Tara McKelvey,

Tara McKelvey,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 24 1998 3:30 AM

Tara McKelvey,

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8:33 a.m.
       Girls in hair spray and scarlet lipstick carry boxes of grapefruit and sandwiches. They walk in stilettos up to a cement wall with bent barbed wire. We're about 10 kilometers from my house in Warsaw, Poland, at Europe's biggest prison.
       Greg is inside. He's on trial for murder. I can't talk to him, but I want to see where he lives. He's 19. A former skinhead.

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9:10 a.m.
       I'm having instant coffee with the prison director. He offers me pretzel sticks. He's a big, beefy, sadistic-looking guy. A former gym teacher. Figures.

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10:08 a.m.
       The craggy-faced deputy director says the inmates have been accused of crimes from murder to delinquent child-support payments (!). They're placed in cells according to type of crime, age, psychological state, intellect, interests.
       They have hobbies?
       A prison psychologist asks if I've seen Steve McQueen in Papillon. I start to notice eerie similarities between the French penal colony in Papillon and this place.

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11:17 a.m.
       Solitary confinement is a room with a plastic bucket, a metal toilet, a bar of soap. You can see a sliver of blue sky behind the bars. Greg is somewhere in this wing of the prison, but I don't see him.
       A dishy male social worker and I enter Cell No. 15. Four men jump to their feet. They stand at attention and clasp their hands behind their backs.
       The psychologist says, "In America people drink lots of water. They say juice has sugar in it."
       "You know a lot about America," I say.
       "Not only," he says. Grins. Wipes white paint off his shoes with a hand towel.

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12:32 p.m.
       As we leave, I notice a bar outside the prison--Club Papillon. It has metal grids on the windows and a barbed-wire fence. My Polish assistant complains about the Americanization of Poland. Typical post-Communist chitchat.

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3:58 p.m.
       I shake hands with the police chief at the station Greg was brought to in 1995. Greg says the police beat him into a confession.
       The police chief shows me a collection of military hats. He's dressed in black, carries a gold lighter. His wife is a "businessman." His office has a gold-painted trash can and looks like a bordello.
       The police chief assures me there's no police brutality.
       The police chief stands up from his desk. Pantomimes making an arrest. The police chief shows me how he grabs an imaginary suspect. Yells at the imaginary suspect. Gives the imaginary suspect a sucker punch.
       "People say that's brutality," he explains. "No. We're doing our job."
       Cops in his town stand on rooftops in high-crime areas and watch people with binoculars. It's the chief's new program. Last January, there were 122 criminal acts. This January, there were 97.

Tara McKelvey is writing a book about young people in eastern Europe.