Editor’s Note: After the break begins the first 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 1: Bam Bam
It is a spring day in 2008. Yesterday, I told my boss I’d be a little late for work today, that I have to take care of some minor legal trouble in Ann Arbor, but I should be in sometime in the afternoon. So, this morning I kiss my wife goodbye. She says something sarcastic and cutting about the misdemeanor case I’m going to take care of. I expect to get two years probation, no jail time and that Washtenaw County will shake me down for a few thousands dollars in court costs – money that I, of course, do not have.
I drop my kids, ages 3 and 2, at their preschool. As I take them to their classrooms, I get a “feeling,” a real bad feeling that makes me almost physically ill. I give them each extra-tight, unusually long hugs before I tell them goodbye and to have a fun day.
My car’s a little shaky and in bad need of repair, but I manage to make it from suburban Detroit to Ann Arbor. Along the way, David Bowie’s “Sorrow” plays on my tape deck. I sing along. “With your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue; The only thing I ever got from you was sorrow. Sorrow.”
I have a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder. Repeating song lyrics in my head is sort of my equivalent of rocking back and forth to comfort myself. There is a decent cadence to the Bowie song.
I am so nervous, I can hardly move. I park in the garage across Main Street and wobble across the crosswalk to the gates of hell – Washtenaw County’s 15th District Court.
“You never do what you know you oughta; Something tells me you’re a Devil’s daughter. Sorrow. Sorrow.”
I enter the building, wondering – just barely above conscious thought – how long it will be before I see the light of day again. I have a bad feeling.
“Well, you’re going to jail,” my court-appointed lawyer tells me. My eyes briefly go dark and the courtroom spins.
I grasp the lawyer’s shoulder to steady myself and plead, as if a touch will convince.
“No,” I say. “I can’t go to jail. My kids need me. What can I do?”
“Beg,” he says. “Just beg. That’s your only hope.”
And the mind does try to find hope in hopeless situations. I really believe him. So, I think of, rehearse in my mind, ways I can beg the judge. But, in the end, I simply mutter something about my financial responsibilities to my family. No reaction from the judge.
“Your honor, he did not violate the letter of your instructions, but he did in spirit,” my lawyer says.
It is when this lawyer refuses to defend me that it truly sinks in. For the first time in my life, I am going to jail. JAIL!
In the corner of my eye, I see an officer position himself between me and the courtroom door, reaching for handcuffs. There is a tiny moment when I calculate unrealistic odds: If I “run for it” now, could I zigzag my way around the cop?
Then I think of my kids, my wife, and the room spins again, my eyes start to go dark.
My lawyer steadies me and asks if he needs me to contact anybody. Officer Friendly with the handcuffs says I’ll be able to make a call from jail. This promise of a phone call to my wife will become my obsession for the next 56 hours.
The judge says she is “worried about me” based upon some statements made by my alleged victims. Therefore, she is sending me to “suicide watch.” Soon, I will learn what Washtenaw County Jail’s “suicide watch” is. Inmates call it Bam Bam. And it is a human rights violation.
But, for now, I am comforted that I will be able to call my family from jail, hopefully get a real lawyer, get it all straightened out. I hold out my wrists, I am handcuffed and taken to a room at the rear of the courtroom. Shaking, I enter a strange new world.
“I tried to find her, ’cause I can’t resist her; I never knew just how much I missed her; Sorrow. Sorrow.”
After being relieved of my jacket, shoelaces and belt, I am locked in a holding tank for about 45 minutes with two other men. One is an older black man with a weathered face. The other looks like a teenager.
I ask what it’s like in the Washtenaw Jail. The older man grins. “You ain’t never been to jail before.” He is the first of many to take one look at me and guess. The teen-looking guy rolls his eyes: “Pfft. Washtenaw’s like summer camp.”
