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 5: D-Block
“Jalapeno hot dog poppers,” says a man I will call “Zeke,” a very big grin on his very big face. Then he slaps down his cards in an exaggerated motion. Zeke and I, along with a few others on the block, are playing rummy.
Zeke is the large African American man I first saw when I entered D-Block, when I spouted out “Jeopardy” answers. His huge size, his trancelike gaze at the television, combined to give me a false first impression of the man as dull and dull-witted. Turns out, Zeke is none of the above.
He is in jail for credit card fraud, the extent of which I do not ask. He does, however, tell me the secret to obtaining the PIN from a lost or stolen debit card. I have not put that knowledge to use.
But Zeke is determined to make a new start for the sake of his many children and “baby mamas” awaiting him after he serves his sentence. Zeke loves food. Zeke is all about food. Zeke dreams and schemes ways of obtaining more food while in jail, and making a legitimate living in the food industry once he is released.
And, at random times during our “out” times in D-Block, Zeke will blurt out his ideas for new food combinations to sell.
“Jalapeno hot dog poppers,” Zeke repeats.
“Not for me,” I reply, snapping my own cards on the table. Another inmate, a Hispanic man, said that he’d try them. He, too, slaps his cards down. If you jump up and slam them down just right, the sound echoes up and down the block.
Zeke’s ideas are rarely appetizing to me, but the man does get me thinking more about the food served in jail.
The size of the food portions served by the Washtenaw County Jail seem to be part of a scam. They are not enough to feed a grown man. The small portions force inmates to buy food at the commissary for exorbitant prices.
I will later meet an inmate who worked in the kitchen. He will confirm that they are encouraged to give inmates less food per tray than recommended. The “store lady” who takes commissary orders will disappear, prompting speculation among inmates that she had been fired for taking pity on some inmates by slipping them free food.
As soon as I get over the pure disgust of jail food, I begin to crave it more and more. I dream of food. I dream of taking odysseys on “elevators” that fly horizontally over the ruins of my dream city – like the glass elevator in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” – taking detours into wrecked shopping malls, dipping into stores that contain free samples of food that I scoop up and gorge upon.
“Ice cream burritos,” Zeke says.
“Do you mean actual burritos filled with ice cream?” I ask. “Or ice cream in the shape of burritos?”
“Either one,” Zeke says.
“I’d go for either one,” I say, feeling charitable.
Later, when I find out how he’s getting extra food to maintain his extra weight, I will feel much less charitable toward Zeke.
Suicide is painless
We are playing cards on the picnic-style table on the block’s main floor. Above us, I hear a familiar “joke” from one of the men still locked down on the upper tier. “I’m not supposed to be here!” he cries. A few chuckles can be heard. It’s an old joke I’ve heard since Day One in Bam Bam (“suicide watch”). I think it’s a variation of the mantra, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” from the movie “Clerks.” It never fails to get some kind of laugh in jail – mostly from white inmates.
Then, the Russian guy comes out of his cell, bleeding from his freshly slashed arms.
What he used to cut his arms so badly, I have no idea. “Vlad” claims he has no idea, either. He just woke up, and there they were.
Seeing the slashes on Vlad’s arms makes me think of the Mexican man who was on D-Block briefly a few weeks ago. He spoke little or no English. The Hispanic man I play cards with served as interpreter.
But, one day, the Mexican man made a gesture that needed no translation. He stood on the upper-tier balcony, pointed to the railing and then pantomimed making a noose and wrapping it around his neck.
He was carted off to Bam Bam.
Knowing what Bam Bam is like, I cannot imagine that he will find it more tolerable than life on D-Block.
Vlad is a different case entirely. He speaks English very well. And never tires of using it. Ever. He talks a great deal. Vlad is quite proud of the fact that he was born in Russia. No matter what the topic of conversation, Vlad always manages to bring it all back to Mother Russia. He is a bore who lies so easily and obviously that I am not certain even he can tell the difference between fact and fiction. Vlad claims to be a direct descendant of Lenin and to be the son of a Russian Mafia boss.
Well, now he walks out of his cell with bloody slashes all up and down his arm. He says he must have done it in his sleep.
Vlad, too, is taken directly to Bam Bam.
And, speaking of Bam Bam, I have so far been evaluated – or, at least questioned – by a community mental health worker, a medical student and a psychiatrist in the past week or so. They all confirmed that they, too, believe that Washtenaw County’s Jail’s “suicide watch” – Bam Bam – is inhumane.
I related to one of them how I believe that Bam Bam actually encourages suicide because of the hopelessness and helplessness one feels packed inside that tank, along with corrections officers who are not authorized to give you any real information, so what they do say comes off as mockery and lies.
When I told one mental health worker that “suicide watch” is a place that encourages suicide, it elicited a little chuckle.
Grisham and Zeke’s meal deal
There is an 18-year-old kid on D-Block who recently found out that his juvenile record does, indeed, count against him when it comes to sentencing as an adult. I am not certain what crime he is accused of committing, but he is extremely worried that he could go to prison for years for what he describes as a recent minor offense.
He and I share a love of books, so we pass ours back and forth as we finish them. I cannot, however, share his passion for John Grisham legal thrillers, although I read them anyway just to pass the time. Reading a Grisham novel from jail is the equivalent, I believe, of watching “Cops” or any of the daytime courtroom series from your cell – which many inmates do religiously. Strange days indeed.
The kid, who I shudder to think is only a year older than my oldest daughter, seems to be passionate about Grisham, so I will call him “Grisham” here.
