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Going to jail

You enter through a door in the back where a big sign says ALL PRISONERS MUST BE SHACKLED. Prisoners who have never been to the jail generally go to the front door and press the bell and are told by the crackling intercom to go around the back, which they do. To get to the back door you walk through the car park, where there are cop cars and tow trucks. At the back door you wait with the other prisoners.

New prisoners are admitted at seven in the evening.

There are seven men waiting by the door tonight. Five are white and two are brown. The youngest might be 20 years old and the oldest might be 60. Four men have plastic grocery bags with their personal effects and one man has a brown paper bag with his personal effects and another man cradles his personal effects in his arms and the youngest man has no personal effects that I can see.

One man waits by the door for a moment and then strolls over to a car across the street. There is a woman in the car, in the driver’s seat, and he says something to her but she doesn’t look at him or speak to him. The man opens the back door of the car and snaps his fingers and a dog jumps out and nuzzles his hand and the dog and the man walk off around the block, the man lighting a cigarette as he goes.

One of the men by the back door of the jail is standing with a woman and two small boys. The man and the woman and the boys all have short blonde hair. The woman is talking quietly to the man. The boys are maybe six and four years old and they are running around and knocking each other down and bickering and laughing and whining. The younger boy tries to spit on his brother but he misses. The woman says something terse and firm to the boys and for a half-second they settle down but soon they are crashing around again.

The blonde man watches them but he doesn’t say anything.

The man with the personal effects cradled in his arms is surrounded by a knot of friends who are not going to jail this evening. The friends are all joking and laughing and the man going to jail banters a little too but then he falls silent.

After a while a police officer shows up with a roster of the prisoners who are to be admitted this evening. He reads off the names one by one and as he reads your name you line up by the door. When he has read the names of six of the men he prepares to open the door, but the seventh man, the man who looks like he might be 20, says to him, ‘My name is Moreno.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ says the policeman.
‘Sir, I don’t have you on the admitting list.’
‘I must be here seven o’clock.’
‘Moreno. I have a letter.’
‘May I see the letter?’
‘I don’t have the letter now. Moreno. Seven o’clock.’
The policeman talks to the intercom for a moment and then he turns back to the young man and says, ‘Well, we don’t have you on the admitting list for tonight, sir, but come on in and we will square this away, OK?’
‘OK,’ says Moreno.
‘You have any personal effects, Mr. Moreno?’
‘No sir.’
‘OK then. Come on in.’

The door opens and the men walk in single file under the sign that says ALL PRISONERS MUST BE SHACKLED. Three of the men with personal effects in plastic bags go first, and then the man who had been walking the dog and smoking, and then the man with his personal effects in his arms, and then the blonde man, who kneels down for a moment to hug the two boys before he goes through the door. Last is Mr Moreno, and then the policeman.

The door closes with a sigh and a hiss.

As soon as the door clicks the blonde woman walks away fast and the boys run ahead of her, the older boy chasing the younger one. The friends who had been joking and laughing drift away slowly, and the woman in the car drives away fast, the dog peering at me from the back seat.

I walk up the street thinking of caged people and why we cage people and about the people who love the people who get caged every hour of every day in America, and then I walk past a slew of young oak trees all flittering and glowing in the late summer light, you know how in August the sunlight bends and everything seems lit up from the inside like you’re in a movie? 

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, USA, and the author most recently of The Wet Engine, about ‘the mangle & muddle & music of hearts’. His book The Grail, about a year in the life of an Oregon vineyard, will be published this year by One Day Hill Publishers in Victoria.



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