If No One Can Be Kept Safe At All Times by Katie Jean Shinkle

by JHow on July 10, 2014

in Announcements, Bonus Content, Nonfiction

Tim Johnston on today’s bonus essay: When I was younger, I thought tied bed sheets were step one to escaping prison. Weren’t there cartoon characters like or not like Donald Duck using bedding as Rapunzel hair? Didn’t Ernest? Didn’t that kid in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? And now that I’ve spent a month sleeping in a bed that is not my own (I’m a subleaser), I’m aware of the personalities bed sheets can take on, how, no matter how long an absence, no matter how many heavy-wash cycles, others linger on, and I’m irked that it has taken me so long to fall asleep comfortably, as though I were warming up to a person, learning quiet intrinsicities. That is all I know about bed sheets. And now this.

If No One Can Be Kept Safe At All Times

My older brother comes home from the juvenile detention center and tells us a story about how all of the products in the youth home were Bob Barker products. He says, Bob Barker everything. We are imagining Bob Barker the game show host of The Price is Right, and we don’t understand why he would put out a D-list line of toiletries, of clothing, you name it. Bob Barker, the game show host, did not make available a line of products that went straight to jails. Bob Barker Company, Inc., in North Carolina, however, is “America’s Leading Detention Supplier.” Bob Barker disposable clothing. Bob Barker toothbrushes. Bob Barker meal trays and tray carts. Bob Barker black and white slip-on shoes, reminiscent of Vans, the word INMATE on each side of each shoe. Bob’s Bargain Basement where there is a special deal on an “Officer’s Only” Scorpion Micro DV Recorder the size of your index finger for $89.95, out the door. Bob Barker sells restraints: Emergency Chair Restraint (“intended to control [the] combative, self destructive or potentially violent”), One-Man Restraint Chain, Smith & Wesson Transport Restraint, leather transport belts, Peerless Handcuffs: Standard, and, Smith & Wesson’s most popular handcuff: Smith & Wesson Model 100. Sheets: if a detainee wanted to attempt suicide, they would try to make nooses out of Bob Barker bed sheets, which are safe for everyone in both isolation and suicide-watch cells. It took all of my brother’s self-control not to steal something Bob Barker as a souvenir for me.

When I was admitted to the children’s unit of a psychiatric hospital in middle school, I remember eavesdropping on a conversation between two mental health workers on the ward about the sheets on the dorm-like, freakishly long twin beds. They said the sheets were not “suicide safe,” that other sheets on other wards they had worked on were not as easy to do self-harm with. “Look at the stitching,” one said. No one can be kept safe at all times, said the other. Suicide-safe bedding is more hard-wearing than average bedding, with no obvious stitching to bite or pull out, making the material harder to rip apart, to bunch together, to make a noose with. The mental health workers, when I was admitted, took away all the cliché items one might think would be taken away from a child that has attempted suicide (cord to stereo, shoelaces, pencils) but they did not take away a piece of leather strap hinged on top of my suitcase to aid in pulling the suitcase along, sturdy enough to asphyxiate myself with. They somehow overlooked this strap in the combing and excavating to keep me suicide safe. They did nothing about the sheets, too, what was perceived by those that were responsible for my care as unsafe. In the staff meeting at shift change, I watched the two mental health workers speak animatedly through the soundproof glass partition. The next week, men in light blue uniforms I had never seen before changed everyone’s sheets during gym time, but the sheets looked the same, and I have no idea if these two things are related.

What happens when we try to keep people safe but we cannot? What happens when we fail? Another leading maker of suicide and destruction safe items for jails and mental health facilities on the internet willingly resigns to this fact; they do not guarantee “indestructibility” in their products. Human beings will be human beings, if they want something bad enough they will find a way to get it, make it happen, et cetera. This leading maker of suicide and destruction-safe items produces makeshift mattresses that are see-through and cannot be picked or pulled apart, mattresses made for the floor of the archetypical “padded cell,” sometimes a round room with a locked door, a “think tank” it was called on the children’s unit, an “isolation/suicide” cell in the juvenile detention center. They produce restraints: Hand Control Mitt, Sleeper Jacket, Limbholders to restrain limbs to beds, chairs, tables (made from both disposable foam and reusable synthetic sheepskin). They produce “The Sani Belt,” made specifically for “the suicidal and self-destructive” female. It looks like a sanitary napkin belt from 1902, but cannot be used as a noose due to the material, which cannot be cinched into a knot and breaks away too easily to make a cord of any kind; one more way to keep people safe.

Katie Jean Shinkle is the author of one novel, Our Prayers After the Fire (forthcoming from Blue Square Press) and four chapbooks, most recently There Are So Many Things That Beg You For Love (on its way from Patasola Press). She is the associate editor of Denver Quarterly and an assistant poetry editor for DIAGRAM.

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