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.
Chapter 4: Court
It is after the tsunami and I am wandering amid the ruins of the city. There is some rebuilding going on and I am in a cavernous construction site. I walk among debris of crumbled skyscrapers, then into underground tunnels that smell of fresh sawdust from new wood beams shoring up the walls.
I glimpse a familiar face in the distance. It is a reporter from the Detroit TV station where I used to work. I call out to him, tell him that I have a story he might be interested in, that the Washtenaw County Jail holds some inmates under inhumane conditions.
But the reporter hops on a bicycle and speeds away. Not interested. I try to follow, dodging the debris of destruction and construction, but I cannot catch up with the bike. In the distance, I hear the chains on his bike clatter. Far off, he turns around and shouts in a voice that echoes: “Breakfast!”
Pre-Court Roundup for Transport
I awake in my cell to the clatter of the meal cart entering D Block. The officer on duty again shouts: “Breakfast!”
I will not eat any of it. My stomach is beyond butterflies, more like a squadron of fighter jets. I will go to court today and now I feel tense beyond reason.
Everybody who is going to court is taken to Holding 2. I hear the familiar, yet frightening shout of the officer, “Break 2!” The door to the holding cell slides open and I step inside.
The holding tank is jam packed with inmates. There is no room to sit. Over the course of an hour or so, officers open the doors and call out names of inmates.
I hear my name and line up to be handcuffed, placed in leg irons and shackled to fellow inmates.
We are stuffed into a police van separated by a metal wall into two sections. About six men slide onto a bench on one side and a couple of female inmates sit on the other side of the partition.
“After court, I’m gettin’ out dis bitch and following the yellow line,” says the man next to me.
As we pull out of the garage, I see from the back window a yellow line that leads from the sliding doors of the jail’s inmate entrance, then disappears into a doorway. I assume, based on my colleague’s comment, that when I am released from jail, I will follow that yellow line to freedom. From the vantage point of the back of a police van, handcuffed, shackled and in leg irons, that day seems very far off indeed.
I think of that tired, old phrase that I have heard often enough in the real world, but is an especially rampant virus in jail: “It’s all good.”
When you are powerless, when your fate is in the hands of others, I can see how easy it would be to either turn to religion – which often happens in jail – or to simply shrug your shoulders and leave it all in the random hands of “fate.”
“It’s all good.” When the assumption is that all things that do happen should happen, then, yes, all things are good. What, after all, is to be done about anything when you stand in chains before a judge who holds your misery or happiness in his hands? You simply wait for your turn.
The van parks at the courthouse near a special entrance for prisoners. We waddle out of the van, being careful not to trip over our leg irons as we step down. One fall would cause a domino effect among the fellow inmates to whom we are chained. We walk down a flight of stairs, enter a basement entrance to the courthouse, then down some corridors damp from leaking pipes. We climb a series of flights of stairs until we come to the courtroom’s holding tank.
We are unshackled from one another, but our handcuffs and leg irons remain on. The guard shuts the door, and here I wait with about a dozen or so others.
I have so far been inside many types of holding tanks, but the one that holds inmates at the courthouse has a different sort of atmosphere. There is more nervous pacing, more nervous chatter as each awaits his turn for something … finally something … to happen. A few inmates sit sullenly in the corner. Others return from the courtroom in tears. The place smells of stress and fear.
Every once in a while, a lawyer or assistant makes an appearance. Some inmates stand up, their ‘cuffed hands outstretched toward the bars, trying to get the lawyer’s attention like citizens of a famine-starved country, arms stretched out to receive food aid. For some, it might be the first time they’ve ever met their lawyer or public defender.
Many are presented important choices that need to be made right away. These choices are based on horse trading that has already gone on between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Make a deal or go to trial. Admit your guilt and more-severe charges will be dropped. Plead guilty and serve a year in County. Insist on your innocence, go to trial and, if found guilty, serve 20 years in prison.
