Chicago, IL -The area around 26th and California has become a very familiar place in the past few months. There’s a Popeye’s at the corner and a little Hispanic man who is always selling drinks and candy bars. The courthouse is close to that corner, although the jail itself goes on for over half a mile. A bit further south is the main entrance to the jail. This is where those who are able go to post bond, as well as the entrance to several divisions for visitors. Saturday mornings there are usually lines of at least 50 men, women, and children, all waiting to see husbands, sons, friends. (There is only one women’s division and its entrance is a block west.)
On the east side of the street there is a strip of grass. People are often sitting, waiting–usually for hours–for loved ones to walk out of the gates, always looking over their shoulders to make sure they don’t miss them. Sometimes when you’re in the area you get the pleasure of witnessing one of these reunions. People run into the street to embrace their families with smiles and sometimes even tears.
Even further south is the entrance to another division–Division 10–where two of my friends, two of the NATO 5, are currently being held. I go to visit one of them, Sabi, usually once a week and I can tell the guards are beginning to recognize me.
Two blocks further is 31st Street, the southernmost point of the jail. Hang a right and you’re on your way to Division 9, Supermax, the division that holds “the worst of the worst.” This is where my other three friends, the rest of the NATO 5, are being held.
After the first round with security, you are let out into a parking lot. There is one small building, the entrance to the lair. On your way to the doors you sometimes see prisoners on what is almost an enclosed porch. They are sometimes playing basketball, sometimes just standing against the fence, taking in the fresh air and sunshine.
Once inside the building you are led down a half-spiral staircase and told to wait behind a red line nearly 15 feet from the desk. Sometimes there is a line of people and sometimes there isn’t; either way you will have to wait behind that red tape line for what feels like forever, but in actuality is usually about two minutes.
After you tell them who you want to see, you silently pray that nothing is wrong, like the division being on lockdown or your friend being in the hole. After holding your breath while they type away at a computer for a few minutes, you are told to have a seat and they’ll call your friend’s name.
This is always the most agonizing part. The seats are these big stone blocks and all there is to read are signs warning against property destruction to the already-broken water fountains, the list of prohibited items, and the list of artículos prohibidos en español. Cell phones are not allowed, so most of the time people make quiet conversation. The walls are gray concrete and the floors dark tile. Sometimes the room is so crowded that people have to resort to standing or sitting against the wall by the men’s bathroom. Yes, in theory it’s truly wonderful, that so many people are keeping connections with those on the inside, but I doubt you’ve had to sit on the floor of a county jail waiting room two inches from the men’s bathroom.
My first time visiting was not long after the guys were arrested. The division still had this weird system because they didn’t want them interacting with others, so one of the three would take up an entire visiting room, just him and his visitor. Because of this I had to wait nearly four hours to meet Jacob (aka Brian Church, who goes by his middle name). While I was waiting one of the guards came in holding a blue jersey with white lettering that said “Super Maxxx” in a scripty font.
When I finally got to meet Jacob he came in and gave me this sort of confused look as he sat down, hands cuffed in neon orange, a graying thermal under his bright yellow jumpsuit, his freckles matching his red-orange hair.
“The worst of the worst.”
The entire time I had to fight the tears that were welling up. He probably thought that I was crazy, or that I was PMSing, nearly crying over a person I had only seen behind Plexiglass or in the newspaper.
This week I brought an old friend of mine, Cari, to meet Jacob. She is not an activist and has never even been to a protest, but she wanted to come along. We walked to Division 9, were greeted with a nice pat-down and walk through metal detector number one, and then headed toward the entrance of the lair. This time there were no yellow jumpsuits playing basketball or pressing their faces as close to fresh air as possible.
After waiting behind the red tape line, Cari and I register with a guard who keeps cracking jokes about the Olive Garden and their breadsticks, while on the other side of the room mothers are trying to control their children as they wait to see their husbands for the first time in a week for a mere 30 minutes, and that’s if they’re lucky.
After signing in, we sit on the cold concrete slab, a relief after being in nearly 100 degree weather outside. Twenty minutes of waiting and one of the guards begins yelling names. I do not hear Jacob’s, but she does call out “Chase, Jared!”–another of the NATO 5–and my other friend excitedly gets up and waits in line behind metal detector number two.
Another 30 minutes, and she calls another group of people. This time I hear “Church, Brian!” and Cari and I go wait in the line. We are told to go up to the third floor. When we get there most of the seats are taken, though there is one at the end where we wait until they bring Jacob out.
Not long after we enter, one of the guards opens the door and yellow jumpsuits start shuffling into the room, looking for a face they recognize and then sitting across from it, through a sheet of Plexiglass.
When Jacob comes in, I wave and smile to him and he sits down. Same neon orange handcuffs, same bright yellow jumpsuit, same freckles that match his red-orange hair. We start talking and catching up. He says he is doing okay and before long he asks Cari her name and introduces himself. She says, in a breaking voice, “Hi, I’m Cari.” I look over to see that her shaking hands are trying to shield her eyes, and I am immediately brought back to my first visit with Jacob.
For the next 15 minutes, Jacob and I talk about Occupy and Anaheim. I ask him if he needs any books and he asks me if I can print out pictures from May Day and the FTP march he went on only hours before he was arrested.
As we are leaving the visiting room, I ask Cari what she thought of her first jail visit, and she says, “It was okay. He totally doesn’t belong in there, though. He just seems like some kid. How old is he again?”
“Twenty,” I respond.