Recently I visited one of the US's largest jails to interview female inmates for a filming project I was working on. It was one of the most horrifying and interesting experiences I have ever had.
Dallas County Jail, in Texas, is one of the largest detention facilities in the US with seven thousand inmates. In case you don’t know, Texas is one of the few states that still has the death penalty and it’s fair to say this is the tough face of American justice. The jail holds everyone from those accused of capital murder to people arrested for traffic violations.
From the outside, The Lew Sterret Justice Centre is just another any other anonymous office building, but inside it’s a very different story. It has an atmosphere that gets under your skin.
At the reception, humourless security guards looked over our paperwork and made us walk through the metal detectors machine. They jokingly tell us that it's for our own protection as inmates would try to use any items they had to hand as weapons. Next was a briefing on security. We will be face to face with people who have committed murder, rapists and child killers.
We start our tour at the male inmate isolation wing. Each cell has cold grey steel doors with an envelope opening. There is a stillness here and the quiet that made you concentrate on the noises that come from behind the doors. It reminded me of the cell, trainee cop Clarice Starling visited the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the terrifying Silence of the Lambs film. Despite being fascinated, I pleaded with the guard to leave.
To tour the female wing of the jail, we were assigned a woman guard to show us around and try to keep us safe. She was in her 20s and took her job very seriously: her mantra was this is jail, it’s not supposed to be comfortable. Before Dallas, she had worked in Angola- the notorious maximum-security jail that houses death row prisoners.
Inmates were housed according to their security level: the more dangerous your crime, the tougher security. In one area we met with women who were housed in multiple- level jail detention area. Behind physical bars that were remotely controlled by guards. It was like finding yourself in some futuristic version of prison, fortress-like and impersonal. The steel bars and the lingering smell of food and humans living in close proximity lingered in the air.
Lots of the inmates wanted to tell their story; opening up about what brought them here.
From casual violence at home to drug dealer boyfriends to a road traffic accident that left a 5-year-old girl dead. They spoke about being addicted to drugs, their unhappy childhoods and their faith in God. Bizarrely, the women inmates we met told me that being the jail made them feel safe.
Others had their methods to survive the jail’s regime and violence. A pretty 20-something Hispanic girl told us she had people 'messing with her'. Her reaction was to use chill sauce packets hidden in socks as a weapon. Given the ever-present threats in the jail, it comes as no surprise that beds in the jail’s mental health facility are full with up to 1500 inmates needing psychiatric help daily.
On day 2, we moved on to meet female inmates held in the isolation cells. Prisoners are here if they are a danger to others or themselves. I stood in one empty cell: if you held your arms out, you could touch both sides of the cell walls. Guards told us that inmates would spend 23 hours in their cell and lights were permanently on.
One inmate agreed to talk to us. Once the guards released her from the cell and she sat down in front of us. She was a young black woman who explained that her mother was also involved in the crime but her court date meant she couldn’t go into detail. A first-timer, she came across as polite, bright and shell-shocked to find herself behind bars. Later I searched newspaper reports to find out more about the crime. The woman I met hours earlier was part of a family group that beat up a pregnant woman forcing her mother to miscarry. It remains on the worst crimes I have come across.
In other encounters with the women inmates, there was more of a relaxed atmosphere a bit like the fictional jail show, Orange is New Black. In the minimum security, the detention centre is built on a circle format, there were bunks where the women slept, and in the centre was a console where guards controlled everything: who comes in and out, lights out, showers and contact with rest of jail.
Everything is open and in plain sight, privacy not an option. Women showered in small open cubicles.
The women here were able to join general jail population classes. Subjects on offer range from bible classes, to art therapy and studying for a high school diploma. Some inmates choose to work in the jail’s kitchen. Here I met gang members, one woman who told me in hushed tones that she’d been raped by a guard, for others it felt like a good place to detox/ recover from bad boyfriends/ dysfunctional families and feel safe.
At the end of the visit, my head was full of the stories and people we’d met. The whole experience is a weird combination of female bonding and horror stories. Jail holds a fascination and its not something I will ever forget.