Fish Bowl

Fish Bowl

     King County Jail does have some of the conventional barred cells you see in movies and on television but those are reserved for people who demonstrate an inability to get along in general population.

     Everyone else is placed in what we called “The Fish Bowl”.  It was a large room, maybe 30 x 60 feet with one wall entirely thick glass panes through which the guards could keep an eye on the ongoings in the room.  The rooms were designed to hold 14 inmates each but while I was there, there were typically between 21-23.

     There was one toilet, one urinal, one shower, and one sink for 23 people.  You can probably imagine how that went.  There were bunk bed type arrangements for 14 people, except there were no ladders to get to the upper bunk, you had to climb on furniture.  They had added beds length-wise into the room to accommodate more prisoners but no additional toilets, sinks, showers, etc.  And even with those added beds people had to sleep on the floor.  I spent time sleeping on the floor.

     My first three days there I was stuck in the psych ward, another fish bowl except no beds on the walls or elevated, everyone slept on the floor, no sheets, and no underwear.  I was placed there because my lawyer supposedly told them I was suicidal.  I don’t think I did anything to suggest that.

     To be sure, I did have some mental issues but they weren’t suicide.  I had been on Ritalin and Citalopram to treat anxiety and ADHD symptoms and King County took those medications away.  Ritalin helps when you take it but when you go off the symptoms are worse than before you took it.  Citalopram is something you’re supposed to gradually reduce, not stop cold turkey.  For the first couple of weeks I found it impossible to get through a single paragraph in a book without my mind wandering. However frustrating that was, it didn’t make me suicidal.

     The psych ward was an extreme experience.  There were people wandering around talking to and sometimes yelling at non-existent people.  There was a man who would strip off his clothes and stand up and masturbate.  The guards would yell at him over the PA but that’s all they would do and he would just ignore them. He had a striking resemblance to Theodore Kaczynski.

     For some reason sheets and underwear were dangerous as if you couldn’t hang yourself with outer clothes or blankets.  Also dangerous were books and games that were present in the normal fish bowl.  And when we drew chess pieces out of paper and played on a table that had a chess board built in, they came and took those dangerous pieces of paper away.

     I told them I was not suicidal.  They said they would have a psychologist evaluate me. Three days later they pulled me out of the cell and their psychologist interviewed me.  He asked me if I had any suicidal thoughts.  I told him that only as a mental exercise, I figured out that if I wanted to kill myself in the psych ward, I would smash the plastic cover over the shower light, unscrew the bulb, and stick my finger in the socket whilst standing barefoot on the wet steel and undoubtedly grounded floor.  I thought that if I had demonstrated that I had the ability but had declined to take advantage of it they’d let me out of the psych ward.  It worked, I was transferred to a general population fish bowl the next day.  Perhaps they were worried that I might share that with other psych ward inmates.

     I was transferred up to the 8th floor, one of two floors of general population fish bowls. There I was the 23rd inmate in a 14 man room.  I snore badly.  You can guess how that went over.  I’d have to wait for everyone else to go to sleep before I could, else I’d be harassed.  I would wake up with big supply of pencil erasers that people would throw at me in my sleep.

     It was an uncomfortable two months.  Anytime I had to go to the bathroom there was likely half a dozen other people already in line.  And you had to do your business in plain view of 22 other inmates, the guards, and whoever else was in the guard room.  And you often had to do it next to someone using the urinal or someone in the shower or someone shaving because everything was together with no dividers.  It seemed as if their intent was to make the experience as dehumanizing as possible.

     There was inadequate fresh air.  The entire room stank of sweat and shit.  And if that weren’t bad enough, we had one alcoholic there that would start a new batch of pruno every week.  He would trade desirable food items for fruit which he could ferment and use a garbage bag for that purpose.  The way it smelled, I couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly drink that stuff.

     Some of the guards were sadistic bastards, most of them were indifferent, but there was one guard, an ex-Dallas Cowboys football player, that I could tell really wanted to see us reform ourselves and become productive citizens again.  He’d come in every evening for count just before bedtime and give us a bit of a tough love pep-talk and you could tell he was sincere.  I always wondered how an ex Dallas Cowboy football player could end up a prison guard.  He must have had his own sad story but never did relate it.

     Every week someone from the Jehovah’s Witnesses would come visit me and I can’t tell you how much that meant.  I looked forward to those visits as much as family visits.  They told me they’d have someone visit me in Shelton but it never happened.  I don’t know if that’s because the prison wouldn’t approve it or because they didn’t have anyone in the area that had time.

     One thing I learned through this whole experience, God can use anyone, regardless of their religion, if they allow themselves to be used for his purposes.

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