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Burden on the block

How bad is the Pinellas County Jail's overcrowding? A Times reporter spends 48 hours there to see for himself.

By JACOB FRIES
Published January 14, 2007


It's almost midnight and I'm in a plastic bed on a concrete floor, 2 feet from an open toilet. I can't take my eyes off the kid. Baby-faced with the words "Young Money" tattooed on his neck, he's jumping around down by my feet. He shakes the steel bars of our cell door. He tries to pace but can't because I'm in the way. "Whoooooooooooah!" screams Young Money, his 18-year-old voice breaking.

Seven of us are locked in a cell built for four. You can hardly stand up. Breathe and you inhale dirty socks and damp towels. Twenty-six men are in this cellblock, and their shouting and hooting and coughing shakes my insides.

Young Money, the loudest of the bunch, works on everyone's last nerve.

"Have a sit down, Josh!" pleads Unc, as in "uncle," a jail veteran twice the kid's age. "Calm those nerves."

Young Money ignores him.

"I'm going to smack somebody before I leave," he says, sneering at Unc. "I'm going to smack your ass!"

My first night in maximum security, many questions hit me. What crimes are these men accused of? What diseases do they carry? Is Young Money for real?

But now, lying prone on the floor, I can think of only one:

When the lights go down, how dark does it get?

- - -

The Pinellas County Jail is grossly overcrowded. Built for 2,400 men and women, it routinely holds 3,800. Hundreds must sleep in portable beds on the floor, often next to toilets or beneath sinks.

The crush of inmates presents enormous challenges. Everything is harder and more dangerous.

- Attacks on jail staff jumped 82 percent last year. Assaults among inmates were up 63 percent.

- The infirmary, designed for 44, usually has 70 to 80 inmates a day. Those with nonessential medical needs often wait months to be treated. When a contagious disease such as chickenpox breaks out, the staff quarantines the entire cellblock and lets the disease run its course.

- Because isolation cells are maxed out, many inmates classified as potentially dangerous must be mixed in with the general population.

- Costs to taxpayers keep soaring. The jail's annual budget now exceeds $121-million. That's enough to pay all the annual expenses of 12 Pinellas high schools. The crowding and costs will only get worse: By 2015, the jail is expected to house 4,600 inmates daily.

To see the living conditions firsthand, the St. Petersburg Times proposed to Sheriff Jim Coats that a reporter spend 48 hours as an inmate in a maximum security cellblock.

Coats agreed. He ranks the exploding jail population as one of the county's chief public concerns.

"When you get a lot of inmates in a small confined area and somebody's living like that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it just breeds conflict," Coats said. "I think the staff has been nervous. ... The potential is there for something really bad to happen."

- - -

WEDNESDAY 9 A.M. At booking, I am photographed, fingerprinted, strip-searched and issued a uniform - blue pants and a blue pullover T-shirt.

A barrel-chested deputy with buzzed hair escorts me to a maximum security cellblock or "pod" called G-5. It is classified nonviolent, he says as we walk past corridors of caged men.

That means they are currently accused of nonviolent crimes, he says. They may have done terrible, violent things before.

You have my respect, he says, unable to stifle a smile. You should be fine. Just scream or pound on the bars if you need help.

It is 1 p.m. A heavy, barred door slides open, and I enter the cellblock's common area called the day room. Four metal tables are bolted to the floor. Stools, too. A TV is suspended high up one wall.

The pod smells like a locker-room. Designed for 16, there are 26 of us. Men are everywhere: at the tables, doing push-ups, in bed.

The deputy directs me to one of the pod's four cells and points to a spot on the floor. My spot. It's just inside the bars, a half step from the toilet, inches from a man in a lower bunk.

The cell is 12 feet by 16 feet. The door is so narrow I can't carry in my bed unless I turn it on its side. When I do, everything spills onto the floor, my bedding, pillow, clothes.

These cells were built with four bunks, two on each opposing wall. As the inmate population swelled in the mid 1990s, two more bunks were shoehorned in.

With those six bunks occupied, newbies like me sleep on the floor on portable plastic beds called "boats."

