Riding the Orient Road Express

By Mitch Traphagen  (mitch@observernews.net)

TAMPA - The sound is distinctive. A heavy metal door slams shut behind you. You realize that there is no easy way out. Where you are, where you are going is no longer something that is within your control.

These thoughts came to mind during a simple visit, a tour of the Morgan Street Jail in downtown Tampa. Everyone in the group knew they were getting out, yet the eerie sound of the heavy steel door slamming shut made a mark on virtually everyone in the group.

On July 29, a large group from Kingís Point in Sun City Center took a tour of two Hillsborough County Sheriffís Office jails - the Morgan Street Jail and the Orient Road Jail.

The result was an eye-opening experience that can only be gained by being there. You have seen jails on television and in movies, you have read about them in books and newspapers. Until you have been in one, however, they are abstract, the true impact of what is happening does not hit home.

For those on the tour it was somewhat frightening yet it was also impressive. For many, there were moments when it was downright uncomfortable - even embarrassing.

The Hillsborough Hilton

The smell was distinctive and it was not particularly pleasant.

Although the floors and walls of the Morgan Street Jail were scrubbed clean, there was a distinctive odor. It was as if despair, fear, anger and resignation mixed with a locker room kind of smell.

I have never smelled that odor before but I will know it instantly if I come across it again.

The Morgan Street Jail is an old style jail. There are cells with bars on them. The guards walk the catwalks while the inmates do their time safely locked away from society.

Surprisingly, a large tour group of reasonably wealthy retired people didnít cause much of a stir. We walked within grabbing distance of the cells yet there was no activity, there were no catcalls or obscene comments. Corporal Fleming, the HCSO officer who accompanied the group, repeatedly said "Good Morning" and a few inmates responded in kind.

That was it - there was nothing more. No hands reached out from behind the bars to grab elderly women, there were no angry shouts or slurs. Only a handful of the inmates even bothered to look as the group passed.

For more than a few of the residents of Kingís Point, however, it was an uncomfortable moment. Virtually all of them lowered their eyes as we walked past one cell after another. The bars provided a full view but few took the opportunity to look closely.

In fact, I didnít notice a single person in the group looking into a cell long enough to make eye contact with an inmate. Instead they kept their eyes lowered, slightly ahead, stealing occasional glances into the cells.

The people from Kingís Point were raised to be respectful. For virtually all of them, a jail is outside of their realm of experience - their upbringing didnít allow them to stare into the "homes" of the inmates. They are not peeping toms. They are not disrespectful.

"The Most Important Day"

What they would have seen were cells of up to six men. Some of them were in various stages of undress. Most of them were indifferent to the well dressed retired people passing by.

Cell after cell the appearance was the same. The distinctive odor came to life in vivid detail. This was not television, this was not a movie. These were real men and they were locked up. There was no air conditioned tour bus waiting for them outside. According to Ruskin Community Resource Deputy Jeff Service, most of these men were the more hardened criminals. Most of them were facing hard time in a state prison.

The cells provided absolutely no privacy. Cement made up three of the walls but bars made up the fourth wall. Everything they do is in full view of not only their cell mates but also of anyone who walks by on the catwalk. Even the toilet is in plain sight for all to see.

The right to privacy was given up through their own choice. It was given up the moment society was required to intervene in their lives. For the inmates, that became clear the moment they entered the door at Morgan Street.

The Morgan Street facility is known as the Hillsborough Hilton. It is an old style jail and the HCSO will be glad to be rid of it. Rows of cells and bars are not how things are done today. The change to more modern facilities is not for the benefit of the inmates, it is for the benefit of the people who work there. It is for the benefit of society.

The professionalism of the HCSO staff was outstanding. It was clear that even the inmates respected them. And no, they didnít have to - since many were looking at hard time anyway, they likely do not feel the need to be on their best behavior. The HCSO officers earned their respect by doing their jobs, by providing a level of respect for the men as human beings.

"We really donít care what you did on the outside when you come to our jail," said Deputy David Parrish. "In some ways weíre dealing with a bunch of bad grown up kids."

For someone coming into this system for the first time it is likely mind numbing. "If I bring someone in and they are respectful, then I will do what I can to make it as easy for them as possible," said Corporal Joe Burt. "I will try to explain to them what is going to happen, what they can expect. I will make it as comfortable as going to jail can be."

That type of professionalism appears to be recognized and appreciated. Anything that smooths a very difficult road is likely to be appreciated.

