for DUI. "The food is just bad. It's never hot."

The staff

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