Locked up and feeling strange

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As soon as the secure doors to the Bannock County Detention Center locked behind Journal video reporter Jenny Losee and myself I could sense how uneasy she felt.

We were in a world where people have no freedoms and that’s not the world where we both exist. As we walked toward the pods of different levels of prisoners, I saw male inmates press their faces to the glass to see what was going on.

Here’s the deal.

Jenny is an attractive young woman with a bright future and an even brighter smile. The people incarcerated in Bannock County or any other lockdown facility in this country don’t usually have bright smiles and certainly have clouded pasts and shaky futures.

For weeks or months or years, they live in a world that is color-coded. At Bannock County Jail up to 265 people — both men and women — can be kept behind bars. If you are a man who is considered medium-risk you are issued an orange jump suit. Maximumrisk males are donning yellow jumpsuits and those considered a minimum-risk wear tan jumpsuits. All of them wear orange Crocks.

The only thing on Jenny’s mind was that all of these people had broken the law.

We weren’t allowed into the area where women prisoners, about 45 total, were held, so Jenny came under the steady gaze of the male inmates.

“I have to be honest, I felt like fresh meat,” Jenny said as we awaited an opportunity to interview two minimum-risk male inmates in their 20s.

She was uncomfortable and trying to do her best to remain professional. She managed that. But I saw the relief on Jenny’s face as we both exited the confines of the county jail.

It caused me to flash back to the first time I heard the double-doors of a slammer lock behind me.

I was working as an editor and reporter for the Power County Press in the 1980s when a group of tax protesters decided to flex their muscle against the law when it came to filing tax returns. One Pocatello man had ended up in court because he said it was his constitutional right not to comply with state and federal tax law. Bardell “Bing” Anderton was part of a group that called themselves the “Golden Mean Society.”

It was a group of right wing political believers who hung their hats on the notion that taxes are voluntary and if a person chooses not to participate in surrendering a part of their income to the government for the benefit of the entire community, there was nothing wrong with that.

James Aho, a professor emeritus in sociology from Idaho State University, wrote an entire book about groups like the Golden Mean Society titled, “The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism,” back in 1990.

Aho addressed the nature of folks who think they are empowered to redefine their relationship with their government concisely in his book.

“The latest enactment of the drama of American political exorcism calls itself, appropriately, the New Christian Right,” Aho wrote. “It calls itself ‘new’ because unlike the tired old conservative right, it will not seek accommodation with the ‘spineless and godless’ liberal establishment that ‘has brought our nation floundering to the brink of death.’”

Anderton, who had decided he was not going to surrender to the spineless, godless world of accepted social and political reality in American, found himself on the wrong side of a judge’s order to file his state taxes.

Anderton said he would remain in jail “forever” if that’s what it took to show his defiance and defend his beliefs.

Forever came quickly for Bing. After about two weeks in the Power County Jail eating cheese sandwiches and mingling with people who had broken the law, Bing decided he would comply with the court order.

But before common sense set in for Anderton, I had a chance to interview him behind bars.

Although he had only been confined for about a week, I suspected his resolve to stay in prison for life, if necessary, just wasn’t in the picture. Bing was obviously not Nelson Mandela and his unwillingness to file a tax return couldn’t be compared to a fight against apartheid where an entire race of people was being crushed in South Africa. There was no way Bing was going to endure decades in prison like Mandela did — just so he could avoid paying state income taxes.

My visit to the Power County Jail was the first time I had ever been taken into the bowels of incarceration. The sensation of being behind bars was incredibly creepy.

When you hear metal locks clank behind you and you can’t get out unless someone else decides you can, it is a mind-altering experience. Going to jail was something completely new for Jenny this week and I’m sure she won’t forget it.

Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal.