The small, dingy waiting area of the Hamilton County Justice Center might well be a stage set for The Vagina Monologues.
The visitors sit in a half-circle, each engaged in their own story and willing to share their experiences to pass the time. Each of us is different from the other, but we're an "average" looking group of people on the whole.
We don't look like we might be kin to criminals. We look like we might be office workers or housewives.
We try not to look at the six seats behind the plexiglass windows where the prisoners will sit or at the telephones hanging on either side of the wall. We try not to smell the odors. We try not to feel the claustrophobia. One woman, a nicely dressed, slender white woman, has been waiting an hour.
A black man in a striped shirt says, "I've been here an hour, too."
"No explanation?" someone asks, and he shakes his head no.
One man drifts off when his wife or daughter or sister — this part of the Justice Center houses the female population — arrives and takes her seat behind the barrier and picks up the phone.
For a while no one says anything. If one prisoner has been sent up, maybe more are coming.
Instead, I look at the room. It's about the size of a public restroom with no windows. A red stain on the floor by one cubicle where someone has dropped a can of soda has dried, and in fact the can is still there, having rolled against the wall after spilling itself on the dirty linoleum floor.
The cubicles are small and look just like they do in the movies. The man and woman who are talking touch the glass between them with their hands. The smell is something like urine or disinfectant.
After waiting a while longer, I take the elevator back down to the first floor to see what's taking so long. A uniformed woman sits behind more plexiglass. I can see her or talk to her only by bending down to a small opening like a slit in a mailbox.
"It's 3 o'clock," she says, not unkindly. "It's shift change. Give them a minute, and they'll be up."
I press the "up" button on the elevator and return to Floor 3M, where nothing has changed. An older woman dressed neatly in polyester and nylons talks about visiting her daughter in prison in Kentucky. She has a large mole by her mouth.
Everyone here is serious. No one is lighthearted, except for one man who has come in to see his girlfriend to tell her she'll get out days early.
"She's gonna flip," he says, smiling a little. "I been sittin' at a desk all day. I can't stand this waiting around." He's still smiling.
The older woman continues talking about seeing her daughter in prison.
"We sent all the papers they requested to Lexington, Social Security, everything," she says. "Then we called the day before we were to go, and they just said they hadn't received the information and we could not visit until they did. My husband had the bright idea to fax the papers, but they said, 'We don't accept faxes.' All we could do was Express Mail the whole package, and it cost over $14. Nobody cares."
The black man who's been waiting for an hour takes the elevator down to the first floor to complain, and the woman who has waited even longer gets up to stretch.
"I've only been once before, and I got to see her, my sister, pretty fast," she says. "Seems like I only waited 15 minutes."
A young woman, dressed for work in an office, is also here to see her sister.
"I'm on a meter," she tells us. "I've only got an hour and a half, and I can't afford another parking ticket." She gets up and begins to pace.
Someone comes back up and tells us the shift change is over and the prisoners will be coming any minute. The girlfriend who's getting out a few days early shows up, ecstatic, and high-fives her boyfriend through the plexiglass. She is jumping up and down for joy. They speak by phone, and we can hear his end of the conversation but not hers. We try politely not to listen.
Another man gets off the elevator: small, skinny, with a bill cap on his greasy hair and a red-checked flannel shirt worn loose over a T-shirt. He doesn't have to wait. The woman he's come to see appears almost magically.
"Once, they told me my sister was with the doctor," one woman says. "I had to wait an hour and a half."
"I'd like to know how she managed that," another woman says. "My doctor is through with me and on to the next patient in 10 minutes flat."
There is a nervous laugh in the room, an undercurrent of tension and sorrow and shame. No one talks about why they're visiting, about what laws have been broken, what crimes have been committed.
I finally have to leave. I've skipped lunch, thinking I could drop by and see my friend and get back home in plenty of time, but my blood sugar is plummeting and I'm having a hard time breathing. If a county jail can be this bad, what must it be like in a prison, I wonder.
I think of every prison I've ever read about in fiction: Newgate in England, the Bastille in Paris, places full of cruelty and corruption. I think of a news story I'd seen on television earlier in the week about a man who tried to sell his 2-year-old son for drug money.
When I go downstairs I ask the guard again about my friend, and she says, "Well, they're having a lockdown on her floor and it'll be a few minutes," in a tone I interpret to mean, "It'll be a few hours."
I watch a deputy sheriff walk through the door and buzz himself into her office.
"Everything's gone wrong today," I hear him say.
It's Final Friday, a night for gallery-hopping on Main Street nearby, but by midnight the drug addicts, drunks and winos come tumbling out of the bars when I take my dog, Sister, for her last walk. One man is sprawled on the sidewalk.
"Hey, I'm just tryin' to have a good time," he says to me without any irony at all.
I wonder if this is what he considers a good time. It looks a little like Hell to me: people staggering, young girls with their careful hairdos coming undone, a man arguing that he should be allowed to drive when he can barely talk.
It occurs to me that by tomorrow one or two of them might land in the Hamilton County Justice Center themselves, then get out, get drunk, get high, get sober and continue the cycle. Just one mistake, one slip, and someone could be waiting in the small room on Floor 3M to visit. I shudder and walk on.
CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.