Washtenaw Jail Diary: Chapter 2, Part 1

Return to Sender stamp from Washtenaw County JailEditor’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 2: Transitions

I have not showered in 52 hours while living amid the stench of puke and shit. I remember when I was first taken into custody, a seeming lifetime ago, a kid told me that Washtenaw County Jail is like summer camp.

I wait another few hours in Bam Bam. Then, changes come relatively quickly.

“Break 3!” the guard screams. The door slides open. An officer calls my name. As I leave Holding Cell 3, Frank smiles. I will pass by this cell on my way to court the next few months. Frank will still be there.

I am handed a regular jail uniform (felony orange) and take off the ridiculous Velcro Bam Bam outfit. I am at last allowed to shower. I have moved up in the world. I am placed in a holding cell right next to Bam Bam, awaiting placement to a cell block. Still no phone call.

My name is called again. I am fingerprinted and it is time to say “cheese” to the camera.

As a newsman, I have seen many mugshots – smiling, menacing, drunk, etc. – but I’ve never seen the kind of face I produce for my own mugshot. After 56 hours in Bam Bam, I looked the part: Criminal. Unshaven, uncombed, tired, scared, confused. Charles Manson without the swastika.

Phone Call

Good Cop walks over and lets me out. He motions me to follow. I ask where I am going. “You want your phone call, don’t you?” he replies. Strangely, rather than telling me to use the wall phone like the other inmates, Good Cop takes me to his office and asks, “What number?”

It is bizarre, sitting in what looks like a normal office in the same building where the previous 56 hours I was shoved into a living hell. I don’t know why I got the “office treatment.” Was it because my rights were so obviously denied in “Bam Bam?” Or does he always do this? I’ll think about that later. Right now, I’m trying to think of my home number, my wife’s cell number, anything. I have blanked out. Nothing.

Making “My Phone Call” has been my obsession for 56 hours. Now, here I am and … finally, my home number hits me. I squeak it out.

Good Cop dials my home number on his office phone, and I wait.

No answer.

He hangs up and shrugs. “Of course,” I think. “Just my luck.” I give Good Cop my wife’s cell number. He dials. Waits. Leaves a message that her husband’s in jail.

And that’s it. That’s my phone call.

He’s about to take me back to my cell when the phone rings. I know it’s my wife. Good Cop answers then hands me the phone.


At the sound of my wife’s voice, I break down in tears. All the intense pressure that had been building since my arrest explodes into sobs. I can barely speak.

And then, I get another shock to my system, a wake-up call that reverberates still.

I ask my wife what my brothers (I have a lot of them) have done to help her and the kids in my absence and if they’ve found me a real lawyer. She tells me that nobody in my family has called or offered to help. Nobody’s looking for a lawyer.

“Nobody wants anything to do with you.”

I suddenly feel very sick. I had endured the 56 hours with at least the comfort of knowing my family was helping on the outside. Not true. My wife had spoken to my court-appointed lawyer (the one who agreed with the prosecutor in court), who told her I’d be in jail for awhile. I cannot afford a “real” lawyer – one who will actually defend me. I will have a court-appointed public defender for my new felony cases.

My young children, my wife tells me, have been told I am on a “work trip.”

I end the conversation with my wife feeling better for talking to her, but worse about my legal situation. I could be in jail a long time.

Good Cop asks me if I’m OK (I must have sounded horrible when I cried to my wife). Afraid of going back to “suicide watch,” I say I’m fine.

Do they realize they’re in jail?

I am placed in an increasingly crowded holding tank, awaiting assignment to a cell block. The thought of having my own cell seems appealing to me at this point.

Holding Tank 2 is noisy with hip-hop chants and ghetto slang. The mood here seems more upbeat than it was in Bam Bam. There’s loud laughing. I think: “Do they realize they’re in jail?”

I am very white. In this holding tank, once I started talking to people, I was addressed by white and black alike as “My Niggah.” The cell echoes with the voice of a white kid who “sounds black,” grabs his crotch a great deal and addresses his colleagues as “dog.” My cellmate’s voice has the cadence of Chris Rock, but tinged with the whiny constipation of Bobcat Goldthwait. He slips easily from speech to rhyme.

