VISTA — Have you ever been arrested? Taken to jail in the middle of the night? Locked into a module (in modern jails, like Vista's, they don't call them cells any more) with an assortment of other inmates, all of whom are lounging around scowling, scratching and looking--at least to your apprehensive eyes--like ax murderers?
"Very few people know what goes on in a jail," said Vaughn Waight, who has supervised the hospital and infirmary since the County Jail here was built in 1978. "There's high drama here. There's also comedy. And sadness. I never come to work expecting it to be a typical night. There's no such thing."
It is 9 p.m. on a Tuesday and Waight is doing paper work in the shining infirmary--even the hanging plants look as if they have been polished--and talking to nurse Barbara Sandwell.
Waight is large, bearded, curly-haired. (Sandwell says he looks like "a young Peter Ustinov.") Sandwell is small, with beautiful brown eyes and the "crumpled rose" look of a woman in her mid-30s who has been short of sleep all week.
"There's someone with stab wounds in his leg . . . someone with an infected eye," she mutters, leafing through the file cards filled out at the admitting desk. Across the hall an accused murderer with hepatitis watches her, with pumpkin-yellow eyes, through the window of the isolation cell.
The Vista jail is not a large one. Tucked away behind the courthouse in an area that borders on flower fields, and gardens where people grow things like 12 varieties of lettuce, the jail was built to hold 246 beds.
"But right now we're so overcrowded we've got about 90 people sleeping on the floor on mattresses," said Sheriff's Capt. John Burroughs, who commands the jail.
About 35% of the people brought in need some form of medical treatment. Alcoholic prisoners receive anti-seizure medicine. Heroin addicts also need to be medicated. Street people, as well as illegal aliens who have lived without a roof over their head for months, often come in with undiagnosed infections.
Some Are New to Medicine
"We've had illegal aliens who have never had any kind of medical treatment. Ever. Not even a thermometer in their mouth," Waight said.
But mostly, he said, prisoners come in with all the usual complaints seen in the office of any general practitioner. Bad backs, diabetes, flu.
If they are seriously ill or injured, it is the jail nurses' responsibility to decide whether they should be transported to Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside.
"We had two men in . . . who got into a violent fight in their module over a San Diego Chargers game on TV," Waight said. One man, he said, was so enraged he bit off the other one's ear. The deputies had to turn hoses on them to break them apart.
"And I ended up hunting around, in two feet of water, for the ear so it could be sent to a plastic surgeon, with its owner, to be reattached. Most suturing jobs, though, we can handle right here."
Waight, who is married and has three children, trained in the Navy and at UC San Diego. His specialty training has been in the psychiatric field.
"This job draws on every bit of experience you have," Sandwell said. Born in England, she was a nanny for a super-rich Italian family before training as a nurse in London. She was working as a midwife for an oil company in Saudi Arabia when she met and married her American husband, David.
Has she ever delivered a baby at the jail?
"Not yet," she said, smiling. "Most of the prisoners are men."
She has come fairly close to it twice, though. In March one of the female deputies, Deanna Albini, stayed at her post at the central monitoring switchboard until a few hours before her daughter was born.
The other occasion was a troubling one for Sandwell. The young woman, 19, had been living on the streets.
"She was a little . . . dim," Sandwell said. "Someone had obviously taken advantage of her. When her labor pains started she was terrified because she had no idea what was happening to her."
While they waited for an ambulance, Sandwell explained to her how a baby is born. "But someone like that--it's hard to put them out of your mind," she said.
The clock on the dispensary wall, which runs on 24-hour military time, now reads 21:15 (9:15 p.m.). A young male face, framed in dishwater blond hair that is one-half inch on top and pony-tailed at the back, appears suddenly behind a barred grill. Waight passes him a small paper cup (the kind dentists tell you to rinse with) containing ulcer medicine in a solution of apple juice.
Drugs Given in Liquids
"Drugs are given in liquids whenever possible so they can't be hidden in a shoe and sold later," Waight explained, gesturing at a tray of color-coded cups holding the night's medications.
Another face looms behind the bars. A bronzed, soap-opera-actor type of face this time, followed by a face with no teeth. Behind the grill, where the men are standing, a hallway divides the west wing from the north.