Editor’s Note: After the break begins the next installment of the Washtenaw Jail Diary, written by a former inmate in Washtenaw County’s jail facility on Hogback Road. The piece originated as a Twitter feed in early 2009, which the author subsequently abandoned and deleted. See previous Chronicle coverage “Twittering Time at the Washtenaw County Jail.“
In now working with the author to publish the Washtenaw Jail Diary, The Ann Arbor Chronicle acknowledges that this is only one side of a multi-faceted tale.
We also would like to acknowledge that the author’s incarceration predates the administration of the current sheriff, Jerry Clayton.
This narrative, which we expect will run over a series of several installments, provides an insight into a tax-funded facility that most readers of The Chronicle will not experience first-hand in the same way as the author.
The language and topics introduced below reflect the environment of a jail. We have not sanitized it for Chronicle readers. It is not gratuitously graphic, but it is graphic just the same. It contains language and descriptions that some readers will find offensive.
The tumult of my dream gives way to a strange echo of extremely loud, bizarre voices seeming to surround my cell.
It takes a few moments to register. There is a TV hanging just outside the cell block, with speakers inside. A cartoon is on full blast.
It makes me think immediately of the time the U.S. blasted loud music outside Noriega’s home in Panama to flush him out.
Eventually I will learn to block it out. But, except for nighttime, the full-blast echo of the television will be the soundtrack to my life in the cell blocks.
I have an odd cell, since it’s on the elbow of the boomerang-shaped block. I am lying on a metal cot with a thin blue foam mattress. In the front right corner is a combo sink/water fountain/toilet and a clouded-up piece of metal that might have been a mirror at one time. Just behind my head, next to the bed, is a table with no chair and a fogged-up window. If you squint hard, you can just discern razor wire outside.
The blaring TV reminds me of my phone call with my wife, who told me that Channel [_] had fired me almost immediately as a result of my arrest. They wasted no time. And to add insult to injury, one of my former coworkers now appears on the echoing cell block TV with a news update. This is my own private torture. Because it would blare down at me constantly in jail, I still can no longer stand to watch the local news channel where I used to work.
My first day on B Block is like my first day of kindergarten. I am confused, scared and everybody seems to know everybody else, except me.
Eight inmates are out at a time at three 90-minute intervals per day. That’s 4.5 hours of “out” time and 19.5 hours spent in our cells each day.
I spend most of the first day sleeping, deeply depressed, or just lying in my cell. I have no desire to meet any of my new blockmates.
The next morning, I wake up again to the loud blare of cartoons. I think of that “Far Side” comic depicting a classical musician’s version of hell – one where he’s surrounded by a buck-toothed jug band.
I finally leave my cell. There is a man who looks like Lenny Kravitz doing push-ups with his feet propped up on one of the stools attached to the table. I surprise myself and “Lenny Kravitz” by propping my feet up on the stool next to him and start doing my own push-ups. Lenny smiles and nods at me while I grunt and groan my way through 20 push-ups.
Lenny tells me I’m doing them wrong, then shows me the correct way to do push-ups, which of course makes them harder to do. I grunt through 20 more. Collapse.
Despite the pain, it feels good to use what little muscle I have after four days of practically no movement and food.
My joining in with Lenny’s exercises seems to have started a trend. Lenny starts doing sit-ups. I join him, along with two or three other inmates. Then we all start doing jumping jacks together, Lenny leading and setting the pace.
They start pointing at us over on the misdemeanor side – they’re wearing their green jumpsuits. Pretty much all of us in orange (felony) jumpsuits are now doing calisthenics in unison. I am not sure how we look to the green jumpsuits.
This sets the pattern for my first week in B Block, with Lenny teaching me how to do more exercises properly. I am still very depressed, but this helps. I know it’s a cliché, deciding to “work out” while you’re in jail. But, seriously, it helps pass the time and makes you feel less blue.
Back in high school and college, a few hundred years ago, I used to run marathons. So the next best thing to running in jail is to pace back and forth. So, that’s what I do.
Back and forth. Back and forth. I pace the upper tier of the cell block six times, touching the wall each time. Then I pace the lower tier six times. Rinse. Repeat.
