Perhaps you are familiar with a program in America’s criminal justice system called “Scared Straight,” which attempts to shock juvenile delinquents into mending their ways by showing them what goes on inside a prison.
Well, I experienced my own version of that when visiting the Surry County Jail last Saturday.
No, I wasn’t a Scared Straight enrollee; although I might be considered an adult delinquent, or at least a kid who has never grown up, I do not qualify as a “juvenile” delinquent (technically because of the age thing).
So while at the county jail, I was not confronted by any inmates who used intimidation, fear and hostility in an effort to scare me into living a life without crime, which is a cornerstone of that program.
There were no warnings about how painful and sometimes dangerous it can be to exist behind bars, including being shown photos of outcomes from prison violence, which Scared Straight also sometimes incorporates.
Yet my experience was eye-opening all the same.
The occasion was a Christmas Eve luncheon provided to inmates through the efforts of Blackwater United Methodist Church members and other volunteers, 113 meals in all.
I was there to cover that event for the newspaper and illustrate how a bit of holiday spirit can penetrate even the walls of a jail.
And it is those walls that are the subject of my column today.
I have worked in a secured environment before. This was for a defense contractor that required employees to scan a badge to get in the front door and once inside to use other controlled means to enter one room or another depending on the clearance level required.
However, as secure as that environment was designed to be, there were no bars on the windows of the facility.
When first arriving at the Surry County Jail, the first thing I noticed was how fenced-in and locked-up everything was, which is to be expected in such a place (citizens certainly wouldn’t want it otherwise).
All I wanted to do was reach the jail kitchen, where the meal ingredients were put onto plates to be served to inmates, which first required buzzing it at a rear door and then hearing an officer tell me to report to a lobby.
Once there, I was met by an escort who proceeded to guide me through a maze of hallways, accompanied by the sound of huge metal doors slamming shut as we negotiated different sections of the building. And there was the clanging of keys needed to open each one.
Finally, we reached the kitchen — similar to one you might see in an elementary school cafeteria, except for the bars on the windows, of course.
The plates were prepared and delivered first to female inmates, and then I was allowed to accompany the delivery team to cell blocks in upper areas of the building where male prisoners are housed.
Again, all elevators and doors along the way required access by special keys, and I’m thinking to myself that we hadn’t even reached the cells yet.
And unlike classic prison movies, the inmates were not herded into one large mess hall to hear encouraging remarks by Spencer Tracy. The plates were put on carts and delivered room by room to inmates who ate the ham, mashed potatoes and other food items from their cells located on the sides of narrow hallways.
In addition to the physical barriers, the presence of officers was noticeable at every turn.
Everyone was super-nice as they could be, especially with it being Christmas and all, and there seemed to be an effort to put as happy a face on the surroundings as possible.
But at the end of the day, this was still a jail — with reminders of that fact everywhere.
When I had gathered material for a news article and it came time for me to head back to Mount Airy, getting out of the jail also was somewhat of a chore.
It involved having an escort take me back through the same maze of hallways and huge metal doors that slammed shut.
I was impressed at how hard it would be, if I were an escape-minded inmate, to get out of that place.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally reached the lobby. I am not really a claustrophobic person, but had found that being inside the Surry County Jail was extremely confining.
It was good to see daylight at last and once again taste freedom.
And I was there for only about two hours.
On the way home, I wondered what it might be like to live behind bars for weeks, months or even years — and how everyone, delinquents of both the juvenile and adult varieties — should avoid going there.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.