The valley of the shadow

I recently saw the inside of cell 19 in the jail’s infirmary for the first time. Staff rarely enter cells, partly because it’s invasive to the inmates but mostly because it would be a good place for inmates to ambush staff. I’ve only ever been inside cells a few times, heavily supervised, to evaluate clients who were too ill to get out of bed.

Of all the cells in the jail, cell 19 is perhaps the scene of the most misery. It’s at the far end of the women’s quarters in the infirmary. Men generally come in through another facility before transitioning to our jail, but many of the women come straight from court or a brief police lockup. Which means the infirmary is where they wait out their detox from alcohol, pills, heroin, methadone and anything else they have in their system. Detoxing is not just horribly unpleasant, it’s dangerous – you can have seizures from suddenly quitting alcohol or some drugs. (Methadone is possibly the worst; I’ve known clients who refuse to take it just so they will never again have to detox from it.) So many of cell 19’s residents have been women sweating, vomiting, shaking, and weeping their way through their first days of incarceration.

But cell 19 is primarily reserved as a mental health watch cell. Mental health watch is the jail equivalent of a psych hospital – it’s where we put people who seem on the verge of suicide or homicide. Unlike a hospital, it makes no pretense at being a place that will help you feel better.  The cell is empty of anything but a sink, toilet, metal bunk, and plexiglass window.  There may or may not be a mattress.  Its sole purpose is to keep you away from razors and sheets until the worst has passed, or until you get lucid enough to lie convincingly to us.

That day, when I went inside the cell to evaluate a woman crumpled on the bunk in some kind of catatonic episode, I noticed a lot of words scratched onto the doorframe. I had stood on the other side of that door hundreds of times talking to clients, but I had never seen their side of the door.

When you work with mental patients, you end up seeing a lot of things scrawled on walls. Some of it is vitriol against staff, some incomprehensible, some tragic. (The most pathetic I’ve seen was “HELP ME” written in a man’s own feces.)

So I wondered what such a long passage could be. What woman, in the throes of heroin detox or madness, spent such a long time etching these words into the paint?

While the officers were busy, I sidled up to the doorframe and read it:

The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want
He makes me lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside quiet waters
He restores my soul
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I fear no evil for You are with me
Your rod and Your staff they comfort me
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
You have anointed my head with oil
My cup overflows
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever



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