JAILED  FOR GOOD: How I helped ‘break in’ the new Chisago County jail

Two-person cells surround the common area of one of the cellblocks at the new Chisago County jail. A facing wall is filled with mirrored windows where correctional officers can see in, but inmates can’t see out.  The general population block offers molded plastic chairs.  

Chisago County Sheriff's Office
JAILED  FOR GOOD: How I helped ‘break in’ the new Chisago County jail

I don’t have a bucket list. And if I did, I doubt “Go to jail” would be on it. But when I heard the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office was offering a night in their new jail to help train staff, I was curious. I wanted to take a chance on what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hopefully, anyway.

The “Overnight Lock-Up,” scheduled for May 5-6, was announced on the department’s Facebook page in April and promptly went viral – and not in a good way. Lots of haters denounced the idea for lots of reasons, but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from applying for the opportunity.  

Since the event was open to residents of Chisago County only, the number got pared down to only 51 eligible applicants, who were all offered a spot. Of those, 28 showed up for the mandatory orientation May 2, and those same 28 showed up for the overnighter on Saturday at 3 p.m. 

Jail Administrator Chris Thoma told the crowd in orientation he was shocked by the large ratio of women applicants – 21 women and seven men (see my thoughts on this in the sidebar included). The women ranged in age from 18 to 72, and included one African American and one physically challenged woman using a walker.     

Lots of free time

Since we women outnumbered the men, we were all placed in the General Population cell block, the largest of the three in the new facility. The others are Minimum and Maximum security, where the men were divided up. 

Our block had two levels of cells, each able to house two inmates, for a total capacity of about 68 in the cell block. An open central area had 12 round tables with molded plastic chairs, three televisions and a counter with sink and microwave. One whole wall was mirrored glass – with the staff in the command center on the other side watching us. 

We changed into the obligatory orange tops, bottoms and shoes and were released into the common area. We settled in at tables, turned on the TVs to a regular cable channel and had a big laugh when we saw “Shawshank Redemption” was playing! 

We spent most of our time in the common area at the round tables, which is how Thoma said most inmates spend their time. There’s an element of boredom to jail life, Thoma said, and some inmates react by sleeping in their cells most of the day, while others get stir crazy and bounce around the common area. I asked if he sees many fights with people spending so much time cooped up in an enclosed space like that, and he said he’s only seen two fights in his 20 years in jail work. 

When one woman found out another was a nurse, she laughingly asked if the nurse could take a look at a skin condition on her torso. They stepped into an unlocked cell and popped back out within seconds, saying, “A voice came over the intercom saying, ‘Only one person allowed in a cell!” We knew then we were really being watched.

A group of ladies worked on a puzzle. Another group played the board game “Sorry!” – which I thought was ironically amusing for a bunch of people being urged toward repentance and rehabilitation. Most of us sat around talking, getting to know one another and sharing our stories. 

A book cart came around, and we descended on it like it was Black Friday at Walmart. I grabbed “Chicken Soup for the Mother-Daughter Soul,” which should have been just the thing to put me back to sleep in the middle of the night when I tried to read it for that purpose, but it didn’t work.  

Scenarios aid staff training

The entire event was planned to train jail staff in utilizing the new procedures and equipment that go with the $32 million facility, which will open for use in late May or early June. 

At the start of the lock-up, two inmates were chosen to experience a full “intake” – getting handcuffed, riding in a squad car, fingerprinted, receiving a pat-down search and the whole nine yards. A real intake can take up to an hour. 

Two others got a taste of the procedures followed when coming in from a day on “work release.” Two more inmates were admitted back from their mock “Sentence To Serve” placements like cutting grass or shoveling snow on county lands. Their hourly wage would go to pay off their fines, restitution or any charges they accrue while in jail.  

Throughout the evening, inmates were called out at various times for mock scenarios like meeting with their attorney or bail bondsman, taking medications, having a family visitor. Four inmates were taken “to court” in shackles. 

