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It's Not Like What People Think

— Tuesday, August 1, is a busy evening at Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee. People of all races begin filling the lobby at 7:00 to get a window assignment for visitation. Unlike the downtown jail, these visitors bring children with them, and the children run around and play (a video-game machine is in the lobby). A young, obese man tells his four-year-old son to sit down so they can see Mommy. At 7:30, the visiting room door is open. A long, narrow room with permanent stools facing glass windows and phones sits empty after a trustee mops its floor. By 8:00, the lobby is busy and expectation hangs in the air. A look behind the electronic glass door reveals four female prisoners in their street clothes awaiting release while the attending deputies take their time. The first prisoner released, a young Hispanic girl with bruises on her arms, does not want to talk. The next woman, a 36-year-old black inmate, is more eager.

Junek Williams shouts at her friend, a large, middle-aged black man, to get her a cigarette. She lights up a Newport: "This is the first one I've had for 48 days!" She is slightly built, with short, reddish hair and an infectious smile. "Today was my court date -- it was my fourth one. I was released on time served with a stipulation of three years' probation, 18 months of alcohol meetin's and...somethin' else, I forgot. I have to read my papers.

"You wanna know why they arrested me? They said I stole a car. I was drunk and I drove myself from Los Angeles by myself in somebody's car to the border checkpoint in Tijuana. I didn't know I was in the checkpoint and I did a U-turn in the checkpoint and they--" she starts laughing -- "they ran my license and found out my car was stolen. Then they arrested me.

"I knew the man, I didn't steal the car -- he let me -- I was on drugs, okay? He let me use his car on June 2. I took his car that mornin', and when I came to bring his car back, he wasn't there, so I kept it. I only kept it for a couple of days, and I parked it. Then, one day I was drunk, walkin' down the street where I parked it, and it was still there, the keys in the glove compartment and everything. That was June 14, the day I got arrested. When they asked me what I was bringin' back to the United States, I was, like, 'What? What do you mean the United States? I didn't know I was outta the United States!'"

A plea bargain and the aid of a public defender got Williams released. "He did a good job for me. At South Bay court, you gotta stay from the time you get there until the bus comes at 4:15. At San Diego, downtown, they got three buses, one at 11:00, one at 3:00, and one at 5:00. But at South Bay, you gotta stay there all day in a cold-ass room! Freezin' cold, to the point where you don't want to eat, you're chatterin' so much! If you know about that place, then you'll bring two pair of socks and put one of them on your arms."

Williams describes her daily schedule. "First they wake you up at 5:15 and tell you to get up. That way you can wash your face, brush your teeth. After they do that, half the people do not get up. Then they wake you up at 5:25. Then they'll call count at quarter of six. After that, you can go back to sleep, then they wake you back up at 6:30 and you go to breakfast. After breakfast, you can go back to sleep, unless you go to school, and I was in school in here. You go to school for three hours. After school, they take you back to your dorm, and you stay there until lunch at 11:00. After lunch, it's lockdown. You stay in your dorm until 1:00. Then you can come out on the yard or use the phone or watch TV. The TV will be on. That's until 4:00 until lockdown for dinner. Then they make you stay in the dorm until dinnertime, which is between 4:30 and 5:00. After dinner, they do the second count for the shift change. That's at quarter to six, and then after that count you stay in your dorm till 7:00. At 7:00, you come back out on the yard and you can use the phones. A lot of people play checkers, dominoes, and cards. Lights out is at 10:00. I had a top bunk, and the light was right above mine, and they just dimmed it, and it was hard to sleep. It's noisy for about a good 30 minutes, but after that, [the guards] come in and start yellin' that they gonna start writin' people up and stuff. Then they'll go to sleep."

The jail library offers inmates books to check out each week, as well as providing Bibles. Williams didn't spend much time reading from the library because she was in school. "I already had a G.E.D., so I was in computer school. They got a good computer school in here. I didn't take it long enough to get a job, but it was an experience I would like to get into. It made me wanna go to school and take it up." She discusses her brief education. "If you go to school, they give you a lot of homework. The school here is very good. It makes your days go by faster."

Most inmates don't care for the food at Las Colinas. "Oh, man! The food is horrible. If you want to survive and not starve to death, you gotta eat that shit. But the best thing to do is use the commissary, where you can buy food. You can order noodles and sausages and sugar to go in oatmeal. Otherwise, they give you one little pack of sugar for this big ol' glob of oatmeal. They don't give you no real meat. I had roast beef in sauce, pre-cooked sausage and...well, I been here 48 days, and we only had real meat three times. The rest of it is all processed -- eggs and shit that's not real. They have eggs that's round like an over-easy egg, but it's not real."