I say hello to my cellmates - Young Money, Unc, Hot Tub, Doc, Sleepy and Ernie - and apologize for taking up precious floor space. The guys know I'm a reporter, but also that I'm here to live just like they do.

Matt Reichstein, 25, bunks in the next cell. Shaved head and a tattooed crucifix on his left shoulder, he walks up as I'm making my bed. It's a pretty nice pod, he says. Everyone gets along - most of the time.

He takes the roll of sheets from my hand and shows me how to tie them so they stay put. Be careful, he warns, staph is everywhere. You don't know who had this bed before you.

"You don't wanna be touching the mattress or your pillow," says Reichstein, who is accused of escape and disorderly conduct. "In fact, you might wanna wipe them down first."

Reichstein continues his health lecture. It's almost impossible to stay clean, he says, let alone healthy when you're living on top of each other. There's not enough soap in the world. Everyone's coughing and sneezing. Colds last for weeks. Then you have to worry about the scary stuff, hepatitis, AIDS.

You'll probably get sick in two days, he says.

Doc, lying on a top bunk, says he has operated on the boils of four guys with staph, a common skin infection. He used a shaving razor to open the sores and drain fluid. Better than waiting for a real doctor.

Another inmate pulls back his cheek to reveal a rotting tooth he says he has been waiting three months to have pulled. Another recounts a day when he was doubled over on the floor with ulcer pains and nowhere to turn.

I see the reality: Overcrowding poses immense health care challenges. Colds and common infections are difficult to combat. Only the sickest - those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, addiction withdrawal - can have a spot in the infirmary. Others must tough it out on the cellblock.

As I introduce myself, I notice no one shakes my hand. Later, when everyone's doing push-ups, I notice they wear flip flops on their palms to avoid touching the floor.

Reichstein leads me across the pod, to the sinks and shower on the far wall. Remember, he tells me, wash your hands a lot.

- - -

"Trays up!" someone shouts.

Dinner is at 4 p.m., early enough so inmates don't have to choose between food and family that might visit in the evening. It's the last meal for 12 hours.

Tepid macaroni and cheese, a sausage, white beans, three slices of white bread and bread pudding are served on a tray that smells of day-old dishwater. I grab mine as it's passed through a slit in the security door and try to find somewhere to sit.

The day room's four tables can't seat all 26 of us. What results is a treacherous game of musical chairs. I quickly find an open stool. An inmate tries to squeeze next to me, but a second man, larger and scarier, shoulders in.

"Mine!" he declares.

Emptying the salt and pepper packets, I eat and try not to taste. Around me, an auction begins.

"Beans for bread?"

"Mac 'n' cheese for sausage?"

"Half a sausage for milk tomorrow?"

The bartering is civil. But later, inmates explain that food causes fights. It's part of the "T factor," as in trays, telephones and TV, the three things most likely to bring men to blows.

In a packed jail, even small stuff wears on you. You're splattered with urine or you can't find a seat or you have to wait all night for the phone. Then something in you snaps and you find yourself fighting over whether to watch CSI or football.

Deputies learn to look for clues. Two inmates "strapping up" their shoelaces signals a coming fight. But often deputies are at a loss when they find an inmate with a black eye or bloody nose. They guess they see no more than 30 percent of what happens in a cellblock, a veteran deputy later tells me.

Plus, they can't see what's inside the inmates' heads. Those entering jail already are angry, antisocial, destructive. Add in overcrowding and, mental health experts say, that can push someone functioning well on the outside to violence. Some stressed inmates can exhibit symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder upon release.

Exhausted myself, I leave the card table and head for my spot, hoping to rest. Judge Judy is blaring on the TV so I know it's at least 4:30. Inmates use sit-coms and reality shows to tell time in a place with no clocks.

- - -

I can't really rest because the men are wired, fueled by a spike in blood sugar from the 4 o'clock feeding. Shirts are stripped off, the TV is turned up to shaking-the-screen volume.

Push-ups, break dancing, shadowboxing: They try to wear themselves out, work off frustrations.

