Archive for the ‘Prisons and Jails’ Category
Close your eyes and imagine you’re in the filthiest public restroom you’ve ever visited. Take a deep breath while conjuring up a stench that lingers in places only roaches and vermin dare to trod. Combine those odors with the scents of dirty sweat socks, sweat-soaked t-shirts, and unwashed underwear, warm popcorn, week-old urine, and steaming chicken-flavored Top Ramen noodles. And it gets worse…
Picture living or working where every breath is similar to what I’ve described above. Never a single lungful of fresh air. Could you drink water from a sink that was used to wash the feet of a man who just finished working on a roadside work gang for eight hours in ninety-degree heat—a sink positioned two feet above a toilet that’s used several times a day by three people, but is only capable of being flushed twice in eight hours?
How about sleeping in a six-by-nine room with two other large men who haven’t bathed in several days during the hottest time of the year. There’s no ventilation. No windows to open. How about sleeping on the floor with nothing between you and the grimy concrete surface but an itchy, unwashed wool blanket? Roaches, rats, and mice dart from gaps between rusted plumbing and cracked cinderblocks. Dried blood and vomit are the only splashes of color on drab walls. HGTV it ain’t.
What I’ve just described is jailing. Serving time. Marking the calendar. Doing time.
Of course, conditions are better in some facilities than others, but many are just like I’ve described in the paragraphs above. Some are worse. Much worse.
The photos below were taken in one of the cleanest jails I’ve ever seen. It’s also a very well-run operation. The staff is well-trained, and for the most part, the prisoners seemed to be in good spirits considering their circumstances.
A brief tour of a county jail:
Deputy sheriffs monitor and control inmate activities and movement from inside a master control room. All doors are operated electronically by the deputy seated at the control desk.
Jail control room
Some prison and jail dormitories house over one-hundred prisoners in a single room. Many times, a single officer is assigned to supervise the activities of one or more dorm rooms. When the officer/deputy steps inside the dormitory, they’re locked inside with the inmates. The odds are sometime 100 inmates to 1 officer.
Books are often donated by local community groups, families of inmates, and even the prisoners themselves.
Jail library. It’s quite possible that one or more of your books are on the shelves.
In the photograph below, a deputy sheriff makes his rounds inside a cell block. He’s actually inside a day room that’s normally occupied by several inmates. The area outside the windows to the left is a common area hallway beyond the locked cell/day room area. The doors to the deputy’s right are inmate cell doors. Each morning those doors are opened allowing all inmates into the day room where they play cards, watch TV, eat their meals, and socialize. They must remain in the day room all day, and return to their cells at night.
Prisoners are not permitted to lie in bed unless they are sick, which must be confirmed by a jail nurse or doctor.
A deputy sheriff makes his rounds, peering inside each cell as he passes by.
An inmate’s view through the window in his cell door out into the hallway (below). Many dreams and fantasies of life on the outside begin at this very spot. The door across the hall is that of another inmate’s cell. The checkered grate at the top of the picture is the only source of ventilation in the cell. It’s also a means for the jail staff to communicate with the prisoner. Jail doors are heavily insulated to retard fires and noise.
Looking out from inside a jail cell
Overcrowding is a huge problem in jails and prisons. This jail was forced to hang metal beds from the hallway walls when their cells reached capacity—three men in each two-man cell.
Just as I clicked off this shot, a group of deputies ran past to quell a disturbance in an area I’d just left. The problem—an inmate was having an anxiety attack, possibly caused by being confined to such tight quarters. He’d become quite violent and was tossing things around, including other inmates and an officer. His troubles reminded me of how much I appreciate the little things—trees, flowers, family, home-cooked meals, wine, and flushing my own darn toilet whenever I want and as many times as I want.
Steel bunk attached to hallway wall.
In some jails, prisoners are brought to these small rooms where they “visit” with family members seated on the opposite side of the window. The family’s room is a mirror image of the inmate’s visiting room.
Visitors speak to inmates via telephone.
* Remember, prison and jail are not the same. Normally, jails house offenders who’ve been convicted of misdemeanor crimes punishable by sentences of up to 12 months. Prisons are for people who’ve been convicted of felonies (sentences of one year or more). Of course, there are exceptions, but these are the rules of thumb.
It was just after 3 a.m. when inmate J.L. Bird heard the guards as they made their way around the unit, waking a few of the inmates. He’d barely slept a wink, his nervous stomach churning, possibly sensing that something was about to happen. He sat on the edge of his bed, hoping his gut feeling was right. He didn’t have to wait long to find out.
He could barely contain his excitement when the cell door opened and the short, stubby guard everyone called Blinky (because of an uncontrollable facial tic) stepped inside, shining one of those cop lights directly into Bird’s face.
“Roll ‘em up, Bird. You’re outta here,” Blinky said. “The marshals will be here in fifteen.”
“Finally,” said Bird.
The stay in Oklahoma City hadn’t been bad. The food was great, especially for a prison. His fellow inmates were pleasant, and for the most part they were intelligent. So conversation was, at times, stimulating—stocks, state of world affairs, wondering what the man-child psycho in North Korea would do next with his life-size army toys, and, for fun, they maintained an ongoing betting pool about the chances of Lyndsay “Lo Lo” Lohan actually seeing jail time. If the train-wreck actress actually did go to jail, even for a minute, Bird would win the entire pot…ten Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip muffins, all pilfered from the prison kitchen.
But he was ready to go. It had been 43 days since he’d stepped off the JPATS jet in Oklahoma, and he was ready to move on. After all, he hadn’t seen daylight or smelled an ounce of fresh air since he got there. For exercise, he’d walked loop after loop around the day room, did hundreds of push ups and crunches, and he even found a way to do bench presses by lying on the floor, lifting one end of the bunk bed, over and over again. Still, he longed to see a tree and smell some good old smog. Even a piece of grass or a discarded cigarette butt would be nice to look at, as long as it was outside.
