Last Thursday, I spent my morning in the Kendall County Jail. I got out in time for lunch, but It was an eye-opening look into a world I rarely think about – and one I should pay more attention to.
I’d been trying to make it over to the jail for about a week to find out more about why it’s already full. But the universe kept throwing curveballs my way, including an exploding transmission and an hour-long snail crawl up Scenic Loop Road on my way to a commissioners court meeting.
On Thursday, I finally made it to the jail, and I was greeted by the boots in charge in the most truly Texas sheriff’s office I could hope for. I grabbed a cup of coffee and opted for the chair farthest from the stuffed turkey mount.
I’ve always been terrified of dead things, so Singing Billy Bass is the only taxidermy I’ve ever been able to handle. But dead animals aside, the office was gorgeous and welcoming.
Sheriff Al Auxier told me he’d been instrumental in ensuring the aesthetics of the building matched the local flavor on Boerne’s Main Street. He advocated for local materials, and even the beautiful accent wall of raw edge cedar behind me was milled from local trees by a buddy of his. He told me he was able to save about $10,000 on the project by reaching out to folks he knew from his days in the building business.
We talked for a bit about the inmate population before we toured the facility.
I’d never been inside a jail. The closest I came was the time I broke curfew when I was 15 to grab a Whataburger in the wee hours of the morning.
My 16-year-old friends were just fine, but the officers put me in the back of their car and called my parents. That was enough to scare me straight.
I probably had some preconceived notions about what jail was like. Something in between Barney Fife’s holding cell in Mayberry and the cell block of Orange is the New Black. But that’s not really what I found in Kendall County.
At first glance the jail felt empty. It was kind of funny that I was there working on a story about a jail packed to the brim, but there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Most of the guests at Hotel Kendall County were locked in their rooms.
I was able to perch safely from the mezzanine level above the dorms and peek into each room through one-way glass. I steeled my nerves for what I might see. The men and women are separated in the facility, so I felt a little strange peeking into the bedroom of a bunch of men who were possibly in there for crimes I couldn’t imagine.
But what I saw, as I knowingly invaded their privacy, was a room full of relatable human beings. Most of the guys were asleep, curled up under covers with shoes lined up neatly next to their bunks. Some had neat piles of books at the end of their bed. One had a Bible peeking out from under his mattress. There was a small stack of board games like “Guess Who” in the corner.
Across the room, a man with dark hair was doing yoga while another sat at a table coloring a picture of a flower. It was like looking into an overgrown summer camp.
There was a giant television on the wall, which the jail administrator told me is the best behavior management tool they own. One inmate was watching it intently after finishing his shift in the kitchen.
I toured the kitchen and laundry facilities that were worlds more tidy than my own home. And I saw the room that serves double duty for judicial and church services.
The guys in 48-hour holding cells at the front were the most sullen bunch. It was like they were irritated to be stuck in the lobby while the other guests were already settled into their suites.
I wrapped up the tour so I could get to my daughter’s school in time for a parent-teacher conference. And as I walked into the school building, I saw a neat little row of first-graders marching silently to the art room.
I couldn’t escape the thought that at one point, the same man I saw coloring that bright flower in the stark white cell was once one of these little humans.
I thought about the different paths we all walk that led one of us into a jail with a camera and the freedom to leave when I chose, and another into the same jail with only the freedom to choose the right-colored pencil.