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RACINE — Signaling through walls. Echoing in ventilation ducts. Talking into toilets.

Gossip finds a way inside the Racine County Jail.

This past week, Jonathan Sparks — a longtime RCJ inmate facing a first-degree reckless homicide charge stemming from a 2008 shooting — testified in court that he heard Dominique Knight confess to the May 2017 murder of Harry Canady Jr. through the jail’s vents, in addition to in-person conversations.

Knight was found guilty Wednesday, eight hours after Sparks took the stand.

Sparks’ testimony brought to light how inmates in separate cell pods on different floors are able to communicate with one another.

Although inmates are more than welcome to communicate with one another in their cells and common areas, Capt. Bradley Friend, the jail administrator, said that restricting and monitoring these conversations is essential for officer safety.

But try as they might, correction officers aren’t able to stop all of the gossip literally flowing through the walls and vents.

“The (inmates’) information network in our jail is pervasive,” Friend said. “Information flows all over.”

During last week’s trial, Knight’s defense attorney, Russell J.A. Jones, characterized the inmates’ dedication to communicating as a “When there’s a will there’s a way kind of thing.”

Toilet Talk

One of the more devious ways inmates communicate is literally through the toilets.

“We call it talking through the toilet, or ‘Toilet Talk,’” Friend said Wednesday during Knight’s trial.

The jail’s cells are situated into pods: usually eight cells that form a ring around a common area, shared by the 16 inmates who live in those cells. Correctional officers are stationed behind multiple sets of glass, separated from the inmates.

“While we have visual contact with the inmates, we’re not in there with them … like some other facilities are,” Friend explained.

Most of the cells are shared by two inmates. They sleep in bunk beds and share a desk and toilet. There are four stories of pods in the building, and many of the pods are sort-of stacked on top of one other.

“The plumbing flows up and down,” Friend explained.

And so, if the inmates remove the water from the toilets — usually using a cup or washcloth to scoop it out, according to Friend — the plumbing “acts as a conduit” for inmates’ voices, allowing them to chat out of sight of the guards.

“You can imagine how difficult this is for correctional officers to police, because in a number of our cells, you can’t really see the toilet easily. And if you have 80 inmates out there,” Friend said, “Sometimes it’s very easy for an inmate to get away with this.”

Non-lavatory-based forms of communication

Talking through the vents is a little simpler.

The jail has been repeatedly expanded over the years. As such, the maze of ducts has become increasingly complex. So, if an inmate starts talking into one of the vents, it’s almost impossible to identify who is speaking and from where the echo is originating.

“You can hear people talking,” Friend said, “but you have no idea where it’s coming from.”

More simply, the pods are separated by glass walls. Inmates aren’t able to be heard on either side, but they can still signal to one another, something that correctional officers try to deter if they’re able.

“This is not allowed,” Friend said. “We try to tell our officers to have our inmates refrain from doing that, but when you’re watching that many people, sometimes it becomes tough.”

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Adam Rogan (SCHS '14, Drake U. '17) has been covering homelessness, arts & culture and just about everything else for the JT since March 2018. He enjoys mid-afternoon naps, loud music played quietly and social media followers @Could_Be_Rogan

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