I often wonder how many innocent men decide not to take the gamble of going to trial.
Jury of Peers
Young Guy: (Reading a piece of paper in his hand). What’s a jury trial?
Older Guy: That’s where they get 12 motherfuckers to decide if you’re guilty or innocent.
YG: Who are the 12 motherfuckers?
OG: Your peers. Just people.
YG: Where do they get them 12 motherfuckers? Just grab them off the street?
OG: Yeah. Well, no, they call them or something.
YG: I don’t understand. What’s the judge for if them 12 motherfuckers hear your case?
There is a tall, older man in the holding tank who, during the course of conversation, informs us that he has only one lung and cannot move around very well due to injuries he suffered during the first Gulf War. He speaks like a gangster. Not the inner-city gangster of today, but the old-old-school type of the James Cagney variety. He speaks in nasal tones out of the side of his mouth. /s/ becomes /sh/.
He is talking about his case. He is accused of, among other things, climbing onto a third-floor balcony to steal something. The man gestures to his own wrecked body and says, “I’m a fucking cripple. Do dey really think I could climb up tree floorsh like fucking Shpiderman, shteal a purse, then jump back down?” He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. He will repeat his “Shpiderman” story often.
In the holding cell with me is a huge brick of a man – all muscle. The kind of guy who you would picture being escorted by three officers, guns drawn. He looks like he could crush me in a wink and never skip a breath, like a heavyweight boxer.
The Boxer shakes his head slowly as he listens to a couple of young men posturing over who they will get even with as soon as they are let free. The Boxer says they are all talk. Shpiderman agrees.
“Shend them to Iraq and let ‘em meet them Arab motherfuckersh and they’ll be pishing their pantsh,” Shpiderman says. The Boxer laughs in agreement.
The Boxer notices me sulking in a corner. He asks me what I’m here for. I usually stay vague if somebody asks about my crime. But there is an air of authority about The Boxer that makes me want to obey … if I know what’s good for me. So, I tell him my story.
He finds fault not with my crime, but with the way I tell it. In relating the story of how I ended up in jail, I am quick to concede points to others, to admit my fault where there may be a gray area of misunderstanding. The Boxer looks angry at me – but not for any perceived disrespect for him, or because of the nature of my crime. He’s mad because I am “disrespecting myself.”
This is not the way The Boxer lives his life. There is no self-doubt. Whether or not an action (a punch?) is poorly timed, or the wrong decision, it does not matter. The fact that the decision was made is an exclamation point in itself. Never, ever concede that your opponent has a point. Not to yourself, and certainly not out loud to others.
The Boxer has me repeat the story, only this time not admit any fault of my own. Ever.
It has me thinking. There are no factual differences between the two stories I tell him. But, in the second version, I left out phrases like “… and then I did something stupid …”
No, The Boxer indicates. What happened, happened. I “punched.” I acted. I did what I did for better or worse. But to look back with regret and self-flagellation, that is for the timid.
There are many things wrong with this point of view. It really is a variation of, “It’s all good.” But The Boxer’s talk helps me prepare for whatever comes next. It makes me more sure of myself in an environment where it is dangerous to show weakness. It makes me less depressed about past actions, in a place where there is no undoing the past and nothing to be done about the present. Most of all, The Boxer is helping me shed fear – that killer of the spirit. I take heart from that lesson as I await my appearance before the judge.
And I continue to learn from it more than a year later. Today, I am not where The Boxer would have liked to have seen me go. I do regret the past, I am anxious about the present, I do fret about the future. However, since my talk with The Boxer, since jail, since these holding tanks, since these long nervous waits in shackles to appear before a judge, I have shed my fear.
Another man with whom I share a holding cell has a different answer for me. He asks me what my possible sentence will be. I say, “If there’s a God in heaven, the best I can hope for is six months.” I mean this as simply an expression of a fate that is out of my control – with no real religious meaning behind it. Understandably, though, my cellmate takes me for a religious man. He replies, “There is a God in heaven.” Then he bows his head, closes his eyes and says, “Let us pray.”
