DOING TIME AT THE POTTAWATTAMIE COUNTY JAIL
Written March 14, 2006
Situated across the Missouri River from Omaha, NE, the Pottawattamie County Jail is located on the north side of Council Bluffs, IA, built on a landfill in the late 1990’s. It holds around 250 inmates presently. The U.S. Marshals brought me here immediately after court.
I was processed, showered, given a phone call, and issued the universal orange jail clothing (a two-piece bottom and top outfit), shower shoes, two thin blankets, sheet, two thin small towels, a 3 inch toothbrush, 3 inch tube of toothpaste, small plastic comb, two 1” x 2” bars of soap, small plastic bottle of shampoo and a plastic coffee cup. We were issued no socks, underwear or t-shirt. These things are sold at exorbitant prices in the jail commissary store. I broke down and bought some a week into my stay.
I was sent to the second floor medium security “C” Mod. The physical layout of “C” Mod is much like many county jails I’ve experienced. A two layer, 22 two-men cell units with showers on both tiers. A 1200 sq. ft. day room consisting of plastic tables and chairs, four phones, a small book rack, mounted TV, a sink and an officer’s desk. Doors leading directly to two visiting booths, a small classroom and an 800 sq. ft. rec room.
The two-men cells are spacious – 7 ft by 12 ft. An iron bunk bed, a small iron table with two small seats, porcelain toilet and sink, steel mirror, a small steel shelf with four towel hooks, all welded to the cement block walls. The cell has a large steel door with a 5 ft by 3 ft long window. Sunlight can come through a 1 ft by 4 ft length window. There are bright lights that are dimmed at night but never turned off. Cement floors and ceilings, concrete block walls everywhere and two colors…..off white or gray. Generally speaking, these places are hard places physically to live in. There is nothing soft about them.
Our daily routine goes something like this: Our mornings begin with 6 AM breakfast followed by 7 AM to 8 AM lockdown when all inmates must be in their cells. Between 8 AM and 12:45 PM, we have dayroom privileges where inmates are allowed in the Day Room where they can watch TV, play chess or checkers and use the phones. All phone calls are collect calls. Long distance rates run $4 the first minute, and $.50 each additional minute up to 15 minutes for each call.
Rec Room privileges between 8 AM and 9 AM. During this time, inmates can be in the Rec Room. It is an empty room with a large bay window that allows for fresh air when opened. Mostly people use this area to walk and visit. We share our Rec Room with “D” Mod. Showers are allowed between 9 AM and 10 AM. Visits are allowed between 10 AM and noon Monday through Friday. Visiting consists of going to one of two visiting booths directly across from the Mod where a TV is built into the wall. Your visitor is visible on a close circuit TV set up on the first floor. You talk to each other over the phone. Medium security inmates are allowed one half hour visit a week. Lunch is served around noon.
During the afternoons, we are locked down in our cells between 12:45 pm and 3 pm. Afternoon visiting time is 1 pm to 3 pm. From 3 pm to 5:45 pm, we have Dayroom privileges. The second hour of Rec Room privileges takes place between 3pm and 4 pm. Showers are allowed between 4 pm and 5 pm. Supper is served around 5 pm. Between 5:45 pm and 8 pm, we are locked down in what is called quiet time. The formal head count for the day is taken. Day Room and cell clean up and cell inspections take place at this time. Between 8 pm and 9 pm Day Room privileges resume. People can also take showers. We are all locked down in our cells at 9 pm and remain so until 6 am then the whole day cycle resumes. It is the same schedule seven days a week. We are regular if we are anything at all.
The big surprise for me has been the food. It is some of the best county jail food I’ve experienced. They actually serve frozen veggies with their hot meals—not canned! And they serve fresh fruit 3 times a week: an apple, orange and banana. It is easy for me to trade my deserts, breads and potatoes for extra helpings of veggies and fruit. Though the meats are of low quality, the main entrees are well prepared. Plus, I’m receiving my heart meds. If I keep up with my disciplined eating habits, stay away from the junk food sold at the jail commissary and stay on my 3 hour a day regiment of walking, I should do well physically while I am at Pottawattamie County jail.
The inmate population is predominately white. There is a handful of Blacks and Hispanics, some folks from Omaha and a number of Federal prisoners but the vast majority are poor, white, locals, your tattooed, biker, hillbilly, street-drug crowd. The drug of preference is meth. When I was an associate priest at St. Patrick’s in Council Bluffs, my Omaha friends used to refer to Council Bluffs as “Council-tucky”, a slang derived from Council Bluffs and Kentucky Fried Chicken. This term never made any sense to me until now.
Regrettably, some things in county jails stay constant no matter which jail you are in, big or small, urban or rural. The most common denominator is poverty. It is the poor street-level criminals who are locked up in our county jails. The next most common denominator is drugs and alcohol. Their uses are either directly or indirectly related to why most people are in jail.
As I look around my Mod, I see so many young men who are living their lives in absolute chaos. I’m the oldest person in the Mod. Most are half my age. Their life habits are abysmal. Self esteem and personal disciplines are very low. Self hate is a standard spiritual state of being. This is most manifested in people’s speech. When I listen in on conversations, (you cannot help but hear people’s conversations), I am appalled at the level of misogynistic speech. It is most distressful to hear this speech when men are talking on the phone to women. Sometimes it’s so ugly and loud and the whole Mod stops to listen. There is no way to sugarcoat these harsh realities. Nor do I believe these men are hopelessly damaged goods. I do not. I do believe these spiritual and emotional illnesses that I’ve experienced in our jails is a measure of a larger societal, spiritual and emotional illnesses.
I have no answers to the questions these issues raise in me right now. I know I will continue to struggle with these concerns especially if I stay here in Pottawattamie County Jail much longer or am moved on to a similar facility. It has served as my spiritual backdrop as I re-enter an incarcerated state. I hope to share more with you about these matters as time permits.
As for me personally, 19 days into this 180 day journey, I’m doing very well. I’m in good health and good spirits. I’ve got a good daily regiment going of reading, writing, walking and praying. I do not think I will be here long. But one never knows with the BOP (Bureau of Prisons). I’m still very much at the beginning of this experience.
My love to all,
A prisoner for peace sake