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Reflection on Detention

Reflection on Detention

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Published by jakobschiller
Richard Ross in his own words about what it was like to spend 24 hours in isolation at a juvenile detention center.
Richard Ross in his own words about what it was like to spend 24 hours in isolation at a juvenile detention center.

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Published by: jakobschiller on Jun 03, 2013
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07/10/2013

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Reflection on detentionDisclaimerI am my mid 60s I am white. I know when I am going into a cell and I know when Iam going out. If I ever want to panic I can press a metallic button 18 inches to theright of the steel door and a line officer will come and release me. In the great picture of this arena, I control the situation. Mine is a voluntary experience.This action of experiencing isolation is not a gimmick, the caprice of an artist. It isnot enough to understand that it exists; you have to experience it to feel thedestructive force of this isolation, impotence a total lack of control of your future. It is not enough to interview children from across a barren room, you have to hear theechoes, shiver in the cold, shelter from the random light, beg for any filtereddaylight, taste the texture of the food, smell the warm milk and the urine and hopefor a reasonable allotment of toilet paper. You can’t read this and understand.The kids that are placed in here write a different disclaimer. Around the country therules are different but the institution defines and controls confinement not thedetainee. The kid is usually unsure when they are going in or out of this room, andacross the country the rules within the room vary. It is also important to rememberthat the word “detainee” means one who is detained. One who has their freedomimpaired. It is not the same as someone convicted, although in many cases theyshare the category of prisoner.I wanted to experience it, so I began my 24. In this particular institution, I am not alone. All the kids coming in are placed in isolation for their first 24 hours. Thereason is for them to calm down, often they are described as being under influence,and the time required for processing means the child might have to be segregated tobe safe from themselves and others. The institution wants to “understand” the child.I am given my uniform and bedding. The mattress is about two inches thick andcovered in the same slippery vinyl cloth that covers the pillow. There is a thinpillowcase, a gauzy piece of thin fabric about 6 x 3 feet. This may be a sheet bottomor a towel. Unsure. There is a slightly heavier piece of fabric, white-samedimensions. Additionally there is a white blanket of unwoven felting that has a fewholes in it and a random edge. As an object it is pretty nice, very raw and almost likean organic baby blanket. Contrasting there is a smaller woven dark blanket as asecond covering. I am not sure what goes where or how. Clothing consists of orangesandals, which after an hour, the officer says are not allowed in the cell, but forshowering…which I missed due to the hour of my entry. I am given a Styrofoam hot dog tray case with a toothbrush, toothpaste and mini deodorant. Also issued areblack sneakers with two Velcro straps. I wear a size 13 shoes and both sets of footwear are enormous on me. There is a pair of underwear size 2X a pair of exerciseshorts, which fit snuggly over the pillow and make it a bit more comfortable. A longsleeve white tee shirt, white tube socks and a short sleeve tan jumpsuit, 8 snapsdown the front and one chest level pocket. The underwear is “Made in Pakistan,”
 
