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.
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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.’ ”
“We be talkin’ like that all night,” Torrado says. “So then when I see it’s daylight, ‘Baby, I’m going to bed.’ ‘Me, too, baby. I’ll see you in the morning.’ ”
I am sitting next to Todd Clayton, a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I ask the women how Clayton, if he were a new prisoner in the jail, would get hooked into the bowl phone system.
“They be like, ‘Fresh meat in the building,’ ” Pabey says.
“So you’ll be like, ‘OK. Hold on. We got a girl in such and such room that’s lookin’ for a guy,’ ” she explains. “Everybody ends up hookin’ up.”
“Girls come and be like, ‘You talkin’ to my man on the bowl?’ ” Torrado says. “I be like, ‘Girl, that ain’t your man! Next time I hear you talkin’ to my man it’s gonna be a problem.’ ”
“Eventually a woman literally sticks to the person that she’s dealin’ with,” Pabey says.
“That’s where the complications come from,” Blount says. “ ’Cause you fall in love with that person.”
“I did it over there,” Torrado says. “I met my boyfriend through the toilet bowl. We been together nine years.”
“Toilet bowl love,” Blount mutters.
This one girl used to be loud, but I done used to let her talk for a long time,” Blount says. “She was a bowl ho ’cause she stayed up—I mean day and night—and be, ‘Hey, blah blah blah’ ’cause you be on, yeah, you be talkin’ to different people you a whore. You a ho, on the bowl.”
Pabey offers an example of jailhouse romance: “[Say] I’m datin’ Todd. We’re on the mic. I’m like, ‘Hey, baby, whatchu doin’,’ you know what I mean? ‘How was your day?’ Whatever. And then, without knowing, Todd gets released.”
Blount lets out a gasp of empathy.
“That hurts,” Blount says. “That can [be] heartbreaking. I seen a girl cry. She like, ‘I know he goin’ come to the window. They used to pray and stuff before they go to sleep. And he all of a sudden he got released. So she was at the window waiting for him to come by the window and say hi or whatever. She say, ‘I know my baby comin’ to the window.’ I know she came to the window looking for him. She be cryin’. I said, ‘You ain’t think that man really goin’ come to the window? He goin’ home.’ ”
“Ah, he goin’ get him some pussy,” Pabey says. “ ’Scuse my language, but it’s the truth. He goin’ go get him some pootang.”
“He went out,” Blount says. “He was gone. You know what I’m sayin’? She was cryin’, her heart breaking. People get hurt. People fight.”
I ask what most of the prisoners like to talk about.
“Sex,” Pabey and Blount answer at once.
Most “bowl sex” takes place at night when, as Pabey says, “the freaks comes out.”
“Now, mind you, if it’s my aunt and her dude talkin’ on the bowl, you’ve got to let the other female know,” Pabey says. “Courtesy. So it’s you and your dude on his bowl, and he’s tellin’ his roommate, ‘Yo, you gotta go.’ You feel me? So you have to give that person courtesy. And, you get it in.”
“He be like, ‘Baby, how big is your boobs?’ ” Torrado says. “ ‘How big is your butt?’ ‘32.’ ‘Wow, baby. Keep telling, keep talkin’.”
“And they be like, ‘Baby,’ they be like, ‘Open up, baby, talk nasty to me,’ ” she says. “ ‘Baby, what do you want me to say?’ ‘Anything, baby, say anything, to—.’ ‘OK, baby, come here, baby. Let’s do this.’ ”
“Imagine me lickin’ on your … ,” Pabey offers.
“He be like, ‘Oh, baby, I’m startin’ feelin’ hot already down here, baby,’ ” Blount says.
“They be like, ‘Hold up, I’m about to bust a nut off-a this fool,’ ” Pabey says.
“I be on my bed readin’ a book,” Pabey adds.
“Me too!” Blount says. “I be laughin’.”
“And I’ll be like, ‘Yo, this bitch is crazy,’ ” Pabey says. “She’s like, ‘Baby, yeah, stroke it harder, stroke it harder. And I be like, ‘What the fuck?’And he’s like, ‘Baby, I’m about to bust. I’m about to come.’ ”
She mimics the moans of an orgasm.
“And I be like, ‘Ah, shit,’ ” she says. “And then we’ll bust out laughin’. ‘Oh, you’re two minute. Uhhh.’ She be like, ‘Leave my baby alone. Leave my boo alone.’ ”
“A girl could be sittin’ there talkin’ to a guy through the toilet bowl but still gettin’ her coochie licked by another girl,” Pabey throws in.
“I’ve seen like the guy tell the girl, ‘Oh, baby, climb on top of the bowl and smack your coochie,” Pabey says. “Literally sit there and be smackin’… so the guy can hear it.”
The only opportunity to see a bowl phone partner occurs when both put in requests to go to the medical department on the same day. Male and female inmates are not permitted to speak to each other there, but some bowl phone lovers manage to communicate through surreptitious hand signals in the medical waiting area.
The bowl phone is prohibited by the jail, but the punishment for those caught using it is mild, most often a one- or two-day loss of his or her hour of recreational time outside the cell.
“Whoopidee-freakin’-doo,” Pabey says. “You’re already locked down 23 [hours], and one so what the fuck? Like, ’scuse my language, but you can’t do shit. That’s the only excitement you get. You still be in the bowl, ‘Baaah. Oh well, you punish me for how long?’ ‘Two hours.’ ‘I’ll go on the bowl.’ ”
Arguments can be terminated with a flush.
“And they be stressin’, bangin’ the wall,” Torrado says in describing male partners’ reaction to a flush.
“Yeah, that’s the flush, that’s it,” Blount says.
“They be bangin’,” Pabey says as she knocks furiously on the table. “They’ll send another guy to another bowl and be like, ‘Yo, tell my fuckin’ girl that she better get on the phone!’ ”
She bangs again on the table.
“ ‘I want her right now,’ ” Torrado says. “And then you be in the bowl, ‘What, baby? Baby, I didn’t mean to hurt you, baby. I’m sorry, baby.’ ”