I t took me 15 minutes to walk from my Uptown office to the el station at Argyle, where I boarded the southbound Red Line train at about 8 AM. I got off 45 minutes later at 35th Street and headed for the bus stop. I waited 10 minutes, then hopped on the westbound bus for a 20-minute ride before transferring to a northbound 94 at California, which took me, in a few minutes, to my destination—Cook County Jail.

I had prepared for the long haul. I carried a thermal mug of coffee, and my tote bag was packed with water and an MP3 player, plus the usual wallet, cell phone, business cards, day planner, etc. I’m a social worker, experienced with the courts and corrections system in Mount Clemens, Michigan, where I worked before coming to Chicago. But when I decided to make the trek to Cook County to visit a client—a former homeless woman struggling to get her life back on track—I didn’t know what I was in for.

An online map of the jail gives a single address, 3015 S. California, but the compound actually stretches from 26th to 31st streets, bordered by California on the east and Sacramento on the west. I got off the bus at about 28th and California—the halfway point—and made my way to the first gated entry. It was next to the courthouse, where bail bonds are paid, and there were long lines and a lot of activity outside. I told the guard my business. He consulted a dot-matrix printout and sent me to Division Four, the women’s division, on the opposite side of the complex. I started walking, following the brick and barbed wire north to 26th then over to Sacramento.

About ten minutes later, I arrived at the guard station, where a stout corrections officer with an unfriendly face stopped me. She indicated my coffee mug and cell phone and declared it “contraband.” Back in Michigan there were rows of lockers for visitors to the jail, but the officer simply told me, “Take it back to your car.”

I said I came by public transportation. What did people do in this situation?

“A lot of people will hide their stuff across the street,” she said.

I took a quick survey of the area. Across Sacramento was a row of houses, at least one of which was abandoned. On 26th, there was a Popeyes, a Greek restaurant, and a car wash. “Be sure it’s not on corrections property,” she said firmly.

Another officer, skinny with thick glasses, stepped out of the guard station. “Sometimes the restaurant down the street will hold your bag,” she said. “But they’ll charge you.”

I jaywalked across Sacramento toward the abandoned house. I emptied my coffee mug, cleaned it with my shirt, and put my phone inside. Then I stuck the mug through a hole in the wood-plank fence and camouflaged it with rocks. I ran back across the street thinking “I’m in the clear.” But when I reached the gate, they said they’d have to search my bag.

“Oh no no no no, you can’t bring any of this in,” the skinny officer said as she rifled through it, shaking her head.

“Well, does the court have lockers?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” the stout one replied. She was clearly annoyed. “We aren’t the same. We’re separate departments.”

I got my mug and phone and headed back to the courthouse, where I talked with yet another guard. “I’m sorry we don’t have any lockers here. But,” she added cheerfully, “the man out there with the sandwich truck will hold on to your stuff for a dollar.” In the street was an ordinary roach coach.

“Really? Is that safe?”

“People have been doing it all day.”

I thought about it. Then I remembered: I knew a social worker in the jail’s health division who could probably help. I called her on my cell, and we devised a plan. She had to visit a few detainees before lunch but promised to meet me outside her building next to the courthouse around noon.

Crowds filed in and out as I waited. The sickly bushes outside were littered with purses, sunglasses, and half-empty packs of cigarettes. People being released begged for quarters or asked to use my phone. I watched one guy pick up discarded cigarettes and sell them—three for $2—to people on their way out.

When my friend arrived, we walked to the staff parking lot on the east side of California. I left my things in her car, keeping my business card and ID. We agreed I’d call her after the visit to collect everything.

I walked back to the women’s division on Sacramento and proclaimed myself contraband free at the guard station. After being searched, I was allowed past the moatlike pond and into the complex, where I met another guard sitting behind a horseshoe-shaped desk with signs reading reception and do not lean on desk. I presented my ID and told the guard my client’s name.

“I’m sorry, miss,” she said. “But her visiting hours are on Sunday.”

It was Friday. I’d called the county’s automated system the afternoon before to make sure I had the right day.

“Well apparently it wasn’t updated,” the guard said. “I can’t authorize you to visit on a nonvisiting day.”

“Who can authorize it?” I snapped. “Because I’ve had one hell of a day and I’m not leaving until I visit who I came to see!”

The guard paused to study my ID, a Michigan driver’s license. Then she turned to a map behind her; it described the area around Chicago and was marked with a large circle. After a moment, she said, “You’re out of the 150-mile radius and considered an out-of-town visitor, so you can visit that inmate today.”

I waited in the lobby—a couple rows of plastic chairs and vending machines—for more than an hour before I was called to the visiting area.

To get past reception, you have to go through a “puffer machine.” Once given the green light, I stepped inside and was blasted from head to toe with air. The air blasts disturb the microscopic particles around you, and then the machine sucks it all back in to check for traces of drugs and explosives. I was clean.

The visiting area was a lot like what you see on TV: a large room separated into shallow cubicles divided by windows. Instead of a phone handset, there’s a round speaker in the glass, like at a theater box office. You have to put your mouth against the speaker to talk and your ear against it to listen. The glass was all smudged. About ten other inmates had visitors. The woman to my right was holding a crying baby.

My client and I were given 30 minutes. Not a lot was said, but I could see the hardness in my client’s face soften as the minutes passed. We couldn’t hug so we placed our hands against the glass. I stood up after 25 minutes, unable to hold back my tears any longer. The guards let me out and sent me back through the puffer machine, out the gate, and onto the street.

Heading back to the courthouse I realized that without my cell phone I had no way of reaching my social worker friend. I needed my things, so at the same guard station where I started my day I asked for help.

“What’s her extension?” they said.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know. But here’s her first and last name.”

One of the guards picked up a phone and appeared to dial extensions at random. Then another officer piped in. My friend, he said, did not work that day.

“But that’s impossible! I just saw her three hours ago!”

“Stay behind the line!” another officer yelled. I saw no line.

“Isn’t there a phone directory?” I asked.

“You’ll just have to wait until she gets off work.”

I left the guards and approached every employee leaving the building until I found one from the health division. He knew my friend and promised to call her from his car to tell her I was waiting. By chance, she came out just a few minutes later.

After collecting my things, I thanked my friend and hailed a cab. I was back in Uptown around three. It had taken more than seven hours to make a half-hour visit.v