To pass time, we twirl the chains on our handcuffs. The smell in the holding pen, with three men and one toilet, is noticeable. Over time, I will build a kind of immunity to odors. When it is time to leave the holding pen, the Ann Arbor officer shackles our legs, chains the three of us together and we waddle out. For some reason, I never really mind handcuffs. It is the ankle-pinching leg irons and the forced waddling that will always get to me.
During the drive in the back of a police van from downtown Ann Arbor to the jail on Hogback Road, I comfort myself that I am OK and this will be over soon. I am wrong on both counts.
The Velcro Bam Bam suit
The sliding doors to the jail open and the first thing I see are four holding pens containing what looks to me to be masses of men dressed in orange, green and blue. In the last two pens on the right are half-naked men wearing robes that Velcro together on their shoulders. Bam Bam. It will be my home for the next 56 hours.
An officer throws me a Velcro Bam Bam suit and slippers. I say so long to street clothes for five months. The suit is also derisively called a “dress” by some inmates. It looks like a cross between a hospital gown and one of those heavy X-ray vests. It opens with Velcro in the front, and no underwear is allowed. I guess you could strangle yourself or others with underwear.
This Velcro suit is one reason they call this area Bam Bam. You look like a Flintstones caveman. Soon, I will find out the other reason.
A nurse approaches me. “Do you have thoughts of killing yourself?” she asks. I answer, “No.” She checks “Yes” on her little sheet of paper. I guess if the judge says I am suicidal, then I am.
“Can I make a phone call now?” I ask. “After you’re booked in,” the officer says. “When will I be booked in?” I ask. “Not my decision,” he says. This will become a pattern in the next few days: I make requests based on what I think my “rights” are, and officers ignore me.
The officer’s eyes give me a nanosecond of pity, seeing that I am obviously new at this. “Break 4!” he shouts. The door to Holding 4 opens.
“Here are a couple of nice gentlemen you can share a room with,” the officer says, instructing me to throw a rubber mat on the cell’s floor. Two weary faces look up at me. Each had already staked their claims on high-rent ledges in the holding pen. My new home is on the floor. My cellmates are both wearing Bam Bam suits. One of them is a muscular, older black man, the other a young white kid detoxing from heroin.
The kid does not say much. The older man never stops talking. Ever. He’s in Bam Bam as a punishment for, of course, talking too much on his block.
Now, he poses like he’s throwing a discus. “These dresses make us look like Julius Fucking Caesar.”
I laugh for the first time in jail.
The man doing the “Julius Fucking Caesar” impression – I’ll call him “Charlie.” He talks about how his son is in jail here, too. (Months later, I will have a conversation with a corrections officer who can name all the multiple-generation inmate families at the jail.) Charlie’s in Bam Bam because he wouldn’t shut up in the bunk area of the gym. The gym is where they cram the spillover in the overcrowded jail.
Charlie talks incessantly – about injustices past and present, about the son he barely knows and of his girlfriend, who claimed he beat her. I wince slightly. I have not yet gotten used to carrying on seemingly normal conversations with men who might have done very bad things.
Charlie’s rapid-fire talk is punctuated by his window-banging. When can he go back to his block? Who is the “property officer”? Whatever that is. His voice, the banging, set me on edge again. I make a mental note never to become a window-banger.
Listening to Charlie’s stories had taken me away from my own troubles, but hearing his demands bring me back. What about my phone call? Sadness, shame of arrest is giving way to outrage, anger over rights not granted. To my wife and coworkers, I imagine, I simply vanished. My phone call! I’m supposed to get a motherfucking phone call! I begin to “think” in the language of my surroundings.
I bang on the window.
The phone call, the phone call, the phone call
“I have been here for three hours and haven’t been allowed my phone call.” For the next 53 hours, I will preface all my requests with this hour count, much to the puzzlement of my captors.
“You’re in checks. No calls until mental health clears you,” the officer says. “Checks” is another word for “suicide watch” – I guess because they supposedly “check” on you.
“But I have a right to a call,” I respond.
The officer smiles slightly, then speaks slowly as if addressing a child. “You … are … in … checks. No … calls.” Then he walks away.
