Things That Go Bump in the Night

By Jen Schneider


In a place built on order. Where light knows no bounds. Where eyes are always watching. Where cameras are always recording. Where noise is often prohibited. Nights in county jail are busy. Full of sounds, smells, and unexpected bumps.

What strikes me most is the blending of day and night. As the rest of the county sleeps, eyes are always open here.

I present a glimpse behind the barbed wire fence, the metal detectors, the 20-pound doors, the locks, the keys, and the tiled hallways. In Alphabetical Order. Documenting my observations from the hours of 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM. Because I don’t know what else to do.


All-night watches, with lights that never turn off.

Broken people. Broken lives.

Banter. Built up emotions, ultimately released. Screams. Startled guards.

Dropped bowl. Shattered glass.

Chaos. Candor.

Confrontation threats. Confrontation averted.

Calm. Temporary calm.

Call buttons awaiting pressure from fingers of frazzled inmates.  Consistency.

Cats, near silent sleuths. Seeking pray. Seeking shelter. Around the building’s exterior walls. Aren’t we all? 

Dropped keys, 20 to a ring. Clinking, clattering on the tile floor.

Delousing. Denied dignity.

Eternal nights. Eternal days. Feeling like forever.

Etched baseboards, documenting initials of inmates past.

Forks scraping congealed splots of chicken dinner residue off chipped ceramic plates in the county kitchen.

Gasps. Growls. Glares. No one knows what to say. Where to go next. Guessing.

Getting to know others.


Highway construction roars. Distant. Beyond the barbed wired fence that guards the building’s perimeter. Amplified in hungover heads.

Handshakes with offers of peace. And help.

Itches. Nagging, persistent, tingles. What am I doing here?

Jokesters attempting to make light of darkness.

Jellied stains of unknown origin.

Kisses blown threw phone receivers. “It’s gonna be okay, baby. Stay strong.”


Locks enabled and set. 6:00 PM, sharp. No way in, no way out. Until 7:00 AM, sharp.

Leery responses to offers of camaraderie. “Yeah, man. Sure, I’ll lend a hand.”

Meal service, at 5 AM. Boxed cereal. Cartons of milk. No bowls.

Mice. Scampering. Searching for leftovers.

New tenants crying like newborn babies. Some out of fear. Others out of joy.

Guaranteed food. Shelter. Maybe safety.

Overwhelming odors. Bathrooms, late night entries, stale breath, perfume.

Options. Do I talk to the others? Do I not?

Paperwork. Lots.

Phone calls full of desperate questions and disoriented folk stumbling for words. 

Phone calls full of hope and promises. Many kept. Some not.

Quick thinking in response to curious questions.

Quick thinking in response to curious stares.

Radio tunes, streaming through headphones that adorn officers’ ears.


Shattered status quo, incoming tenants, new personalities, new fears.

Shifting hierarchies.

Toilets. No, a single toilet. Used by, no – available to, thirty-two humans.

Thirty-two humans finding ways to make do.

Television screen playing game shows.

Tattling. No tattling.

Unexpected alliances, friendships, coalitions.

Unions. Unity. Less uncertainty.

Voices, relentless rants, monologues, and whispers.


More voices. Caution. Cautious compassion. Care.

Wardens preparing write-ups for poor behavior. Examples of which include inappropriate whispers, words, and wicked looks.

Wardens preparing write-ups for good behavior. Examples of which include recognizing humanity, regret, re-dos.

Xenophobia. Xenophobia stomped out.

Yawns. Some loud and exaggerated. Some hidden behind wrinkled hands. Some fake. Most real. Weary people everyone, seeking sleep. Fearing sleep. “You tired? Me, too” “How about this. You sleep for an hour. I’ll watch. Then, we switch.”

Zonk. Zap. Zing. Zink. Zank. 7:00 AM. Metal keys clanking. Turning right. Door opens.


Officer smiles. Goodbye night. Hello day. Hello world. Welcome new sounds.



Author bio

Jen Schneider is an educator, attorney, and writer. She lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Philadelphia. Her work appears in The Coil, The Popular Culture Studies Journal, unstamatic, Zingara Poetry Review, 42 Stories Anthology (forthcoming), Voices on the Move (forthcoming), Chaleur Magazine, LSE Review of Books, and other literary and scholarly journals.