I am noticing that Grisham is getting thinner and appears weaker and weaker every day. I ask him if everything is OK. Grisham says he is fine, but hungry. I toss him an orange I’d been hoarding. Shakedowns are coming again soon, anyway, so the fruit will likely be confiscated. I ask why he’s so incredibly hungry.
Grisham motions his weak head over toward big, big Zeke. Grisham explains to me that when he first entered the block, Zeke took him under his very large wing and helped him get some questions answered. Grisham was too afraid of approaching the corrections officers with questions, so Zeke did it for him … for a price. The price was two food trays per day for 14 days. Lunch and dinner. Grisham had been eating only breakfasts for about a week and a half.
Another inmate next to us overhears Grisham’s explanation and is at once outraged that this kid is being taken advantage of in this way. It explains why Zeke does not seem to have lost any weight in jail, while Grisham’s face seems sunken. The outraged inmate secretly sends a “kite” to the authorities. A “kite” is what they call an inmate’s note that can travel – with CO approval – to various departments in the jail.
The next day, a corrections officer abruptly puts an end to the meal-tray deal between Zeke and Grisham. Zeke is mad. Very mad. And so he blames the only person he figured could have done such a despicable thing as deprive him of food: “Ho-Ass Bitch,” the “snitch” of D-Block.
“Ho-Ass Bitch” is no longer in protective custody, so he goes outside with the rest of us for exercise at an outdoor basketball court in an interior courtyard, where Zeke and he exchange some very heated words.
I point this altercation out to the real “snitch” in this case. He looks mildly amused.
All this intrigue is caused simply by not feeding inmates proper meals, leaving them to their own devices to figure out how to plot, scheme, hoard and steal their way to full stomachs. I wonder how much Washtenaw County is really saving by withholding proper amounts of food to inmates. I cannot believe that is it that much. I think it has more to do with the fact that the company that supplies the food to the inmates is also the company that runs the commissary. It is a great scam perpetrated against literally captive victims.
Zeke, of course, recovers from the setback and, I am certain, finds other ways of obtaining the food he needs to maintain his size. I occasionally share my food with him, too. I figure, in jail, it does not hurt to have a large man indebted to you in some way.
My disgust with Zeke taking advantage of little Grisham does not last long. I do not need to look very hard around me to remember that I am in jail. To some extent, there is a kind of “honor among thieves” that moves purely on the currents of its own internal logic. Forget about the fact that the Grisham-Zeke deal took advantage of a weak boy. Grisham honored his deal with Zeke until the authorities forced him to end it.
This “honor” system between inmates, though, is far from universal. I will discover that later, when I witness a Seroquel deal fall through. Seroquel is a drug for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that has a side effect much-sought-after among inmates: It can make you sleep for days and days at a time. Those jailhouse psych patients on the drug who have a little entrepreneurial spirit, and are good at pretending to swallow the pill in front of the nurses, can expect to make quite a bit of profit off Seroquel’s sale and resale value. However, in the broken deal I witnessed, the drug failed to produce sleep, according to the customer, and the dealer was not paid.
Big Zeke does introduce me to that staple of culinary jail life: the “cookup.” It is usually based on food pooled together by two or more inmates, using Ramen noodles as a base. Ingredients such as tuna, sausages or even ground-up Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are added to taste. “Cookup” ingredients are dumped in a garbage bag, mixed together and enjoyed in the company of your colleagues. Them’s good eatin’s.
My life on D-Block following my final sentencing by my judge takes on an air of almost normalcy. Now that the suspense is over, and I have an actual “out date” to look forward to, the sense of urgency to my incarceration has gone away. I now know what I am dealing with, more or less, and now I attempt to fill my days with mental, physical and community activities just to keep myself from spiraling into depression or to think too hard about the family fending for themselves on the outside. If I think too hard and deep about my wife and children, I can easily slide back into deep distress and hopelessness.
We write one another and call whenever possible – although the Evercom long distance service used by the jail charges my wife exorbitant fees to accept collect calls from me. She visits me weekly whenever she can fit it in – although the demands on her are great, handling the children alone. Slowly, we move away from the idea of “divorce papers in jail” – as she told me on her first visit – to some sense that we will try to pick everything up where we left off once I am released.
Alone in my cell, I keep myself occupied with books, with writing, some exercise and a deck of cards.
Every now and then, I hear something about an area of the jail they call J-Block. It is where about 60 inmates are housed in a large, communal room with a bunk area. No more 19.5 hours a day in a cell. There is access to computers, to a microwave oven, to a DVD player. One by one, I see my blockmates on D-Block being transferred there after their final sentences are established. It is now a few weeks after my final court appearance. I wonder why I have not been allowed to emigrate, as well.
So, I get up the courage to interrupt a corrections officer sitting behind his desk watching YouTube. As far as I can tell, by the way, this is a large part of what corrections officers do for a living – sit behind desks at their stations and pretend to “work” while watching YouTube. I ask him if I could be transferred to J-Block. He glances at me in that bored way that corrections officers have when they decide to look at an inmate. Then he says he’ll see what he can do.
A few hours later, to my astonishment, he tells me to pack up my stuff and get ready to move to J-Block.
I have no idea what to expect, but any change sounds like a good change to me. So, I pack up immediately, and nervously pace around my cell until after dinner, when I make the move.
It is in J-Block where I will feel, at least, like I am being treated like a human being. It is also on J-Block where I will make a few very serious blunders in relations with my fellow inmates, one where I will need to step out of character for me and assert myself in ways I had never thought possible.
And it is in J-Block where I will face a moral test: A fellow inmate will die.
Editor’s note: All installments of the “Washtenaw Jail Diary” that have been published to date can be found here.