On an average day, 182 people are arrested in Hillsborough County. For someone coming into the system for the first time there is little comfort. Yet even here, there are choices to be made, choices that will set the course for their stay in the Hillsborough Hilton.

In jail, as in life, first impressions are important. "The most important thing is the first day," said Parrish.

The Orient Road Express

The tour continued at the Orient Road Jail. In what was probably a first time event, the large, modern Kingís Point bus slowly entered the secured central booking area of the jail. The visitors were greeted by HCSO Major Elaine White, the division commander.

As at Morgan Street, the visitors were given color coded badges. They were to be visible and under no circumstances should they be lost. Group members were to remain with the others in their color group.

Orient Road is a busy place. As the large group of visitors entered the central booking area, no one even skipped a beat. Not the members of the HCSO, not even those who were involuntarily making the facility their new home.

The staff went about their job as if a hundred or so retired people filled the intake area on a regular basis.

There are no bars at Orient Road, there are pods. Heavy wooden doors make up the cells but inmates are allowed to move about their pod, assuming their behavior warrants that privilege.

The ability to move around provides a very strong incentive.

The typical cell contains two bunks, a small desk, a sink and a toilet. While the toilet is in plain view of a cell mate, some privacy from the rest of the pod is potentially offered by the door.

The sounds of heavy steel doors, however, remain. To enter the pod area, the visitors were required to go through one heavily secured door and into a chamber. The first door was locked behind them before another heavy steel door into the pod was opened. The chamber was not large enough to hold the entire group at one time.

Inside the pod, HCSO staff members discussed the operation of the jail while orange clad inmates did their chores only feet away from the visitors. Again, there were no aggressive moves, there were no catcalls. The officers were clearly in control.

The tour included a visit to the command center. It was a miniature version of NASAís Mission Control with television monitors providing a complete view of the 636,000 square foot, 3,373 bed facility. A complete outline of the building with warning lights made up the center of the large screen.

Like Morgan Street, the professionalism of the staff clearly came through to the visitors. These are people who know what they are doing. They treat their incredibly serious jobs with the respect that they deserve.

"We have the ability to take away someoneís freedom..."

Reading a newspaper story that involves someone being sent to jail is an abstract image. And why not, it happens 182 times a day in Hillsborough County alone. Most readers probably donít think anything past the concept that a criminal is off the street.

When faced with the reality, however, when seeing the despair, indifference and anger on the faces of men, having a smell burned into memory, the entire system becomes a staggering reality. It is a huge system created for the sole purpose of managing people who canít manage themselves. Thousands of people are incarcerated and millions of dollars are spent to keep them that way. Some of the best people in our community have dedicated their lives to maintaining it, to ensuring that the system works as it should.

The buildings are huge, the images are stark and the reality is staggering. There are people who have lost their freedom of movement. They canít just run out to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper. They canít just step out for some fresh air. They are not free to do that.

On the other side of the coin, yet just as staggering, there are people who have the ability to take away that freedom. That responsibility is enormous.

"Itís taken very seriously," said Community Resource Deputy Rob Thornton. "We have the ability to take away someoneís freedom. We have to know that we are doing the right thing."

Someoneís Child

For the people working in the jails, they have the satisfaction of knowing that their difficult jobs are a benefit to society. On a personal level, there is little more than that. There is little humor to be found in this line of work.

For the inmates, life is no cake walk either. Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, a jail cell is not a stop on easy street. While a few televisions are available, they are only able to receive channels 2 and 16 along with some religious broadcasting.

There are no workout rooms, inmates are not spending their days leisurely bulking up. They are required to earn their keep, tax dollars are not spent on most of their programs . They have to pay themselves.

There is nothing comfortable about being confined to a cell. For the most part, the jails are overcrowded. Business for jailers doesnít seem to slow regardless of the economy. Again, despite rumors to the contrary, no one gets out of jail because of overcrowding. "It just gets more uncomfortable in jail as we fill up," said Dep. Parrish.

Lunch was served at Orient Road by a group of inmates. The men used terms like Sir and Maíam. For most of the visitors, this was probably the first time they have exchanged words with someone in custody.

At the end of the tour, in a large hallway invisibly bordered by heavy steel gates ready to appear in an emergency, the visitors from Kings Point mingled while a group of orange clad inmates silently walked further into the depths of the massive facility. The men walked in single file almost pressed up against one wall. A lone guard maintained their pace alongside.

"They are someoneís child," said one woman in the group. "They are someoneís child," she softly repeated.

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