An Inside Look: Flooded Cells

Not much is more devastating than finding your house under water. The recent historic floods in Louisiana are a testament to the ironic nature of water as both a saver and destroyer of life. Over a dozen lives were lost, thousands more displaced as 60,000-plus homes were damaged, leaving visuals of the entire contents of almost all of them lining the curbs of Louisiana streets for miles.

While it can never compare with the phenomenon of terrible watery destruction levied by Mother Nature, it gives us an excuse for a brief look inside at a phenomenon that occurs in just about every prison across the nation -- flooding of prison cells.

Floods we see on news, the ones that presidents and presidential candidates make time in their schedules to visit or fly over, are angry acts of nature. Floods that occur in prison cells, which is likely occurring somewhere as you read this, are most often the acts of naturally angry men caught in a box with -- in their way of thinking -- no other way of effectively venting their frustrations. 

It often begins with heavy rain. Not actual precipitation, but a storm of irritants to the guy trapped in the cell. Maybe it began with mail call, when a letter that he was hoping to receive from his loved one failed to show up as expected. Or perhaps the first storm cloud developed when a fight broke down on the other side of the institution, cancelling yard that day -- a time which this particular inmate relies on to keep some semblance of sanity. Or it could be that he got in some trouble himself, resulting in a trip to a segregation cell as punishment, something that he felt was unjustified and required someone to take to notice.

Flooding a cell is a quickly learned art-form. Most discover it in county jail when the shock of lost freedoms is at its worst. The less adaptable a new prisoner the more prone they are to act out in ways that they perceive hurt their jailers. Since there is not typically much in a cell that can be impactful -- some books (which get disassembled for paper or "fishing" weight), mattresses (where string is often removed for "fishing" line) -- water is about the only thing left that can get the staff's attention beyond voices and banging. 

There isn't a spigot that you can just turn on to let water stream out of your cell as if from a mountain spring. Most of the sink/toilet combinations that exist in virtually all jails and prisons -- the stainless-steel sort you see in the movies -- are designed to limit the amount of water dispensed at any given time. There are three buttons, one to flush the toilet, and one each for hot (lukewarm at best) and cold (room-temperature) water. The push of a water button spews a drinking-fountain-style arch of liquid that generally runs for 10 or 15 seconds, at a rate of one ounce per second -- enough to fill a Dixie cup. You cannot hold the button in to make it run longer, therefore, to flood a cell this way will take you all day. Even though prisoners have all day, the trickle just isn't worth the effort. 

The toilet, however, is another matter. When you first flush a jail toilet, it's shocking. Between its acoustic metal construction and the suction designed to flush just about anything down its pipes, the sound of a flush resembles a military jet that just buzzed your house. You're waiting for the sonic boom after it passes. Since many prisoners will flush anything they can down them -- chip wrappers, towels, sheets, cellies -- these toilets are built to handle it... simply because jailers don't prisoners to be able to "flood out."

Assuming the cell's resident doesn't accidentally flush everything within reach learning this lesson, they quickly know to create something that cannot be flushed. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a combination of items -- toilet paper wrapped in a sheet, a paperback book jammed in the hole packed with a few towels, or other more creative methods -- will produce the desired result. From that flush on, it's the same as any other toilet, only instead of panicking when the water gets near the rim, the inmate becomes excited that he is about to ruin the day for his keepers.

It's surprising how much water can collect with a handful of flushes. Ironically, flooding a cell out is the first time many recognize that toilets would make a great place to focus water conservation efforts. But the goal now has an opposite focus, to find out just how much water can be wasted before staff can remedy it. To prevent raising any early awareness, many flooders will dam any areas where the water may prematurely escape, most often the inch gap under their cell door. Ankle-deep water is usually the mission before even considering releasing their torrent onto the tier in front of their cell. But if left alone long enough, some will manage to create a hot tub's depth of water that they could literally fish in if stocked with anything worth catching.

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