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A weekend in jail: beige food and lethargy

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Looking at the clock like that will make you go crazy, the woman in an oversized khaki uniform tells me.

She's been watching me watch the progress of the hallway clock through the glass walls of our cell. Although this woman is a convicted felon and a stranger, I don't doubt the truth of her words.

After all, she speaks with the voice of experience.

I've been an inmate at the Jackson County Jail for more than four hours, and despite all the work it took to get here, I want to go home.

My weekend here is part of a series of stories I'm writing exploring the rising numbers of female inmates in the county jail. Officials are happy to provide statistics, but they can't tell me what it's like behind bars.

The four inmates sharing this cramped room with me and the jail staff believe I'm here on charges of menacing and reckless endangerment after pointing a gun at my husband. Only the handful of jail administrators who helped arrange my stay know the truth, and they're off for the weekend.

The bunks in this cell are full, so deputies assign a spot on the floor under the television. I've got a great view of a cement wall and, of course, the clock.

At least I'm past what I feared most: the booking process.

It's at booking that my fingerprints are taken, along with my clothing and jewelry. The strip search, standard for every inmate, is conducted by a woman and mercifully brief.

I'm given pink underwear and a two-piece green uniform, and then the questions begin. I'm asked about the enormous bruise on my arm, the result of a wrestling match with my dog.

The questions seem endless: When did I last use drugs and alcohol, do I have diseases, do I take medications, what's my financial status and do I need to make a phone call? An hour later, I'm brought to the cell that will house me for 48 hours.

The other women are older than me, and all are in jail on methamphetamine-related charges or convictions.

My situation makes them laugh.

So you pointed a gun at your old man. Good one, says a hard-eyed, heavy-set woman. her bearing and tone, I know she's in charge inside these glass walls and is what jail officials refer to as the cell boss.

It doesn't take long for someone to point out that I don't do drugs.

Don't you ever start, honey, one woman tells me, her earnest blue eyes boring into mine.

She is only 32, but her face is already worn. Ever, you hear?

I hear.

The air inside the cell is stale and the temperature warm, leaving everyone lethargic. It's a state compounded by lack of restful sleep.

Hallway lights shine 24-7. Wrapping a towel around my head does no good. Every 30 minutes from midnight to lights on at 5 a.m., deputies enter the cells and shine flashlights on sleeping inmates. Their arrival is announced by the automated door's buzz, clank and grind.

Time ticks by slowly, its passage marked by breakfast, lunch and dinner. The food is lukewarm and mostly off white ' from the lettuce to the bread to the oatmeal.

It's obvious my request for a vegetarian menu has been overlooked. The women gladly accept my beef burrito, hamburger and a slab of unidentifiable meat in gravy. They fall to the starchy, bland fare with a will.

The most colorful food on our trays, the oranges served for breakfast, are saved. The sticky pulp is used as hairspray or gel.

The women pass their time sleeping. While awake, they relive their lives on the outside and discuss the future's endless possibilities.

Snapshots of loved ones are passed around to be admired again and again, until the names of unknown family members and acquaintances have been memorized by everybody.

The women read out loud from all cards and letters, but notes from male inmates are especially prized.

Any form of communication between male and female inmates is prohibited, so letters must be passed hand to hand, cell to cell, floor to floor. Sometimes they are tucked inside clean clothing or food trays, and other times stashed in a secret location in the library or recreation room.

The women resort to a grotesque form of communication dubbed toilet talk or cell phoning. With waste and paper, they plug up the commodes, causing the pipes to empty and fill with air. On hands and knees with faces lowered into the bowl, they shout back and forth with male inmates housed above. For all the screaming, replies are muffled and difficult to hear.

Their actions at one point cause flooding. Raw sewage bubbles out of the drain in the floor of the room's single shower. Hours pass before the pipes are repaired and the mess cleaned. No one complains, not once, about the stench or the health risk.

Inside every cell, the television is a constant companion and cherished privilege. In our tank, it's turned mainly to music. The women sing along to favorite tunes, often dancing atop the room's bench and table.

Also beloved is the telephone, a tangible link to the outside world. Each call is limited to 20 minutes and must be made collect.

There is kindness among these women who have so few possessions. I am offered instant coffee and loaned a pair of socks, given a sheet of paper and allowed to use colored pencils.

All I have is a toothbrush, toothpaste, bar of soap, comb and pencil and paper, a package of necessities I bought for &

36;2.25 when I was jailed. Other items ' shampoo, deodorant, extra undergarments, aspirin, sugar ' can be ordered from jail staff on Mondays. These luxuries aren't free. An outside person can give an inmate up to &

36;40 weekly, or offenders who volunteer to work in jail can earn &

36;1 daily.

The pity I feel for these women is tempered by their actions. They brag about the crimes they have committed. They talk openly of their hatred for African-Americans, freely referring to n*****s.

Forty-four hours after my arrival, my name is called over the intercom. I've been released on my own recognizance ' given freedom without posting bail because I'm not viewed as a flight risk.

My jail-issued bedding is folded, my scant personal possessions sorted in less than a minute.

Everyone else in the cell is sleeping, so there are no goodbyes.

Reporter Jill Briskey's jail mug shot