They call it toilet talk. She kneels in front of the porcelain bowl, hands cupping the base like a man grabbing his lover’s hips on a dance floor. Her face dips down into the oval hole, calling his name, Marco. His name travels through pipe past grit and grime, coiling through the loops and turns of sewer systems, searching through dark walls for waiting ears. He kneels one floor below her, separated by a two-foot concrete slab, leaning his leathered face down into the cold bowl. Lydia, he replies, holding the “a” long and lovingly despite the rank stench of feces and urine that suffuses the air at his mouth. It is their only way to talk, their only way to pass hours without face-to-face communication. It’s their only choice, behind bars.
It was through these two toilets that a wedding ceremony occurred. Each inmate scooped water out of the bowls and dumped it down the nearby sinks, ladled out its murky liquid until only a thin coating settled below. Each brought in a friend, a witness to the act. They exchanged vows through rusty pipes, a union of two souls coveted by dirty porcelain. When they told the warden they were now married, he looked at them preposterously. It was a Muslim marriage, sir. All we needed was words and witnesses. Neither of them was Muslim, but one of the witnesses was and told them this “toilet ceremony” was official. And that’s all it took for Marco and Lydia to feel victorious behind limiting walls.
This is just one of the stories the man in charge tells us when we go for “security orientation” at the ACJ. He hands out a single-sheet booklet, photocopied in faint ink, rules to follow when you enter the prison community. He tells us it’s all about respect. It’s about giving the inmates a decent “Hey, how’s it goin?” He tells us not to let them manipulate us, that they will try, and that they’re good at it. One of the head security guard shows us a beeper that we’ll each wear, connected to the belt loops of our pants. “Just pull the pin whenever you feel in danger, like a fights goin’ on in the middle of the room,” he says. When the pin releases, it sets off a silent alarm and a swarm of officers follow the beeper signal to where we are located, in case we’re in a situation where an inmate has taken us hostage. No problem, I think. No problem.
“I’d say you’re safer here than if you were to walk into a public high school,” the man in charge says when he senses our dis-ease and anxiety. “I’ve worked here twenty-five years, and I know I’ve got guys that’d back me up should anything go down.” I wonder what a few weeks will get me. “They govern themselves between these walls, you’ll see” he says. “Once they know you’re here to help them, they won’t mess with you.”
I ponder the range of souls sitting in concrete blocks. The Lydia’s and Marco’s who just want to be able to love, the manipulative ones that want to see what I can offer them, the ones that give reason to hand out beepers should something dangerous happen. I’m scared. I can’t deny it. And I keep looking around me at all the people that work here, trying to tell if there’s anyone with fear in their eyes. I haven’t found one yet. They seem at ease and as comfortable as they’d be working at a corporate office or a department store. But the moment I walk into the classroom of inmates, the moment I allow myself to look them straight in the face with conviction, I find that fear where I least expect in, lingering in their eyes like the putrid stench that hovers inside toilets.