So it was back on the plane. This time, though, the flight was only a short three-hour hop to somewhere in northern Virginia, where Bird and a few of his buddies spent the night in a county jail in Warsaw. The place was a real hoot since each inmate there wore the old-time black and white stripes. Federal prisoners, though, were allowed to keep their khaki pants, white t-shirts, and bright blue deck shoes.
Federal inmate attire—khaki pants, white t-shirt, and blue deck-type shoes
The next morning, the marshals arrived bright and early to pick up Bird and five other prisoners, two of whom were female. The transport vehicle for this leg of the trip wasn’t as nice as the ones they’d been accustomed to for most of the journey, but it was adequate with the exception of the lack of an FM radio.
So everyone passed the time by listening to the hum of tires on pavement and taking in the scenery—tobacco farms, cotton fields, and miles and miles of nothing but redneck countryside.
The trip to the federal courthouse in Richmond took just over an hour. The marshal guided the van into an underground garage, where heavily armed officers searched beneath the vehicle and under the hood. When the “all clear” was given, Bird and crew were herded into a holding cell somewhere near the street-level courtroom.
Federal courthouse in Richmond, Va.
The judge du jour was the Honorable James Wilkins, a tough-as-nails African American man who worked his way to the top by depending on no one but himself. And he was married to another hardcore judge. As Bird understood it, she was maybe a bit tougher on law breakers than her husband. Some even reported that Judge Wilkins had a special way of dealing with inmates who crossed his path, but no one actually knew what it was that Wilkins did to current convicts. Bird, though, had a pretty good idea. And it wasn’t pretty.
Finally, after a four-hour wait, it was Bird’s time to go before the judge, and he still didn’t know why he was there. Marshals led Bird to a seat in the front of the massive courtroom. Behind a behemoth bench at the front of the room sat the legendary man himself, Judge James T. Wilkins. His close-cropped hair was mostly white, a stark contrast to his dark skin. He looked like a judge. In fact, he looked like a judge’s judge, a judge other judges would aspire to emulate. Hell, even Bird wanted to be like him. He…was…impressive.
Seated next to Bird was a disheveled man who held a ratty-old briefcase in his lap. He used his left hand to scribble something on the top sheet of a legal pad. He used the right to constantly push his round spectacles up and away from the end of his sweaty nose. When he finished writing he turned to Bird, who was not impressed with what he saw.
“I’m your court-appointed attorney, P. Lee Peddler.”
Bird wasted no time. “Why am I here,” he asked the judgement jockey.
“You mean you don’t know?”
“You did file a motion to vacate due to ineffective assistance of counsel, right?” said the puzzled practitioner of law.
“No, sir. I didn’t. Actually, I took a plea deal and never went to trial.”
The legal eagle scratched his head with the end of a ballpoint pen. “Hold on a minute.”
Bird’s attorney of five minutes, walked over to the prosecutor, a gruff little blonde woman who appeared to have just finished a morning snack of nails and thumbtacks. The two chatted for a moment. Lots of arm waving, paper turning, cell phone dialing, and the gnashing of teeth.
Finally, the two opposing attorneys approached Judge Wilkins, and it took all of two seconds to see what pure anger in black robes truly looked like. Wilkins was furious.
Bird’s slithering shyster sat down next to him. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake in the paperwork. This motion was filed in your behalf shortly after you were sentenced. It was denied four years ago, but somehow popped up again as a current motion. The judge wants to know if we have any further motions at this time. Do you?”
Bird shook his head from side to side and emitted a slight chuckle. “Nope.”
Lawyer Peddler stood to address Judge Wilkins. “Your Honor, my client does not wish to pursue any further motions at this time.”
Judge Wilkins asked Bird to stand.
“Mr. Bird, do you agree with your attorney’s statement, that you do not wish to go forward with this or any other motion at this time?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“Very well, then. Now…Mr. Bird, it seems that we’ve brought you here in error, and for that I apologize on behalf of the court. I wish you a safe journey back to California. I also hope we don’t meet again, under these or similar circumstances. Next case, please.”
And that was it. Less than five minutes before the judge and it was over.
Two marshals approached Bird and escorted him back to the holding cell where he waited five hours for the other inmates’ cases to conclude. Then he and the other prisoners were once again loaded back into the van for the return trip to the Warsaw jail.
Bird had spent nearly six weeks on airplanes, in vans, sleeping on nasty concrete floors, eating soupy beans and dry bread (in county jails), and sometimes plucking roaches off his blanket before he settled in for the night. Not to mention the time in the Oklahoma transfer center. He was frustrated and tired. He was angry. And he’d missed visits with his wife and children. He’d not been able to call his family during the trip, and they had no idea why he hadn’t called or even where he was. But there was absolutely nothing he could do about it, except to accept it for what it was. He leaned back in the seat and watched the cotton and tobacco fields pass by.
Over three months on the road to utter three words—“That’s correct, sir.”
Yep, the U.S. legal system is a joke, unless you have a lot of money or really good connections.
No need to be upset. After all, he’d be back in his prison and in his old bed in…oh, two months, or so. And in another five years he’d be back at home with his family—four-and-a-half if he kept his nose clean and stayed out of trouble. And he could that little bit of time standing on his head, as the long-timers say.
Besides, he had a good job back at the camp, and the $1,000 per year he made there sure came in handy, especially now that he had a powerful taste for Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip muffins.
And he knew there wasn’t a chance in hell that Lo Lo would ever spend one minute in stripes. She has both money and connections.