Thoma said the correctional officers (COs) were being put to the test on the four-hour training they’d received on the computer system that controls operations like locking and unlocking doors, intercoms, cameras and all aspects of inmate monitoring. 

He said even when we women were just sitting there with nothing going on, staff were handling scenarios with other prisoners in other cell blocks, so they had a busy night.

We started out letting the staff do their jobs and playing our parts like good prisoners, but after awhile we did chat with some of the COs and shared some laughs. I don’t know if that happens with real inmates, but they were a good mix of professional and personable with us.    

Programming helps rehabilitation

Inmates have a variety of “programming” options like GED classes, Alcoholics Anonymous, Bible studies, a re-entry program to teach about getting a job, finding housing, getting healthcare and more. It’s a critical aspect of life in the jail, and the new rooms dedicated to it are larger than in the old jail and are now up to code. 

Our programming for Saturday night was bingo! The CO calling the numbers said monthly bingo is a favorite activity among inmates. 

Our male counterparts were there, but they kept to themselves. I think our sheer numbers overwhelmed them – or our volume. We brought some noise to the tall, echo-y concrete room that also doubled as a basketball court with single hoop. 

Bingo winners got to pick a candy bar – which, based on our reactions, is a much bigger deal when you’re inside the hoosegow than outside it. 

The food rumors are true

Our Saturday dinner of salisbury steak and mashed potatoes covered in gravy, corn, garlic bread and yellow cake with chocolate frosting was as institutional as could be expected, but I liked it well enough. I ate every bit with my orange plastic “spork” (spoon/fork combo) because I didn’t want to be hungry later and not be able to snack like I would at home. 

A woman on my table took a bite or two of each thing and kind of pooh-poohed the grub. I said, “I’m going to be your mother and tell you you’re going to be hungry later!” She didn’t care. 

We were all enamored of the bright orange, rubbery, silicone mugs we used for all our beverages. A bunch of us wanted to steal ours as souvenirs, but they were counted assiduously by an officer when we turned in our supplies. Rats. 

I was chosen to be on kitchen crew and was happy just to get out of the common area. I rinsed trays with gusto and quickly loaded them into the dishwasher, prompting one of the two kitchen staff to say, “You’re quite the dishwasher, lady!” Mother always said to learn a trade.  

I didn’t have to go snack-less until bedtime. A CO gave us all “snack packs” – a bag containing a small bag of Doritoes, a Snickers bar, some kind of Twinkie wannabe snack cake and a package of Ramen noodles. One gal cooked her noodles in her nifty silicone mug in the common area microwave and basically drank it – sporks are only available during meals. I guess that’s the only way inmates can get their Ramen fix. 

Inmates are able to buy snack items from the canteen with money they or family members place in their canteen accounts. Items are ordered from digital kiosks in the common area and received in a day or two from an outside vendor. They can also order hygiene items, paper and other goods. 

By 9 p.m. I could see some of the ladies getting sleepy. Staff wanted us stay in the common area so they could run through a few scenarios yet. By 10:30 p.m. we were all ready to cash it in when the loudspeaker announced lock-down for the night. 

Sleeping like a baby – awake every two hours to cry

One of the biggest challenges of the whole experience was sleeping – or trying to. Once locked in our cells, the common area lights went off and our cell lights were dimmed a notch. But not dim enough. I actually stacked my two socks (that I had worn all day) and put them over my eyes to block out the light! Every time I rolled over, I’d have to readjust the dang socks. 

And the mattress, which was about 24 inches wide and 6 inches thick, could only be described as a solid block of pool noodle – in theory it’s squishy, but not much. 

We were issued bottom and top sheets and a nubby wool blanket that smelled like burlap. I rolled it up and used it as a pillow – yeah, we weren’t issued pillows. Some ladies rolled their body and hand towels together for a pillow. 

Three times I rolled over and whacked my arm on the metal wall. It sounded like I was thrashing around in a stock tank – quite a ring to it. 