Like Lenny and his calisthenics, my pacing catches on. And after a few days of this I am like the Pied Piper – with B Block lower tier following behind me in my pacing.
I notice Rape Boy from Bam Bam is also on my tier. Apparently tired of telling his “do her doggy” story to whomever is within earshot, he slams the door to his cell and sleeps for three straight days.
The corrections officer on duty wheels in what seems like manna from heaven. Books! A cartload of books! We are allowed to choose five. At this point, it does not matter to me whether they are good or bad books – anything to take my mind far away from this place. I choose mostly science fiction. I want my mind to travel as far as possible from this cell.
The book cart came just in time. For the next three days, we are locked down 24 hours, with no “out” time at all – not even for showers. It is time for an event that occurs every couple of months, I am told – “shakedowns.” That is when guards swarm into cells – one block at a time – and upturn everything in search of contraband or hoarded food.
And when I say everything is upturned, I mean everything.
When it is my turn, a burly, bald-headed guard opens my cell door and orders me to remove my uniform. I am naked. He tells me to turn around and bend over. I try my best not to think about every single TV show or movie I have ever seen that depicts “what happens” to incarcerated men. I bend over. After the guard is satisfied with what he sees, he tells me to stand up straight and turn back around.
“Lift your sack,” he says.
I have to think for a moment. As far as I know, there is no bag anywhere in my cell.
“What?” I ask.
“Your sack,” he says, looking down between my legs.
I am a bit slow, but it finally dawns on me what he is after.
I reach down and lift up my … sack.
To my relief, he finds nothing out of the ordinary (A file? A gun? A cell phone?) hidden under there.
A female guard rouses me from a dream – one in which I am, again, wandering through the ruins of a city, searching for the TV studio where I worked before my arrest, yelling at one of the reporters from far, far away, about my experience in Bam Bam.
“… visit?” I hear, the scream in my dream still echoing.
“Are you ready for your visit?” the officer asks again.
“Sure!” I jump up, excited and nervous to see my wife for the first time since this ordeal began.
The officer leads me out of B Block, down a hallway and to an elevator located right in front of the glass structure at the jail crossroads. We go up one floor and into a white-bricked waiting area with no chairs. Other inmates are pacing back and forth, waiting for their turn in the visiting area.
There is a man waiting with us who walks with a shuffling gait and one arm limp. He has cerebral palsy. I wonder how on earth a man with cerebral palsy ends up in jail. I file this in the back of my mind and forget about it until about 4 1/2 months later, when I will share a cell with this same man and get to know his story.
We all enter at once into the visiting area, pick a standing-room-only cubicle in front of a glass. There is a phone on the right side. I wait for a few minutes. Strangers walk by, gaze at me through the window and move on.
Then my wife appears in front of me. My eyes begin to water as we pick up our respective phones to talk.
My wife looks at me – disheveled, bleary-eyed in my orange jumpsuit – and shakes her head. She tells me that she will have divorce papers served on me while I am in jail.
We talk about the case. We talk about the children, who still believe I am on a long “work trip.”
My stupid mistakes have left a number of victims – including my wife and my two young children. Without my income, my wife could face home foreclosure; my children are without a father.
I leave this first visit in tears. My life, and the lives of those I love most, will never be the same. And I am now powerless to do anything … except wait.
Back in the waiting room, I see other inmates, too, have eyes that glisten.
Like most transitions that occur in jail, this next one happens suddenly and unexpectedly. My week in B Block is over and we’re all called out to transfer to new areas. “Hey, you’re breaking up the family,” Lenny tells the officer on duty.
In a way, Lenny is right. It is probably human nature, I suppose, to feel some kind of kinship with those who have shared a stressful situation with you – no matter how brief. I think of my father, a Vietnam War veteran, who still attends reunions with his unit to tell the same stories over and over again.
So, my B Block “family” broken up, I am headed now to D Block, where I will soon to meet the “family” with whom I will spend most of my time in jail.
Editor’s note: All installments of the “Washtenaw Jail Diary” that have been published to date can be found here.