exceptionally thin and is so large it feels like a combination swami’s shorts and aninfant diaper. It is constantly falling down within the jumpsuit. The jump suit isequally enormous and necessity dictates that I roll up the cuffs and tuck into thesocks to prevent tripping. The white T-shirt has a label “Made in El Salvador.Suitably attired. I now deal with the cold. It is a concrete room about 7 ft. 4 inchessquare in the basic part with a small entryway about 3x4 feet at the door. The ceilingis 8 feet in height. The wall is an off white with blue trim on the two verticalwindows. Slats about 5 feet across and each four inches high. The window overlooksa parking lot to the left and an industrial building with a fan unit on the right.There is a fluorescent light in the room, controlled from the outside. It goes on an off at random times. Lights off at 10PM, on at 7AM. They go off again at about 11AM, onagain at 3PM. No explanation. There is no clock. The bed is a blue steel platformbolted into the wall at three points. There is the same blue paint on the shelf at about 5 foot off the ground and inscribed ToriH. The same incision put on thewindowsill and scratched into the stainless steel tabletop cantilevered from the wallnext to the bed and about 18” x 30” on top and about 30” high. There is a round stoolthat is about 13” off the ground that make eating or reading at the table the act of aninfant.There are four buttons near the front of the room for differing purpose. There is theemergency button, two buttons in the porcelain sink, one for hot, one for cold…. but the temperature in both is cold. The final button flushes the toilet. With no controlover the world I now inhabit the only control I have is the ability to flush away myexcrement. Coming into this world to try and understand better what it is to behere…. in some sense to have this small level of enlightenment. I quickly realize that the only control I have is my shit. And even then I have to request toilet paper fromthe guard, a somewhat humiliating experience. The guards are white, black, male,female, short and tall. All are wearing black “SWAT” uniforms.I ask one Line officer what time it is and the response is “13:50.” Somehow I feel thisis a time that implies power and authority as if there is a secret and special code.Would I kid know what “13:50” means? Is the guard trying to intimidate me bytelling me he is ex military or know how to read a 24-hour clock? The guards check on the kids every 15 minutes. I am checked every hour or so. They look for skin andthen look for movement. They want to make sure I am in here and alive. Theyinquire “everything OK? Need anything?” I am not sure if this is a question extendedto all the guests. The toiletries kit (toothbrush and paste) never made it into the cell,so I ask the guard for it. He allows the door open and when I step out-side he barks“hands behind your back.” He has forgotten I am a voluntary guest and adult, so didI. When he returns those ten steps with the toothbrush I return across the thresholdof the cell and the 24 begins in earnest.Dinner is a brown tray with a center section containing two corn dogs, a slice of bread, 2 mini packets of mustard, some rectangular pasta pieces to the left, peas onthe top right. There is a packet of pepper, a spork, a glass of water and no napkin. I
 
eat a part of one of one of the corn dogs and the peas. Drink the water.-Leave thechocolate milk.It is cold. Best guess would be about 65 degrees. Not terrible if you have all theblankets, but normally you have the blankets when you are in bed, so it inhibitsmoving around the cell—unless you don’t mind looking like a Lebanese sheepherder.The light is out at ten. The only sense left is the noise and sort of underwater belchthat announces that a door is opening to C pod where I am houses. Phones ring inthe night and there are other echoing noises. No noises from the outside.7AM the lights are on and the knock announces breakfast. The same brown tray. Tothe left on soft-boiled egg. Right is a layer of cheerios, a ½ pint of apple juice and apint of 1% skimmed milk. Some form of a coffee cake in the center, no coffee. It dawns of me, I am not going to have any coffee. My headache begins the moment of this epiphany. I eat the egg. Drink the apple juice. Leave most of the rest.I read the bible. That is what I am allowed. I had little tolerance for it previously, not I am reading for diversity. In the beginning…..I read it as a passage of time. It is adiversion. Still never transcends to moderately entertaining blustery mythology andnot that entertaining at that. I spend some time looking out the window andremember the countless hours my mother would look out the window from a perchhigh up in Brooklyn. As I am recalling that with some affection I remember hersaying on many occasions, “are you crazy or just out of your mind?” when I wouldtell her what I was doing. This would no doubt be at the top of her list. But there is areason and hopefully she would understand, and even my dad. I am not looking forany redemption here but I do think of family when I think of kids probably havingspent the previous night in their bed at home now doing their 24 as they are beingprocessed for a longer stay.I think of the African American girl, the only one in an institution holding 49 othergirls all white telling me that her back hurts after her 72 of not being able to liedown during the day. Or the Latino boy held in a cell that the director told me limitstheir stay to 16 hours, but he report to me that he has been there more than 3 days.Another kid, in California who tells me he is in ISO going on eight weeks. I am tryingto picture them all and see what this room means. “Seventy-two” is a pretty standardcoding in the US for a three-day hold in solitary confinement. Sometimes call ISO, orSeg or AS-Administrative Segregation. It has different names for different reasons.But the end result is this room and the smell and the sounds and the cold and theboredom and the fear and the despair and the lack of control and this room.Lunch is tuna noodle casserole with rigatoni noodles. There is a lot of it and themajor crime here is that a tuna should have died for this miserable dish.Accompanying the casserole are square cut carrots about the size of a pinky nail,some pineapple like product, two pieces of bread, a glass of water and a pint of chocolate milk.

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