But the piéce de rèsistance to our sleepless nightmare was the correctional officers’ required wellbeing checks every 30 minutes. Like clockwork, the heavy metal doors to our cellblock would KA-BOOM open, you’d hear footsteps making their rounds to look in the window of each cell, up and down the mezzanine level and then KA-BOOM – the officer exited through the same Portal of Death. 

We were advised to use the time between wellbeing checks to use the toilet since we knew we had 30 unmonitored minutes. One gal said she exchanged very direct eye contact with a CO in the middle of the night from her perch on the potty. She was not amused.

I finally did fall asleep – no idea when – because I dreamed of seeing a clock that read 8:30 and thought in my dream, “Hey, they didn’t wake us up at 6!” I dreamed about being in jail while I was in jail. Go figure. 

My tiny taste of deprivation 

Laying awake most of the night, I let my mind process how I was feeling about the experience. I had no delusion that my experience was anything close to a real inmate’s – knowing I’d be able to walk out the door at 11 a.m. the next day colored everything about it. But even in the short time I had in jail, there were a few feelings that surprised me.   

Obviously, lack of freedom is the main issue with incarceration, but there’s also the feeling of being treated like a child. With our cell doors locked while we mingled in the common area, we had to buzz staff on the intercom to open our cell door so we could use our own toilet. We were being watched every moment through the mirrored glass. Someone gave you your medicine and checked your mouth to make sure you swallowed it. Someone told you when to get up and when to go to bed. I can guess it wouldn’t take long for that kind of monitoring to become psychologically oppressive. 

Next, the lack of clocks (and cell phones to check time on) left us feeling kind of adrift. We could turn the TVs to the menu channel to check the time, which we did periodically, but the TVs weren’t always on.  

In our cells, awake most of the night, not having a clock was difficult. Is it 2 a.m. or 5 a.m.? Have I been laying here like a zombie for two hours or four? Time started to feel irrelevant. 

Then there was the lack of windows. The building was designed with big skylights in the common area, but it was still hard to judge the time of day by the natural light. I can imagine not seeing the sky or knowing the weather for days, weeks or months would take a psychological toll.  

And I felt a general “sensory deprivation” – the absence of “comforting” things like color, artwork, fabrics. Walls are putty-colored and industrial. There’s nothing pretty anywhere, which might not matter to some people, but it would to me. Everything in the jail is cold, hard and sterile.

Obviously there are much greater challenges facing inmates  like withdrawal, abuse, depression, hopelessness. My tiny taste of what’s on their plate has given me a new respect for what they go through and for the corrections staff who do their best to mitigate those challenges. 

Wake up and debrief

 At 6 a.m. the lights came on in full force, and we all had to roust up and get ready for the day. We all compared notes about how terrible we’d slept. Only a few said they’d slept well. One woman said she covered up, used the corner of her blanket as a pillow and slept like a baby. I said, “I heard someone above me snoring most of the night – it must have been you!”  

After a breakfast of cereal and milk (eaten with that spork), hash browns, teeny sausage patty, blueberry coffee cake and orange juice (no coffee!), we had a few more scenarios and a tour of the facility. 

The tour revealed large, well-planned areas for staff and inmates that, according to Thoma and Sgt. Caitlyn Forrest, shine in comparison to the current jail. Areas that don’t meet federal  code in the old jail were upgraded in the new, and the goal was to plan for future expansion in all areas. 

By 10 a.m. Sunday our time in the clink was nearing an end, and we changed back into our street clothes and made our way to a final briefing with Thoma. The coffee there was a welcome taste of freedom for those needing their legal stimulant fix. 

We found out one man had gone home the night before after he felt claustrophobic in his cell. We shared our thoughts and concerns, asked final questions and applauded Thoma and his staff as he honored them on day one of National Correctional Officers Week, May 6-12.  

There were some hugs as we said good-bye to our new friends and thanked staff for their good care and walked out into the sunshine. 


Lori Zabel is editorial assistant at the Isanti-Chisago County Star. This is a more detailed version than appeared in the print edition May 10.

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