The Chill Tank or My Ten Days on the Boat in Jail

As part of my sentence, I served ten days in the Clatsop County Jail. I was assigned to POD 30, or the “Chill Tank,” as it was unofficially called by its inhabitants, because the unit rarely presented serious problems to the guards.

When I walked into the Chill Tank, which had four two-man cells and measured about a thousand square feet, I was immediately overwhelmed by the impression of walking into Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest—the novel and cinematic version of it. Have you ever walked into a novel? Living inside one as it unfolds in liquid time? I have.

During my incarceration, I met 11 different men. Because of overcrowding, I did not have a cell with a bunk mate. Rather, I slept on the floor in a far corner of the common area, behind a steel picnic table, a passenger on a “boat” (the official name for it), a plastic container filled with a mattress that resembled a  cushion from a piece of patio furniture left outside for a decade. I had a small plastic tote for my possessions, which amounted to toiletries, books, writing things and materials to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—practically my sole source of nutrition after giving up eating cheese sandwiches because they were undoubtedly the worst cheese sandwiches in all of mass incarceration nation. They easily violated the Eighth Amendment.

This living on the floor had its distinct advantages, though. From this splayed vantage point, I could see all the eyes of the visiting guards, nurses and other assorted jail personnel but they couldn’t see mine. Let me assure you, you can learn a lot about humanity that way.

There was no equivalent of a Nurse Ratched in the Chill Tank, although there was a medication time reminiscent of the novel and movie where the men lined up for pills that a nurse dispensed. She was actually quite friendly and only dispensed aspirin, antacids and vitamins. A couple of female guards showed the inmates tiny glimmers of humanity, like photocopying illustrations or rustling up a book. One glimmer was even extended toward me and I will never forget its simple grace. We looked each other in the eyes and I thanked her with a nod.

I certainly wasn’t the Chief in the Chill Tank (although I did push a broom around). I was openly writing all the time, 40,000 words with golf pencils on yellow legal paper, a book really, that perhaps I will be the only one to ever read. Just like Notes from the Underground!

During my incarceration, I traded my meat and chicken for paper and pencils. I read the Wall Street Journal daily for the first time. I read nine books, including a Western and something by James Joyce. I watched an episode of Baywatch with other sexual offenders in a library with 89 Bibles and one Koran. I shot baskets at 10:00 p.m. on the roof of the jail while it rained. I played chess. I witnessed private corporations exploit impoverished men and my family. I drank Billy Brew instant coffee made from hot shower water. I taught an informal writing workshop. I was tested for TB. I was told I needed to use deodorant. I talked to my mother on an ancient analog phone. I heard classic rock and advertisements on XM radio and felt rock die within me. I saw men cry. I saw men begging for metal health services. I learned the definition of contraband was “unintended purpose.” I was warned to expect “consistent inconsistencies.” I heard repeated exaltation for President Trump. I never once saw natural light. I was never once told what I was supposed to get out of serving ten days in jail. I never once observed a man talking to his court-appointed attorney although collectively, the men tried, by my count, 34 times.

I met men who had spent seven, nine and ten months and almost two years in jail and their cases hadn’t gone to trial, nor did they know when they would go to trial. They walked from wall to wall 135 times in the Chill Tank and that was exactly a mile. Someone did the math.

I met a man who told me rock and roll stories of his time running a music venue in Boise back in the day. Boston once played Boise and they rocked. He couldn’t stand one of the Eagles. I forget which one.

I met a man who: was a sex offender because of something he did while fishing; walked in the early morning reading the New Testament; served ten days in solitary confinement for hoarding books; had 45 previous incarcerations inside the Clatsop County Jail; wanted to model his life after Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Pumping Iron-era Arnold.

We had our own Randle McMurphy and Billy Bibbit characters. The former claimed he was a direct descendant of a famous artist who had painted the drafting of the Declaration of Independence with mythological strokes. He was released on a Friday night around midnight and was back with us two days later, arrested on new charges. He told me of his walking in rain, to see his old lady in Seaside, across the Bay Bridge, and throwing most of his possessions into the black water as he renounced God forever. He was perhaps the funniest man I have ever met. The latter looked like Billy Bibbit and walked as I presumed Billy would walk. Our Billy, however, wasn’t a self-commit. Was I? That existential thought had occurred to me.

I never have been shown such kindness by strangers in my life. They showed me the ropes and how to make jailhouse taffy and salsa. They wrote for me and drew me illustrations (like the one accompanying this blog. That’s me on the boat, or rather my legs, in the lower right hand corner. This illustration is a perfect rendering of the Chill Tank).

There is more, much more, 40,000 words more to the Chill Tank story. But these thousand will suffice for now.

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