For the first time in my adult life, I feel completely helpless. And to a man who’s never been helpless or caged, this feeling turns to rage. I have not yet learned that in jail, rage and impatience are useless emotions. They never get you anything and almost always make things worse.
Pressures of this horrible day are building in my head. I’ve become so outraged I literally cannot see straight. I’m pacing around the cell. No more Bowie in my head. It is the phone call, the phone call, the phone call. That is my obsession – although, by now, my wife has probably guessed that something went wrong in court.
I went to court this morning thinking I would take care of two misdemeanors, then drive to work. It was bumped to four felonies. I was arrested. Arrested, but not yet “booked in” since I am in this no-man’s land known as “suicide watch,” “checks,” “Bam Bam,” whatever. I don’t exist.
I think of myself as a “disappeared” Central American prisoner whose family, friends never hear from again. Well, this is what my mind turns to in my panicked state. I explain this analogy to blank-faced officers who only see a likely suicidal lunatic blabbering on about disappearing in Central America.
Again it was explained. No phone call because you’re in “checks,” no phone call until after you’re “booked in.” My agitation increases. The smug officers, the closed-in space that seems more suffocating by the hour, the banging, the panic bring me to a point beyond reason.
It is in this unreasonable state of mind that I make one of the worst mistakes I will make in my entire five months at the jail.
“How things work”
Before I was arrested, I worked on the Web site for a local Detroit TV station.
I am delirious with anger, frustration, panic, unable to think clearly. I blurt out the most asinine thing possible.
“I work for Channel [_] and they will find out how my rights are being violated!”
The background cacophony of Bam Bam goes silent for what is probably only 1 second, but seems to last 15, while all register what I said.
I’ll never know for sure, but I am convinced that my stupid little rant is the reason I spend 56 hours (not the customary 24) in Bam Bam.
After the silence, in my eyes there is something akin to a quick zoom of a camera onto a tall, young corrections officer not more than 25 years old. He turns around to face me after he hears my words.
He hollers: “Break 4!” The doors to my cell, Holding 4, open.
“What?” he asks.
My “colleagues” suddenly find other things to do in the back of the cell. The officer hovers over me, stares me down. “What did you say?”
A chubby, crew-cut cop, the “yuk-it-up” type, decides to get involved. “He said he’s with Channel [_] and he wants his phone call,” he smirks.
“Let me explain to you how things work here because you look like you’re new at this,” says the tall officer hovering over me. The cop’s face contorts into an expression that is just the right, practiced blend of anger and sarcasm.
Then I make my second dumb mistake.
I interrupt the officer who is about to tell me “how things work.” I open my mouth to squeak a few words about “my right to a phone call.”
This gives the officer a chance to use what is obviously one of his favorite phrases. “If you would keep your jaws from flapping, I would tell you how things work,” the officer says.
I’m a little slow. But I now do understand. It is one thing to understand, on an academic level, what it must be like to have no rights. It is another thing to truly experience it. Rules that applied to my previous 40-plus years are no longer applicable. I am now an infant again, dependent on the whims of strange, large beings. I make a show out of closing my jaws immediately. No more “flapping.”
The officer continues his speech, a little louder. I am not listening. The realization that I have no rights at all is now making me more upset.
Like a genius, I interrupt again. And that does it for the officer. This time, the look on his face is true anger, not the practiced sarcasm of cops. Now, he is going to say what is really going to happen.
“We’ll see how long it takes for you to get out of Bam Bam,” he says. “We’ll see if you ever get to make your call.” He turns around. Done.
Three seconds of silence provide the perfect opportunity for the crew-cut “yuk-it-up” cop to turn to the booking officers and point at me.
“This guy’s with Channel [_] and he wants to make a phone call right now!” That was the punch line. Waves of laughter pour from the officers. The laughter is muted with the slam of the sliding door to Holding Cell 4.
Editor’s note: All installments of the “Washtenaw Jail Diary” that have been published to date can be found here.