Orange isn’t anything new.


Orange is really nobody’s color. It doesn’t play-up your assets and it’s neither slimming, nor the first choice for bridesmaid or prom dresses. Orange cannot be mistaken for its softer, cooler relatives peach, papaya or apricot. It screams road crew, hunter … inmate. 

Everything I know about jail I learned from watching shows like Cops and Lockup. The only inside of one I had ever seen before today was the jail that my husband helped to build during one of his construction management jobs.

County lockup is simply not a place that I ever imagined I'd end up. 

I immediately note that the visitor waiting room, filled with assorted men, women, young children and babies, is one of the most depressing places I have ever been. There is abuse of the English language on an unprecedented level, assorted gross smells and chaos. I can immediately discern the first-timers like me from the regulars. It's likely that those who know the ropes of this joint have come by said knowledge in ways unworthy of envy. In the years to come, I will share my new-found insights on jail etiquette with others, hopefully sparing them a modicum of the discomfort I experienced on my inaugural visit.

There are certain things you learn fast if you want to be a jail visitor. One of my favorites: if you aren't on the list of approved visitors, disperse quickly and quietly. Don't think for a second that you can talk your way onto that list. I've seen people try and it's hilarious. If you are on the list, you may sign in, show ID and proceed through the metal detector. If you set that bugger off, hang tight, you will be "wanded" when it is good and convenient for the officer doing the "wanding” to show up. The wand knows if some part of you is held together by rods or screws. It also knows if your work boots have a steel toe or your sandals have a silver buckle. Once your beeping part has been identified and explained to satisfaction, everyone in the room will cease to gawk at you like you're some sort of pariah. 

Also, please note: you cannot wear jackets, hoodies or hair accessories on the pod, and you may not bring anything with you or chew gum. You don’t have to like, or understand the rules, but follow them you will. Make every effort to refrain from being a squeaky wheel, too, because nobody here cares about you. Customer service and corrections do not mix; they don't even mingle.

And: smile! For there are cameras everywhere. Privacy has no place in this place. 

As I make my way to the elevator, I catch the occasional whiff of a disinfectant, and yet there's nothing clean about the place. When I walk onto the pod for the first time, I realize that this is what real women look like when they lack access to makeup, hair color and wardrobe options. I think about how my looks would deteriorate after many months without hair dye and a pair of tweezers ... oh the humanity of my vanity. 

Then, I wonder which of the ladies in the sea of orange before me are bad and which are sick. While I know that it’s not my job to make that distinction, it feels like a particularly relevant one at the moment. I am afraid. When I'm afraid, I tell myself things that aren't necessarily true and I believe every word. I assume that these women:

  • hate my privileged, raised in Mt. Lebanon, a**.
  • don't want to hear what I have to say.
  • think that I think I'm better than they are.

Loud and boisterous, the women of all ages, colors and sizes play cards, chat and watch one of two tiny televisions in either corner of a room filled with large round tables. There is nothing much of note about this space. It's actually 50 shades of gray. As the women eyeball me, I smile and summon the courage to ask them if they want to come talk. 

What delusional part of me thinks that my being here will help anybody? Just who do I think I am? I should leave. Now. But then I take a deep breath and regroup. I am here for a reason. I have some experience, strength and hope to share. It has been a long time since I've taken a drink and even longer since I've been in the trenches fighting a war against my own body. 

If these inmates do not want what I have to offer, they don't have to take it. I still have to be willing to reach out my hand. This is what I signed up for. 

The thing about the women who comprise the orange sea, there are very few degrees of separation between them and some sort of substance. I would venture to guess that most are in this jail as a direct result of drugs and alcohol. They have stolen, failed to care for their children, gotten into domestic disputes, manufactured and distributed drugs, neglected to pay fines, set fires, killed people with their cars … many of them have done terrible, terrible things. Some have done them over and over again. 

Make no mistake, I don't like all of these women, but every time I leave them behind and return to my relatively cushy cul-de-sac, I take with me a gift that they didn't intend to give: the awareness that I can show other human beings compassion and kindness even when it's scary and hard. 

There's also no doubt that the women who currently call Washington County Jail home are responsible for the actions that have landed them in itchy, county-issue jumpsuits. That I've never sat where they sit has more to do with luck than anything else. I've certainly done things I'm not particularly proud of. It's important for me to remember those things, not so I can use them against myself, but so I never have to do them again. 

On one hand, I can find plenty to differentiate myself from these women. Compared to many of them, my life has been an embarrassment of riches. On the other hand, I relate to nearly everything they say. I recognize that we all dealt with life by not dealing with life. We drank, used, starved, gambled, shopped, ate, exercised or did whatever else we had to do to avoid experiencing life on its terms. When we get together, though, something remarkable tends to happen: we laugh, cry and feel safe enough to reveal our brokenness, which somehow helps to make us whole. 

I’ve learned more about freedom by visiting people behind bars than I ever have anywhere else.