Photographer Discovers Jail Is ‘My Kind Of Place’

Fund-raiser for domestic violence shelters gives a prisoner’s-eye view of county’s new jail facilities

A Gila County deputy sheriff’s officer patiently waits for members of the media, Time Out shelter and outreach group personnel to cross over into unknown territory as they begin their tour behind the slammer.

Photo by Andy Towle. |

A Gila County deputy sheriff’s officer patiently waits for members of the media, Time Out shelter and outreach group personnel to cross over into unknown territory as they begin their tour behind the slammer.


Everyone else was already on some assignment or other, so the burden of touring the Gila County Jail, fell to me. Whoo-hoo. Suck it up and do the job.

We assembled in Payson, a motley assortment of reporters, photographers and people who actually paid to spend a night in jail with the money going to benefit the Time Out domestic violence shelter in Payson. I got there first, but Stephanie Landers from KMOG showed up hot on my heels. We had a few laughs about the tour and waited for Camille Levee from the Time Out shelter to arrive so we could pile into the county prisoner transport van for the long ride to Globe. That in itself sounds terribly ominous: prisoner transport van.

Levee didn’t show. Guess she didn’t want a free ride in a county vehicle. We left. Landers got a seat on one side of the cage, and me on the other. The van was divided because some prisoners can be a lot to handle and sometimes need some separation from others. Yeah, a lot of separation. Like being chained to the seat separation.

Now, I’m not saying Landers is a violent person — not by any means. But she did manage to situate herself in the van where the uncontrollable prisoners ride. Was it something I said? Something I wore, that she wanted a safe space of her own? In any case, we rode separated by the wire cage and she had a lot more space on her side than I did.

I’m not saying I’m claustrophobic or anything, but my side of the van seemed pretty small to me. But then, after owning five VW Bugs, sitting in a cramped seat in a cage, gave me the willies.

We arrived at the jail and right away Camille Levee introduced herself. Then we each got fingerprinted, had our mug shot taken, and received a prisoner’s packet. Only Levee seemed to be jovial about the process.

The prisoner’s packet consisted of a yellow bag full of stuff; a drink to keep from becoming dehydrated and a mini toothbrush — and I mean itty bitty. The guy who played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies couldn’t have even held onto this toothbrush, it was that small. I know, it’s so you can’t sharpen the handle and stab your new ‘best friend’ in the cell block. Other items included: two bars of soap, deodorant, toothpaste, a plastic cup, a pencil, gum, some hard candy, and two envelopes with paper in them.

That gives you one to write home to your mom so you can tell her what a great vacation spot you’ve found, and the other one an envelope stamped “Legal Mail Only.” That’s for your lawyer so you can tell him how innocent you are and get me out of here now!

The packet also contained a blue folder with documentation inside. Governments love paperwork and this paperwork was massive. Ah, but with good reason. You break the law, you get covered in paper!

Within this folder is everything anyone ever wanted to know about you from this day forward; unless of course you decide to go straight and get out of the system. You think the Internet can track you quick and easy? Ha! This blue folder knows everything.

Your name, social security number, DOB, race, who visited you and when, your FBI #, how many teeth you have, Driver’s License, height, weight, eye color, any aliases? They got ’em.

How many times have you been arrested? Where? When? Who were you with? Who arrested you? What type of arrest was it? That’s page two. Page three is more of the same with more detail concerning the type of crime, the legal status, court codes, who is going to sentence you, lawyer in charge, jurisdiction, and on.

Page four is your accommodations — sort of like a form you fill out when you stop at a motel for the night, but with much more detail. One thing on page four made me laugh, but I didn’t let Officer Waddell see me chuckle; the last space on the bottom of the page on the right to fill in was: sexual preference.

Let your imagination be your guide.

Page five was medical information and most of that was used to determine if you were going to be making trips to a medical facility and how often. As a matter of record, women use medical facilities more than men.

That’s the booking form. Oh yeah, you also get a plastic bag to place your valuables in: wallet, cell phone, Leatherman, your escape plan, that sort of stuff. And then you are assigned a locker and your civilian stuff gets put in there.

Now there was much talk about the jail facility itself and how much better it was than a lot of other places in Arizona. Oh, like the Grand Canyon? Lake Powell? Monument Valley? Oh, Commander Eskew meant other jails.

About this time, someone asked why Gila County had so many more prisoners than other counties.

Eskew explained that Gila County was in the middle of the state and had many recreation opportunities all year-round and was a gateway to other counties with other recreation highlights (transporting drugs comes to mind).

When you are a bottleneck of traffic for 50,000 to 70,000 people traveling through at a given time (July 4th, for example), the possibility of someone breaking the law rises and arrest rates rise accordingly.

For example, total bookings for 2011: 3,814. Average length of stay: 18.7 days (So you are released at 6 p.m. that day? Just saying.). Average daily population: 130 inmates.

The up side to being in jail? There can be an up side you know; it’s called getting your GED. About 125 inmates graduated with a GED in the last 5 years from the Gila County facility. Remember, people who finish high school are less likely to find themselves in jail than those who don’t.

Now came the fun part — getting the tour of the facility. Ah, there’s nothing like an officer of the law greeting you at a steel barred door saying: “Welcome to my world” with an icy grin.

Once you enter this portion of the jail, you are behind bars and the only people who are going to let you out don’t even have a key! It’s all controlled from a secure location with touch screens that lock and unlock doors and cameras everywhere, except showers and stalls. Everything is recorded every day. So don’t pick your nose, you’re on tape.

We went through the exercise yard, the laundry, the kitchen, the secure location where doors are locked and unlocked at the person’s discretion. Once in this room with one-way glass, I watched one of the cell blocks and the prisoners there; some were playing cards, some were chatting, some were walking the hall, pacing up and down and back and forth, sort of like tigers at a zoo. It looked like a dream sequence from a nightmare. One person kept walking into and out of different cells, as if he was taking notes back and forth between prisoners.

We finally moved on to the new women’s dorm, which is separated into two sections; 20 beds in both the A and B sections, with a separate exercise area for both sides that can be combined if necessary.

When I say dorm, I mean it’s an open area with the beds in two-and-a-half rows of bunk beds and room for only one person in each bed. If you are a restless sleeper, you might want to see if you can sleep in the lower bunk.

There are four stainless steel round tables with four stools to each table, showers and stalls, and a video phone area for talking with people. Lights out at 9 p.m., but one light stays on all the time so the sleeping area can be monitored. Oh boy, my kinda place.

I was asked what I thought of the facility. I didn’t tell ’em what I really thought. I didn’t have to; they knew. And they told me: It’s a band-aid for a wound that needs surgery.

After the tour, we were ushered back into the meeting room where we first got booked. We were each given a framed certificate with our booking picture in the middle saying: “This is to certify that Andy Towle has successfully spent one night in the Gila County Jail as part of a fund-raiser for domestic violence.”

Glad it was only a tour. I have no desire to ever be behind bars. So, I got to go to jail, I didn’t collect $200, but I did get a ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Whew!


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