CLARKSBURG – Instead of mugshots, there were coffee mugs. Instead of orange jumpsuits, there were “I spent the night in jail” T-shirts. The iris scanner, used to identify individual prisoners, sat unused at the processing desk.
But some parts of jail life just can’t be softened.
Dinner was wheeled in on giant steel carts, served up on gray plastic trays that held chicken-patty sandwiches, overcooked greens and peanut butter cookies that left the “inmates” grumbling.
“I’m glad I’m not an inmate,” said Delegate Adrienne Mandel, D-Montgomery, one of more than 150 volunteers, community and civic activists who spent a night locked away in the new Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Clarksburg.
The $90 million, 305,000-square-foot jail, set to open in March, is almost double the size of the current 174,000-square-foot jail off Seven Locks Road in Rockville. The new jail can hold up to 1,029 prisoners, including medical and isolation beds, but will initially get about 600 inmates from Seven Locks over the course of its first week in March.
Those inmates will not likely get the kid-glove treatment that the guest inmates did.
Officers guided guests to their cells, which are arranged in two-story pods: 32 cells ring a large dayroom, an exercise area, showers and office space. Officers will be able to control the pod’s lights and cell doors from their desks on the dayroom floor.
Women and men shuffled into their separate pastel-painted pods, each getting a 70-square foot a cell that is designed to hold two inmates. Guests dropped off their overnight bags and meandered back to the dayroom to ask questions of the correctional officers leading more volunteers in.
Prisoners will be mostly restricted to their pods, leaving only for programs like GED education and addiction treatment services. The pod environment is safer for prisoners and officers, said Howard Copeland, a county correctional officer.
“You wouldn’t think it is, but you get to know everybody (in the pod),” he said.
After their institutional dinner in the pods, guests were divided into groups to tour the new jail, which includes an 11,000-square-foot medical center and an inmate library twice as large as the Seven Locks library.
Guests also saw the “Thunderdome,” caged-in cells for inmates with severe mental illnesses or suicidal tendencies, and the high-tech central processing center, where officers can take over the lights and doors of pods in danger. They visited the laundry room, where 325-pound industrial washers churned, and the kitchen, where knives and shears are tethered to tables for inmate use.
After three hours of touring, the guests trooped back to their pods, passing through one set of glass doors that locked behind them before a second, identical set into the pods would open.
At night, some guests slept with their cell doors ajar — the cell doors, which don’t unlock from the inside, made them uncomfortable. Others locked themselves in for the night, trusting they could use the intercom in their cells to ask the pod officer to open the doors if needed.
The mattresses were thin, with an electric blue plastic wrapper that crinkled loudly with every turn. The gray blankets were scratchy and thin, and some women draped their coats over themselves for warmth.
Windows, thin rectangles, looked out over more walls and a 15-foot-high fence, topped with five strands of razor wire.
The “lights out” decree shortly before midnight was deceptive: The lights dimmed only slightly, leaving the cells illuminated enough for people to read books, write letters or simply stare at the concrete floor, desk and reflective metal toilet and sink.
The lights brightened back to full strength near 5 a.m., awakening guests early to leave before the snowstorm would make leaving impossible. Normally, jail lights come back on at 4 a.m., although prisoners are not awoken until a few hours later.
Breakfast came on the familiar metal carts, the gray trays now stocked with three slices of white bread, stewed plums, a sausage patty and frosted flakes, poured directly into the rectangular depression in the tray.
In the visitors’ lobby, Warden Robert Green answered last-minute questions as guards helped a few people with their bags. Sleepy visitors, toting gym bags and backpacks, headed out into the dimly lit parking lot.
Free of the jail — though the memory remained.
“I’m definitely going to think in a different way than I thought before about penalty provisions” when writing laws, Mandel said.