Dec 11, 2013
Chris Hedges’ Interview About the ‘Bowl Phone’ (Full Transcript and Audio)
Posted on Jun 30, 2013
Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges recently interviewed three former inmates of a New Jersey jail to learn about the way prisoners communicate among themselves through the plumbing—the “bowl phone.” Below are an audio recording and a transcript of the interview.
Click here to read the column that grew out of the meeting.
Gloria Blount: Gloria Blount.
Alveda Torrado: Let me know when it come out in the newspaper so we can get the newspaper.
Chris Hedges: Gloria what?
CH: B-l-o-u-n-t. And you were in Union County how long?
GB: Off and on like about years, I’m like I can’t even—.
CH: Off and on years.
AT: Oh, well, you did less than me.
Irene Pabey: Well, I know I haven’t been in trouble for almost two years.
GB: I been since I was 18.
IP: I been, I been outta trouble—.
CH: And what’s your name?
IP: Irene Pabey.
CH: Irene, how do you spell your last name?
CH: And how long were you in Union County?
IP: I was in Union for like a good four, five months.
GB: Oh yeah, me too.
CH: And then your name is?
AT: Alveda. A-l-v-e-d-a.
CH: And last name?
AT: Torrado. T-o-r-r-a-d-o.
CH: OK, and how long were you in Union County?
AT: Eighteen months.
CH: OK, wait till Todd gets [here]. I’m going to write a little story about the bowl phone.
[The women laugh.]
CH: I think it’s hilarious. I think it’s really funny.
AT: You never heard of that [before]?
IP: And you got guys that fight for the women, too.
AT: They be fighting.
CH: You mean fight to talk to them?
GB:, IP: Yeah!
AT: Girls come, girls come—.
CH: Wait till I, wait till I. ...
IP: Mmhm. OK.
AT: Girls come and be like, “You talkin’ to my man on the bowl?” I be like, “Girl, that ain’t your man!”
AT: “Next time I hear you talkin’ to my man it’s gonna be a problem.”
GB: I seen them.
CH: Oh, you mean like other, other—.
IP: Get jealous. Yeah.
AT, GB: Yeah.
CH: Other prisoners will say, “You can’t talk to my man”?
AT, GB, IP: Yeah.
CH: Oh man, this is great.
Todd Clayton: This is amazing.
CH: This is amazing.
TC: It’s amazing.
CH: OK. So you got the tape going?
TC: Yep. It’s good.
CH: OK, all right. I’m going to ask you like the basic questions, and, um, let’s see I just gotta, ’cause you can all talk but I’ve gotta keep track of it. OK. What is the bowl phone?
IP: The bowl phone, the bowl phone is like basically what females or males do to pass the time in Union County Correction.
[Clayton and Hedges laugh.]
IP: Basically it’s, uh, like a telephone. You page, you page—.
CH: Wait, wait, wait. How does it work?
CH: How does the bowl phone work?
IP: You have to plunge the phone, you can either use—.
[Clayton and Hedges laugh.]
AT: That’s it.
CH: How do you plunge it?
GB: You plunge, you take, you take a piece of cloth, and you, you, you take the water out, you keep pumpin’ the water out until it get lower, then you take the little cup or somethin’—.
CH: Are you talking about, you talking about the toilet?
GB, AT: The toilet.
GB: The toilet.
IP: That’s the phone.
GB: You pump the water out. You take a little sock or a little cloth or somethin—.
AT: Talk slow, Gloria.
IP: Yeah, ’cause they—.
AT: Too fast.
GB: I got it. I got it.
GB: Yeah, you pump, you take the, you take the cloth and you pump it, you pump the, um, you pump it out with the cloth, the water out—.
CH: How do you, how do you like, like—.
GB: Take a little cloth.
CH: Like, you use it like a sponge?
GB: Yeah. Like a little sponge?
CH: So you dip the cloth—.
GB: No, you don’t squeeze it—
AT: Like a rag.
GB: You do like this. You know how you do the plunger like that?
CH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GB: You take with the glove. I mean with the cloth. And as you’re doin’ that it’s the water’s going out. It’s goin’, it’s goin’.
CH: Oh, so you’re like pushing the water down—.
CH: Down the toilet.
GB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GB: In fact I could do that right now in there.
CH: How long does it take?
GB: It don’t take but like about a minute.
IP: But like three seconds.
GB: Yeah, it don’t take that long.
IP: Like really it—.
CH: So then you got no water in the toilet.
GB: But you have a tiny bit of water.
IP: Yeah, you gotta scoop the rest of the water out.
GB: You scoop the rest of the water.
CH: OK, so you scoop the rest—.
IP: So once—.
CH: But how do you keep the water from coming back in?
GB: It can’t—if nobody—.
IP: No, you’re not supposed to flush.
GB: You’re not supposed to flush.
