The Other Side of the Phone

An attorney reflects on all the things inmates see in her cellphone.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Wearing shapeless, color-coded smocks, they enter the tiny interview rooms, their faces weathered from homelessness, twitching with worry and terror and detox as they look at me through the soundproof glass. They are often desperate. Some don’t register my phone at all, if I have left it on the metal “desk” between us, if I have forgotten to put it in my pocket when visiting clients at the jail.

Others recoil. They see my phone. They see it as exactly what they do not have, as we sit there, as we face each other through the scratched glass, as we shout to each other from three feet apart through the hand-held jail phones connected to the wall with thick metal cords.

Their own phones are locked up in the property room downstairs with their wallets and their pants, with whatever they had when they were arrested. Or they have been seized as evidence by police hopeful for a trove of incriminating text messages, photos and call logs. Here, they can’t idly scroll, can’t text, can’t check the weather. My phone, scratched and dented, contains everything they cannot reach, everything that has been, at this moment, rightly or wrongly taken from them.

In this jail, there is no contact between attorneys and inmates. Perhaps this is why the jailers don’t harass us about bringing our phones: There is no possible way to pass one to anyone here. This is not one of those places with smuggled drugs and contraband phones. Our spheres intersect only through the glass window, through the hand-held phones. Holding these phones for the length of a visit hurts my arm and neck. Theirs too, and sometimes they stand as we talk to relieve the pressure of reaching, because the phones on their side, on the inside, have especially short cords.

There is the background noise of whatever is going on on the other side of the metal door behind them—a movie, someone shouting, random clapping when an AA meeting reaches a crescendo. There is the murmur of other attorneys in other visiting rooms with other clients.

Why do I bring it? I have lost my watch. Visiting closes at specific hours, and there are days when I must be in tight control of my time, when I need to pace visits. There are no clocks here, no other way to see the time. And of course, like a normal person, like a free person, I bring my phone everywhere. I try to remember to put it in my pocket, or waistband if I have no pocket, so they don’t see it, so that it does not remind them unnecessarily. But some days the delays are extreme, due to the mysterious ways of the bureaucracy of incarceration, and I have it out, and there it sits, between us.

Phones have been subtracted from their lives. Yet technology still controls so much: It opens and closes the metal doors, it keeps track of how long they have done, how much they have left do until they can be out, reunited with the ordinary world.

I remember J.D., deep in the throes of mental illness when he arrived. As he became more stable he began to comment on my phone. "How can you possibly still have an iPhone 4?" he asked every time I saw him. He, of course, had long ago upgraded to a 5. Phones were the first thing he wanted to talk about when I visited him. It was a territory where he was far ahead of me, even if his 5, undoubtedly full of better, cooler apps and not prone to random crashing, was out of his hands at the moment.

J.D., I came to realize, needed to discuss phones before moving on to the status of his case, the erratic judge, the possibility of going to a mental hospital, the weight of the evidence, the things they could or could not prove. Talking about phones equalized things, at least for a few minutes. Once I come to know clients, there is, sometimes, a false sense that we are equal. We may have just had a deeply personal conversation about their case and their life. But then I get up, go to my car, and drive away. They go back to their cell. The presence of my phone, there, between us, I realize, even more than the difference in our dress, points to this inequality. Despite equal roles in the conversation, despite the give and take, the mutual decision making that arises in a good attorney-client relationship, there is this thing that I have, and they don’t.

The phone concentrates into one object access to the infinite number of things an inmate is denied. It is a portal to the things we might decide to look up—how to bake a cake, how to make pruno; the things we find ourselves somehow reading without even having made the conscious decision to search, without knowing we wanted to know. The phone is everything that has been subtracted from their lives at this moment, and possibly forever.

Some cycle through this system quickly—someone posts bail, their case is dismissed or resolves without them having to return to the jail. Others face lengthy sentences and might never get out. At some point, those with serious crimes realize the possibility of going to prison for a long time. They see my phone and their eyes flicker away. They cannot engage in discussion of versions and apps; there is no idle mention of iPhones. Will there even be such a thing as a phone in life plus 57 years? Or in three lives?

The interview ends. I get up. I grab my files and my phone. I walk out into the sun, or the wind, or the rain.