By A Public Defender

I sat in a prison cell yesterday. And not your regular bullpen where they cram in 4 people who’re waiting to go to court. The real deal. Where our clients sleep at night (and often during the day). That of the 60 square foot variety.

There was a bed – a small bed – that was the length of the room. At the foot of the bed a metal toilet, with no cover. Just beyond that the heavy metal door, with a slit for a window. The door was maybe 3 feet wide, if that. At the head of the bed, if you were laying on your right side, you’d be about half a foot away from an ugly metal desk with holes that pretended to be drawers. This could not have been more than a foot long. The bed was flush with one wall. The desk with the opposite.

The bed looked hard, cold and dirty. And that’s it. This particular cell happened to have a window at the head of the bed. A window looking out onto nothing. Any future inhabitant of this particular cell would have it good. It was a single. Across the narrow passageway from this cell was another, identical in every respect except two: it was a double cell and there was no window. (Here’s a post I wrote a while ago about a different take on prisons in a foreign country.)

I didn’t have the courage to ask my escort to have them close the cell door for a minute, locking me in. It was nauseating and claustrophobic enough as it is. Maybe I was having a panic attack, or maybe the air in there was dead, like the spirits of the men that inhabit these cells, but I thought I was going to faint.

I willed myself to stand there, though, for a minute. To look around at the bare walls, the bare desk, the dirty toilet and imagine someone “living” there.

I even briefly closed my eyes and tried to picture myself there, day in and day out, for months, which turned into years, which turned into decades.

Would I survive? How does anyone? Would I give up and stop bathing, shaving, eating? Would I maintain my sanity or would I quickly decompensate? How long would it be before I’d want to kill myself?

Luckily, my stint in a jail cell ended rather quickly. As I stepped out and waited for my escort to guide me to the next location, I peeked into the cell across the way – the double – and it was occupied. Two men, sleeping ramrod straight (for these “beds” are as wide as the human body and no more), in a dark, dingy cell. One lifted his head as I was spying and looked at me. I looked away. I didn’t want to see his lifeless eyes.

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Comment on this Post


Thank you for this illuminating and clear description of some of the painfully bereft conditions of prison cells. It's so important to be able to create an image in one's mind of someone else's reality. At the very least I believe this leads us closer to conceptualizing the importance of being active change makers for policies that support our humanity. Jocelyn