Sorry, guys your secret's out. You told it freely, and now the world must know.
Up in Cellblock 2-E the towels are tucked neatly at the mattress edge, toiletries spread across the white cloth. Down in Cellblock 1-F, military style prevails: washcloths folded with meticulous care and arranged atop the bed.
Details of such diligent excess may not arouse most homemakers. But in the Alexandria City Jail -- especially in blocks 2-E and 1-F -- prisoners regard these measures as the secret strategies in a war for hamburgers, fried chicken and brief tastes of freedom.
It began last summer with a simple idea: to induce tidiness behind the bars with weekly rewards of fast food favorites to the best-scrubbed cells. But what started as a casual attempt at cleanliness in the jail'l 18 cell blocks has turned into an all-out war of disinfectant, spit polish and white paint.
"They haven't gotten down to white gloves yet" says Alexandria corrections director Joseph N. Soos. "But some of them are getting almost professional."
Nowhere is the rivalry more intense than between the men in 2-E and the women in 1-F. Though no prisoner from either block has been allowed to view the other's techniques, for nearly two months they have alternately shared the distinction of keeping the cleanest cells in town. And for that there is a reward.
On Friday night a sheriff's deputy makes the coveted delivery. The menu varies, but it always comes from "the outside:" Hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken and Cokes, a rare treat the inmates savor in front of the television, with their individual cells left open all night.
"You don't know what a Gino's chicken is," said Gwen Bates, a 20-year-old convicted drug offender in 1-F, "till you've been in jail."
Corrections officials never imagined the program would take the kind of grip it has over the jail population. Before it began, there was little more than the mandatory interest in keeping the 150-year-old jail tidy. Paint peeled from the walls and ceilings, cigarette butts and candy wrappers littered the floors and roaches scurried amidst the debris.
Now inmates badger guards for extra cleaning supplies, hoarding their little cups of Lysol like letters from the parole board. "You have to request the supplies," said Leo Batha, 24, a convicted murderer in 2-E. "They pass it out on Sunday and after then you don't see it. We could use more supplies, because the stuff we have doesn't get out all the stains."
When they are not reading or watching television, inmates while away their hours devising new ways to impress the judges, outsiders brought in to award points to the cellblocks the way restaurants earn stars. "The inspectors used to just walk by outside the blocks," said Soos. "But the inmates complained it wasn't fair.They wanted them to see the cells close up inside."
And inmates who don't pass muster are booted right out by their cellmaktes in favor of somebody who will.
Last summer officials ordered to let inmates paint their own cells in exchange for a cake. They ran out of paint.
"One of the cells invited me up to lunch," recalls Soos. "It had just been painted, but it wasn't until the end of the conversation that I noticed they were all sitting on newspapers." He stood up and found a broad green stripe across the bottom of his grey slacks. "They thought it was pretty funny."
Certain security precautions have put a clamp on prisoners' zeal. No pushbrooms allowed because an inmate once fashioned his into a skewer and tried to spear a guard. "Ammonia is definitely out," said Soos. A deputy had his face doused with the caustic stuff.
Instead inmates get by with sponges and shower towels, carefully scrubbing around bars, lights and commodes. "The competition has gotten so keen," said Soos, "there's pressure on the judges to come up with a winner. It's gotten down to how they arrange their washcloths."
On Friday, Michael Washington, 27, who faces charges of possessing stolen goods, and his three block mates waited patiently for their fried chicken, donated by Holly Farms. A look of deep chagrin washed over their faces when the deputy delivering the meal stumbled and spilled two sodas from the tray. "We just did the floor five minutes before you came in," Washington moaned.
Downstairs in 1-F, their main competitors licked their wounds. "We had been winning straight," said Babs Staples, serving a one-year sentence on a drug conviction. "Some of the deputies said we should give one of the other blocks a chance."
Staples said 1-F had "taken a break" this week because of two extra prisoners temporarily in the block. "But we'll be back on our toes Monday," she said. "We'll be scrubbing the floor on our hands and knees."