I remain politely silent as he prays, presumably for himself and for me, but do not join. I grew up Jewish and remain so, culturally, but God and I have had a rocky relationship for a number of years now and I have been making a conscious attempt not to succumb to the cliche of the “jailhouse conversion.”
A young woman walks into the holding tank. It is one of the public defender’s helpers. She talks to me about “the deal.” It is time for me to make a big decision.
I have already decided not to go to trial for various reasons, including a desire to spare my family embarrassment and to end this ordeal as soon as possible. I have already pleaded guilty. “No contest” was not an option (“Not in my court,” the judge had said). It has taken about four previous court appearances before two separate judges to make it to this point – my sentencing.
About a month ago, at my pretrial hearing, the victims of my alleged crime did not actually need to be in the courtroom. Instead, they were placed in a special chamber.
Since I had decided to “make a deal” and plead guilty, there is nothing in the official record in my defense. Evidence was cherry-picked to present me in the worst possible light, and that is all the judge saw.
It all served to intimidate my Public Pretender. Or, at the very least, convince him that this case is going to be more trouble than it’s worth and we’d better make a deal. No defense was ever offered. In essence, I had nobody to speak on my behalf to counter the specific allegations against me. That’s what happens when you “make a deal” and plead guilty. Only the allegations become the “permanent record.”
At the pretrial, I had wobbled out of the smelly cage, and into the jarringly different world of the quiet courtroom. The only sound was the gasp of my wife’s friend at seeing me in my jail jumpsuit, in chains.
My Public Pretender whispered to me that he wants to wave the pretrial hearing. I ask him why. The Pretender looked annoyed, very annoyed, at me, and said: “Because if I don’t, a lot of people are going to sit in that chair right over there (he points to the witness stand) and testify against you. I don’t want that to happen.”
He assured me that any deal reached would be more favorable than what the prosecution had planned for me if I were to go to trial, or even go ahead with the pretrial hearing.
I wonder how it got to this point. I’m convinced that my situation could have been handled between humans, rather than lawyers. But there is a phrase my father used to say, “When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
I have never committed a violent act in my life. Ever. Not even during the commission of my alleged crime. Yet, my head was about to be pounded into a 2-by-4 by the blunt instrument of the law.
Now, I waddle in chains before my judge. I give a speech that I prepared containing all of the elements that I had ghost-written for fellow inmates – apologies, admission of guilt, support system of family and friends on the outside, etc.
Then the judge speaks. I try not to shake, to show fear. All the stories you read in the news about defendants “showing no emotion” as verdicts are read are completely meaningless. No reporter can pretend to know what goes through a man’s head at these moments. It is necessary to “show no emotion”– not because you are an emotionless criminal without a conscience – but because keeping a blank expression is all you can do to prevent a torrent of emotions from escaping uncontrolled.
The judge begins by telling me that my case is “unusual,” that here is a guy, 42 years old, never been in trouble with the law before, who then goes and does something “scary.” (Again, he is reading only one side of this story.) The judge continues that, at first, he was inclined to go against the recommendations of everybody involved and sentence me to a few years in prison. My stomach leaps, my legs begin to wobble.
Then, he says, one thing – and one thing only – changed his mind: the letter he received from my wife urging leniency and expressing forgiveness of me. The judge says that if my own wife forgives me for my crime, then he must take that into account as well.
“She’s an amazing woman,” the judge says.
“Yes, Your Honor,” I reply.
He sentences me to six months in the Washtenaw County Jail.
As I leave the courtroom to once again join the other inmates in the holding cell, I tell myself that the outcome could have been worse – much, much worse.
All things considered, “it’s all good.”
Editor’s note: All installments of the “Washtenaw Jail Diary” that have been published to date can be found here.