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Bowl Phone Sex

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Illustration by Mr. Fish

I am drinking coffee and eating doughnuts in the backroom of a church in Elizabeth, N.J., with Gloria Blount, who has been in and out of Union County Jail over the years, Irene Pabey, who spent about four months there, and Alveda Torrado, who was behind its walls for 18 months. The women, part of a prison support group I help run, are talking about the "bowl phone."

Union County Jail is a 13-story facility with about 800 prisoners in the center of the depressed city of Elizabeth. Female prisoners are housed on the top floor, men on the floors below.

The prisoners usually are forced to spend 23 hours a day in their cells. There isn't much structured activity and there are no educational classes. Prisoners who have good disciplinary records -- they are referred to as trusties and wear green as opposed to khaki uniforms -- are allowed to work in the kitchen or clean the jail but they are not paid.

Life behind bars in Union County jail and some other American penal institutions revolves around an improvised system of cell-to-cell communication through the plumbing. Known as the "bowl phone," it crudely replicates the speaking tubes in ships that sailors once shouted through. Drained metal toilets are used as megaphones to build friendships, carry out courtship, fall in love -- although the lovers may never meet -- have phone sex, pray and carry out religious conversion, pass news about court cases and families and exchange gossip.

The bowl phone is a window into the tiny, often unnoticed rebellions of the oppressed. In jails and prisons across the country, filled mostly with poor people of color, behind the backs of the guards, out of sight from the wider society, lies an unseen, subterranean network that sustains the embers of defiance.

"You have to plunge the phone," explains Pabey, a 30-year-old Latina who has black, short curly hair with raspberry streaks.

"You take a piece of cloth," says Blount, a small, wispy African-American in her 40s. "You take the water out [of the bowl]. You keep pumpin' the water out until it get lower. Then you take the little cup or somethin'. You take a little sock or a little cloth or somethin'. You pump it out with the cloth, the water out. And as you're doin' that it's the water's going out. It's goin', it's goin'. It don't take but like about a minute."

"But like three seconds," Pabey says.

"Yeah, it don't take that long," Blount says. "You scoop the rest of the water."

"With [empty toilet paper] rolls you make a mic," Pabey says. Some prisoners prefer to curl up the book of jail regulations and stuff that into the drained toilet.

To send or receive a call, a male prisoner one or two floors below must similarly prepare a bowl phone. It is difficult for the parties to hear each other if they are separated by more than two floors.

To keep the lines of communication open, bowl phones are seldom used as toilets and rarely are flushed. Cells designated by prisoners become, in essence, public phone booths, known by their cell numbers.

Pabey says that to start a conversation, "You do the knock." With her knuckles she raps out on the table a distinct series of taps that in the jail identified her to other prisoners. "Everybody has a different page," she says. "It's called a pager. Like, it's, the knock is the page."

"It's like a code," Blount says.

Two of the women spontaneously imitate the start of a bowl phone conversation. "Heyyy, baby!" Pabey and Torrado say in unison.

"I be like, 'Papi, you there?'" says Torrado, Pabey's aunt, a Latina in her 40s who has long, streaked blond hair pulled back behind her head and is wearing a low-cut emerald blouse. ... "Yeah, baby, I'm there, baby," she goes on. ... "'Hi, baby,' I go. 'Hi, Papi, I miss you.'"

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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