Within my first 24 hours of incarceration, I was asked to be a Trustee – an invitation only opportunity to serve the jail in return for days commuted off my sentence. I had no idea such a program existed and like every other inmate offered the opportunity, I jumped at the option. Trustees, as the name suggests, were trusted in ways other inmates were not. We could wear civilian clothes, sleep in open cells and were given privileges not granted to those in general population.
The first job they give most new Trustees is in the kitchen. I learned quickly, why. The hours are long and the work seems to never end. With three meals a day serving over 800 inmates you seem to barely finish one meal before you are back preparing for the next.
Thrown into the kitchen with no real instruction or guidance as to what job I was supposed to do, I gravitated to the dishwashing “pit,” seemingly abandoned by the other inmates for the massive pile of dishes that accumulated after each meal. I was happy to be there, happy to have a job to help pass the time and happy to work alone.
After I had finished washing the Mount Everest of dishes, I began to look for ways to help other inmates finish their task. None of us could go to the dorms until all of us were finished so helping others was encouraged by all. As I was looking for another inmate to assist, I saw a rather large pile of trash in the middle of the kitchen floor. I noticed it growing while I was doing dishes and wondered why no one was taking care of it. Everyone seemed to see it and step over or around it. I found a nearby broom and dustpan and quietly cleaned up the pile, looking for another place to serve.
That’s when we heard it.
A booming, unmistakable, angry yell from Miss Jones. At barely 5’4”, she was the disgruntled civilian Director of All-Things-Kitchen and it was clear there was another victim she was about to eat for lunch. I had been in the kitchen for a mere few hours and had heard this shrill voice more than once. I wondered who was the culprit and what they had done. By the guttural sound of her voice, I thought maybe someone had either stolen food or killed her child.
“WHO DID THIS???!!!” she screamed.
“WHO CLEANED UP THE PILE OF TRASH THAT WAS RIGHT HERE!?!”
I’m in jail less than 24 hours and I’m already the center of attention and in trouble?
I didn’t want to admit it was me but at least 10 other inmates saw me do it so I knew I couldn’t lie about it. Clearly, by her reaction, I had done something wrong. Was this trash supposed to be there, I wondered? Was there an unwritten jail rule (about messiness) that I did not know about? Maybe cleaning up trash was the new nark? Will this somehow add to my sentence? Thoughts flooded my head as I quietly and reluctantly raised my hand and said timidly,
I wasn’t sure what to expect next. She looked mad… like maybe I had thrown out her favorite piece of trash or something.
She marched over to me, looked me straight in the eye and stared, as if studying my face. I didn’t move a muscle. I was preparing myself for a verbal lashing. In the free world, I thought, this was a good deed. But, I’m in jail now and all the rules have apparently changed. Maybe Oscar (the Grouch) was the Warden here?
Suddenly and without saying a word to me, she flung around and began to point her finger at all the other inmates who were clearly relieved it was me that was in trouble.
“NASTY!,” she bellowed in a thick Southern drawl. “Y’all are nasty!“ as she pointed at each man around the room. “Y’all have been walking around and over this pile of trash for 30 minutes and only ONE person thought to clean it up??”
It took me about three seconds to notice the shift in attention.
Oh no, I thought. No No No, please. Please do not single me out as the good guy here. I’m a skinny white guy in jail and I have to sleep next to these guys, none of whom are “friends” yet. This experience could get a lot worse for me.
She went on and on for what seemed like a lengthy lecture saying things like “work ethic” and “adults” and “cleanliness.” I tried to tune her out. Jail is NOT the place you want to be praised by an authority – and certainly not lifted-up above your cellmates. Even I KNEW THAT. It was as if she had never watched “Orange is the New Black.”
Miss Jones went on with her duties of nitpicking everyone’s move and I looked for something to do that would guarantee less attention, like escaping over the barbed wire fence.
Avoiding attention was apparently not on my agenda for day one.
Within 2 minutes, Miss Mack, an intimidating CO (Commanding Officer) walked right up to me and demanded, “What is your name?“
She sounded mad and made me think that I was in trouble. Hesitantly, I said, “Arters.”
Like Miss Jones, she stared me down while others watched the interaction, frozen in position. In my first two days I had heard legendary stories of how she treated inmates. Now here I am standing before her. She broke the silence and said,
“I like you. You work hard and keep your mouth shut.” She wrote something in her notebook, presumably about me, and walked away.
Jeeez. It happened again, I thought. I desperately needed to improve my reputation in jail and obviously doing good wasn’t doing it. Had there been a liquor store nearby, I would have robbed it. I dared not look any other inmate in the eye.
I found another job to do and tried not to think about when I was going to get jumped from behind.
The next morning, after roll-call, the Sargeant wanted to see me. If you think being called to the Principals office brings a sense of dread, this is worse. I could only imagine what crime I had committed in my sleep. He told me they were moving me out of the kitchen and I was being “promoted” to laundry.
I almost laughed out-loud. I had never considered laundry a promotion.
I was to begin that night and for the next 90 days, laundry was my new job. I didn’t know it then but soon realized that I was truly promoted and would end up with more perks and benefits than any other inmate in the facility.
Promoted, because of a trash pile.
Promoted, because of a work ethic.
Promoted, because I was faithful in the little things.
What’s your trash pile look like?
It will probably look and smell mundane. If it’s anything like mine, it will look unimpressive and the complete opposite of promotion. It will most certainly be the last thing anyone else wants to do. It will probably feel like work.
But apparently, promotions can come in the most unlikely places during the most unexpected times. Mine came in the form of a trash pile in the middle of a kitchen in a county jail in South Carolina.
“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” – Colossians 3:17