The men tell me they need to feel tired. I begin to understand their coping mechanisms. One guy climbs up the cell bars, drops down and starts again.

The Obsessive TV Watchers blast Dancing with the Stars and stand on stools to hear better.

Young Money flits around the cellblock, from a table of card players to a cell where guys are doing chin-ups. He sings like a teenage rocker, then the next minute sulks like a boy wanting his mother.

"I wanna go home," he says. "I wanna get back with my girl and get my life back right."

Young Money is Joshua Lerner. He's 18, lives in Largo. Any day, he's shipping off to state prison for a two-year stretch for breaking into cars and a house, swiping a motorcycle, two handguns and some other things. He has been arrested before, but this will be his first trip to prison.

"You should work out," Reichstein tells Lerner. "You're going to hell."

Reichstein says this while doing curls jailhouse style. He holds a towel and curls his arms to his chest while another inmate pulls down.

I've followed Reichstein through his routine: push-ups, curls and dips between a top bunk and a shelf. I'm dripping because the AC is on the fritz. I have no choice, I realize. I head for the dreaded shower.

Two shower heads are in a stall with three walls. Soap, a fresh shirt and a towel in hand, I step onto the rubber mat. A thick plastic curtain is all that separates me from two well-used toilets.

I'm happy to discover that it's cellblock protocol for just one man to shower at a time. The main hazard, it turns out, is not dropping soap, but someone with indigestion camped on the can.

The water is warm, not hot, and the soap doesn't seem to rinse off. I wear flip flops and try not to touch the rubber mat.

"Coffee!"

Someone outside the curtain hands me a cup. Inside are instant grounds. I fill it with warm water and hand it back.

Back at my spot, I hang my wet towel on a bar in the cell, next to all the other drying towels and rinsed-out socks, boxers and undershirts.

A crackling, walkie-talkie voice comes on the intercom: "Lockdown!" It's 11 p.m. and the men, as hyper as ever, pile into their cells. Behind us, the doors mash shut, steel on steel.

- - -

I lie on my back, adjusting and readjusting my sheets, paranoid about touching the bare mattress. Ernie's feet hang off his bunk and in my face. Five hours till the doors open again. I pull the blanket up to my chin.

This is when Young Money goes bonkers at my feet. He grips the cell door. He howls across the pod. He sits on the edge of the toilet, then jumps up. He jokes, then threatens.

Eventually I realize he is just a scared kid, frightened about what's ahead.

I'd heard it many times that day: Uncertainty is an enemy in this place.

In prison you know exactly how much time you're doing. But in jail, where 70 percent are awaiting trial, inmates wonder about everything: When will I see a judge? Will my lawyer fight hard? Will I get off?

Unc, unable to get Lerner to calm down, turns to the topic he knows is gnawing on the kid - the life that awaits him "up the road."

You can survive if you're smart and keep your cool, says Unc, known on the outside as Stanley Sneed. He is 44, facing drug and weapons possession charges.

"Keep people in front of you," Sneed tells Lerner. "And if there's a group, focus on the one closest to you."

Lerner is full of teenage bravado.

"I can get my ass beat and killed as long as I hurt one of 'em," he declares, convincing no one.

Hours later - I'm guessing it's 2 a.m. - the call comes.

"Inmate Lerner, roll up!"

Lerner rolls up his mattress and sheets. He tosses Doc his sweatshirt while the others paw at the rest of his stuff. He stands at the bars, waiting for the door to open. The guys in the other cells mercilessly hurl jokes about rape and prison love.

Everyone in my cell stays silent. I see through the half light that Lerner's eyes are big and dark. For the first time, he is still. Then he's gone.

- - -

THURSDAY 4 A.M. I can't believe we get up at such an hour. Breakfast is served early so guys can eat and get to court. I got one hour sleep.

"Eggs and erasers," as inmates call it, is reconstituted eggs with specks of processed meat, cold grits, two slices of bread and juice or milk.

I'm too late to get a stool, so standing beside a table, I wrap some eggs in a slice of bread, tuck the edges like a burrito and bite off half.

Why don't people sleep at night, I ask the guys.