IP: If you flush it, it’s gonna fill—.
IP, GB: Back up.
IP: Then you gotta do it all over.
GB: Some people can’t even use their bathrooms because—
IP: Yeah, they gotta hold it—.
GB: They’re on the phone.
IP: They go to another girl’s—.
IP: They’ll sneak into another girl’s—.
GB: And use their bathroom.
IP: And they’ll use their bathroom ’cause their toilet bowl’s not plunged. Now, you be like, “Oh, um, go to,” you know, once the toilet bowl’s plunged then you do the knock, or—.
CH: OK, no, no. OK, so the toilet bowl’s plunged, then what do you do?
GB: You do the knock.
IP: You do the knock.
[IP knocks on the table.]
GB: At first they do it with the sink.
IP: Everybody has a different page. It’s called a pager. Like, it’s, the knock is the page, so everybody—.
CH: But how do you, no, no, no, wait—.
GB: But don’t you—you supposed to do it with the water thing first, when they be makin’, they be pumpin’ with the water—.
IP: Everybody’s different. I tap on, like, say for an example the toilet bowl, I knock on the toilet bowl, ’cause it’s metal.
IP: And it’s a certain knock.
IP: And you’re dealin’, if you’re dealin’ with somebody—.
CH: Yeah, but how do you, how do you know whose knock? How does that get established? How do you—.
GB: It’s like a code—.
IP: Because they let, everybody lets everybody know.
GB: They got different codes. Like she got her own different message, code, with her friend—.
CH: What’s your code?
IP: [Knocks on the table.] That’s it.
CH: OK, so, and they know it’s you?
CH: And they know your name?
CH: OK, so how, let’s say Todd goes to jail. It’s his first day in jail.
GB, IP: Uh-huh.
CH: He wants to talk on the bowl phone.
IP: They’ll, the girls will let me know.
AT: The boys got to know. Yo’ we got a, a—.
IP: Like I, wait, wait, wait—he gets in the building, right?
CH: Right, right.
IP: He’s in the building, they be like, “Fresh meat in the building.”
GB: Yeah, uh-huh.
AT: Mmhm. They be like, “Fresh meat coming.”
IP: “Fresh meat in the building.”
CH: Is that what they say?
AT: Yeah, they be like, “We got a new male. Fresh.”
IP: Now they be like, “We got a such and such guy. He looks—” you know what I mean? You know, guys try to get a description.
GB: Uh-huh. Tell, “Open up.” You tell him to open up, right?
IP: So you’ll be like, “OK, uh, hold on, we got a girl in such and such room that’s lookin’ for a guy.”
IP: So they’ll axe questions, the girls will axe questions, like—.
CH: No, no, no, wait, let’s go back. How do you communicate? How, how, how are you asking these questions? How are you going back and forth like this?
GB: We talk. Right through the bowl. It’s like we talkin’ like this that’s how clear it is.
CH: So let’s go back, let’s go back to the communication. You empty the bowl—.
IP, GB: Uh-huh.
CH: And then what do you do? You said you take toilet paper, toilet paper rolls?
GB: The things for the toilet paper—.
IP: With the rolls, you make a mic.
AT: You make a microphone with the—.
GB: After you finish the toilet tissue—.
IP: You know, the brown—.
GB: The brown part, the gray part—.
GB: You put ’em together, you have about this much of it—.
GB: You make a little, you make a long tube.
AT: Or you get a book, you make a microphone. They give you a book, as soon as you hit Union County they give you a book about the rules and stuff—.
GB: Whatever you can use.
AT: It’s a book and you fold it and you make a microphone. Tighten it up.
CH: And you put the microphone into—.
AT: Right in the toilet.
IP: Into the toilet bowl and be like—.
AT, IP: “Heyyy, baby!”
AT: I be like, “Papi, you there?” “Yeah, baby, I’m there, baby.”
AT: “Hi, baby.” I go, “Hi, papi, I miss you.” “ Oh, baby, I miss you, too.”
CH: Oh my—.
AT: We be talkin’ like that all night.
AT: So then when I see it’s daylight, “Baby, I’m going to bed.” “Me, too, baby. I’ll see you in the morning.”
CH: Now, how, okay, how’d the system—so you talk into the toilet—.
CH: How does it work that you’re connected to a particular person?
IP: No, because everybody, even if it was different people, like say—.
GB: Here go get the other person.
IP: It’s two persons per cell, so it could be two women per cell, and two men per cell—.
IP: But everybody ends up hookin’ up, like you can go tell your friend—.
GB: Yeah, or you can tell the person to go get the other person, you can tell him to go get him.
CH: But, but I’m saying, but I’m saying how do you manage to open up an airway to a particular cell?
IP: You could just be like, “Ey, um”—.
CH: ’Cause isn’t it just going to go to all the cells?
GB: No, no, no, she’s telling you. Listen.
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