Commissary privileges require money, which, hopefully, visitors provide. "If they come here with money, they put it on your books. You're allowed to have $200 on your books. Anything over that goes into your personal property. It takes ten working days to clear a money order." Williams says that she never knew of any drug purchases, although she heard stories. "I heard that when people come to visit, they stick it up under the stools. Then when the trustees clean up, they pick it up. They said that trustees can get a lot of things in like that."

There's a gym, but only the trustees are permitted to use it. The rest of the inmates get their exercise through chores. "We clean the dorms three times a day. You get a job every day, like day rooms, bathrooms, and showers. They do an inspection every Friday, and if you don't pass, they lock you down for the whole weekend. Then you can't get no TV, no phone, no hot water, and no yard." The motivation to work is increased by the limited availability of clothing. "You wear blues and you only get to change them once a week. Your socks, bras, and panties they change twice a week, so we really wash our stuff. You don't wanna wear the same dirty stuff every day."

The dorms are split in two. "There's one building with two sides, and in the middle is the bathroom. Each side holds 32 bunks, so there's 64 women to each dorm. The dorm I was in was a school dorm, and most of the people in the dorm I was in went to school. There's three dorms for school." Unlike the downtown jail, the dorms do not have surveillance cameras, which means more fights. "There was a bad one Sunday. It was real bad -- horrible. It was deputies and inmates. But ain't never seen anybody with no weapon or nothin' like that.

"I had one fight. This girl was my bunkmate -- I had the bottom bunk and she had the top. I was standin' right there and she tried to jump up to get in her bunk and almost kicked me in my face. I snatched her off the bunk and we started fightin' and they locked us both in the lockdown for 48 hours. It's a room with no windows. The lights stay on and it's solitary. All they give you to read is a Bible."

Order is enforced by dorm house mothers, trustees in charge of each dorm side. "They run each side of the dorm. Like, if someone is dirty or smelly, the dorm mother will go to the deputy, and they make the person take a shower. She gives us our chores. She makes sure we lock up the dorm for count or when we linin' up for chow. She puts up the list for the meetin's, like AA meetin's and NA meetin's, codependency meetin's, Community Connection, and PIP [pregnancy inmate program]."

According to Williams, many of the inmates are pregnant. "There's a lot of them. You can tell who they are, 'cause they have on dresses." Although Williams has not witnessed any inmates going into labor, she says, "There's one in our dorm now who's on the verge. They take 'em to the hospital, then their family comes to get the baby, and they do their time."

Although there is violence and abuse, gangs are not necessarily the cause. "There's girls in there that be from gangs and stuff, but they don't be in charge here. It's not like what people think. I didn't see no sexual acts, but there be girlfriends and stuff like that. I seen 'em huggin' and stuff like that, but not no sex stuff."

Like other inmates, Williams views guards as the main source of abuse. "Some of them are really cool, but the majority of them -- they won't hold no conversation with you; they evil, they mean, you know what I'm sayin'? It's men and women and they young. You gotta be 21 to be a deputy, and a lot of them got their head big, and they be tryin' to use that authority thing. They really be outrageous with it. It's their mouth. They're disrespectful. You might ask 'em somethin', and they get to hollerin' at you, and if you talk back, they'll write you up. If you get written up, it goes against your record, and you can lose good time."

The tight schedule and tense atmosphere of jail leaves little room for privacy. This even applies to personal correspondence. "They do mail-call at 9:30. The mail goes out when the deputy comes for the count at 10:00. They read your mail outgoin' and ingoin' -- you can't seal it. They will seal it and send it out."

A native of Oakland, Williams has lived in South Central Los Angeles for the last 16 years. "I live on Figueroa and 55th Street. I don't have a job. I was on drugs before I got arrested. Cocaine was my major drug. Cocaine and drinkin'. A man got me into it--" she laughs "-- when I was 19. He introduced me into it, then I started doin' it myself. I been doin' it all these years. I got arrested once before on a DUI, so this time I had a prior. That was 1998. You lose everything. You lose your whole life. I wasn't really no whore -- I didn't streetwalk, but I did all kinds of things for money for dope.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for doin' drugs. I ain't got no advice, 'cause people gonna do what they wanna do. But your life is gonna be fucked up if you do drugs."

She is hopeful but not confident that she can change her life. "I don't know. All I can say is I'll try not to do it [drugs]. I'm gonna go to school. I never thought about these things before. I'm a cook by trade, so I haven't really thought about what I'm gonna do. But whatever it is, I'm gonna do it quick, because I'm not gonna be out there gettin' into the same old thing."

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