Staying up all night and sleeping during the day blurs time, makes it go faster, says Reichstein.

I give away my grits, figuring goodwill could come in handy, and collapse on my bed. Recreation time in the outdoor yard is canceled because overnight rains have made the pavement too slippery.

Later, over a game of spades, several guys tell me not to think all the jail is like our cellblock. "This is Mayberry," Doc says.

Across the hall, they say, that's more like it. That's G-6, a "violent" pod with accused murderers and men facing life sentences. They have nothing to lose.

The two pods go to the rec yard at the same time and for that reason my card-playing friends say they have not been outside in months. Too dangerous.

I peer into G-6. It's even more crowded. A man meets my gaze. He extends an index finger, makes a slicing motion across his neck, points at me.

That's Damian, my cellmates say. He's accused of killing a couple in Clearwater and stealing their safe. I say I wrote a few articles about the slayings.

"I guess he didn't like your coverage," one says.

A few minutes later, a GED textbook comes sliding into our cellblock, just making it under the entry door. It's from the guys in G-6. There is a note inside. An inmate reads it and hands it to me.

"We got a few guys over here that would like to talk to you."

I show it around. Stay out of the rec yard tomorrow, says an inmate, himself at least 300 pounds. There are too many inmates for the deputies to watch.

My heart pounding, I say, No, I'm going.

That evening after dinner, a dozen deputies enter the cellblock with a huge tub on rollers. They demand everyone's hardback books. Everyone assumes they are looking for drugs and weapons. After G-5, they search G-6.

The guys grumble about the shakedown, but I'm relieved. No one should have a shank in the rec yard tomorrow.

- - -

After lockdown my second night, Unc shows me how to make earplugs. Using the cap from a tube of toothpaste, he drills plugs out of a flip flop. When you are packed in like sardines, he says, you learn to adapt.

Good thing, too.

As soon as the cell doors slam shut - squeezing everyone together till morning - the noise swells, just like last night.

Concrete and steel are poor acoustics. Singing, screaming, joking, toilets flushing, even sneezes reverberate, bouncing around as if in a cave.

The noise is constant and thick and so powerful I literally find it hard to complete thoughts.

Except one: One more night, and I'm out.

I stay on the floor a second night, even though Lerner's bunk is free. Normally, guys work their way up, off the floor and up the bunks.

But I decide to tough it out. I puff up my pillow and wrap a sweatshirt tight around my eyes and ears. Finally I fall asleep.

- - -

FRIDAY 4 A.M. I wobble into the day room and get in the breakfast line. I eat standing again. Two boiled eggs.

I fumble back to the cell and pull on my sneakers. I know what's coming. The rec yard. And Damian.

Sitting on my bed, I play out fantasies. I know deputies armed with rifles and rubber bullets guard the rec yard from a tower.

What if they think I'm the instigator and they shoot me?

How many punches would I take before the deputies could rescue me?

Will Reichstein, Doc, the other guys in my cellblock have my back?

I lie on my bed, not so concerned anymore whether I touch the mattress. I've had perhaps four hours sleep the past 48 hours. I drift off - I'm pretty sure.

"Inmate Fries, roll up!"

The voice on the intercom jolts me. I was expecting the call, but not before going to rec. But I'm not complaining.

I say so long to my cellmates, roll up my mattress and lug it to the pod's security door. I am met by a deputy and a new inmate, just booked in. Deer-eyed, he scoops up my mattress and boat. He'll be on the floor tonight.

- - -

The next day, I'm home in bed with my worst cold in years. My head pounds, my sinuses ache, my nose is a fountain. I go to CVS, talk with a pharmacist and get the potent stuff. It doesn't help.

I lather Vicks VapoRub on my face, neck and chest. I sleep 14 hours straight but wake up with the same hot air balloons in my lungs. I realize I brought home more than the story of G-5. Confined to bed and couch, I do four more days.

During Fries' 48 hours

Avg. inmate population: 3,683

Avg. sleeping on floor: 345

Avg. number of deputies on duty: 155

Fights: 14

Number of new inmates booked in: 319

Number of inmates released: 313

Inmates transported to hospital: 1