There’s a phone in this holding cell, but no receiver. You holler into it and then put your ear up to a speaker to hear the other party. Shouting into it now is Rape Boy, who came with me from Bam Bam. He yells the story I have heard 1,000 times. “Then she texted me to to flip her over and do her doggy …” I am uncertain if I only mentally “roll my eyes.”

“Lion’s Den”

There are many conversations going at once. I tune in and out of some of them. One man says he knows he’ll be OK because of a dream he had. He dreamed he was Daniel in the lion’s den. Only, the “den” was the house of his grandmother, whom he loves. So, he reasons, all will be OK.

His “dream” seems contrived to me. Later, I will rethink my position as my own long, epic, symbolism-heavy jail dreams begin.

The atmosphere is almost festive. For many of the inmates, this cell is a place of reunion with neighborhood friends. The conversations are fast, mixed with rap references and some slang I don’t understand. Everybody calls one another “dog” and “niggah.” Later, I will talk with black friends about the “N” word. My age and older, they don’t approve. Younger people say it depends on context.

The holding cell is so crowded now, there is no room for anybody to lay down. Some inmates tuck their arms into their uniforms and curl up.

I’ve been in a holding cell for about three hours, added to 56 hours in “suicide watch.” Now, I’m waiting for a vacancy in the overcrowded jail.

At last my name is called. After spending 60 hours in three holding cells a few feet away from the entrance, I am now going to see the jail. As I pass by Bam Bam, Frank smiles and gives me a thumbs-up. It’s an ending, of sorts. Phase I of jail ends.

But it’s all really beginning.


Inmates are required to walk in single file on the right side of the hallway. We walk away from the holding cells, turn right, then left. We emerge into a kind of crossroads at the jail, a glass structure at the center with officers behind a console. Hallways go in three directions. We are headed to B Block, which is a kind of “intake” area. All inmates start there. Felons to the right, misdemeanors left. I go right.

An officer hands us a towel, two sheets, a toothbrush, toothpaste and a bar of soap. I ask for paper and pen. The officer asks if I have money. Fortunately, I had gone to an ATM before going to court. I had $100 in my wallet – minus the $20 “booking fee,” the first of many cases of robbery committed against me by Washtenaw County.

Earned Release Record of Hours Washtenaw County Jail

Earned Release Record of Hours – Washtenaw County Jail (image links to higher resolution file)

So, I get a few sheets of lined paper, some pens and envelopes. We are all told to sit down and, strangely, a TV is wheeled in front of us. Then it gets even more bizarre. New inmates are forced to watch a poor-production-quality, homemade orientation video from a circa 1980s VCR.

I joke to myself that while Bam Bam was the worst experience I had ever been through in my life, watching this video comes in a close second. Wooden-looking officers on an overused, jumpy videotape recite jail rules, much of which is unintelligible because of the echo off concrete walls.

A poster on the wall reads: “Help yourself get out of jail early.” It outlines “earned release” – one of the jail’s biggest lies. Months later, I’ll do extra work around the jail in illusory hope that my earned release card will convince my judges to let me out early.

I comment to the inmate next to me (white rap guy from holding tank) about the amateurish production quality of the video. “What?” he says.

B Block

We are in a common room. In back of us is an office for the CO on duty. To our left and right are two halves of the cell block. Each cell block side is located behind separate doors surrounded by tall windows so the corrections officer in charge can see what’s happening in each side.

There is a rectangular, picnic-style table with attached stools in a common area on each side of the block, and two tiers of cells.

It is somewhat of a misnomer to say you are “behind bars” at the Washtenaw County Jail. You’re really behind steel doors. No bars.

The two tiers on each side of the block have eight cells each. That’s 16 inmates on each side. Each cell has a steel door and long, thin window.

I am taken to the right side – the orange-uniformed felony side – and told to go to cell 4B. This is my new home for this first “intake” week. The officer has trouble with a sticky latch. So, he literally slams my door shut. Bam! I’m locked inside my own cell for the first time.

I do not bother looking around my new accommodations. I curl up on the hard cot and begin the first of my many epic jail dreams.

First Dream

I am walking on a city street. Probably Manhattan. I am on a cell phone, but the connection is so bad that I only hear faint whispers. I’m trying to talk to my boss at the TV station where I worked before I was jailed. I can’t get through. Or, rather, I am getting through, but my boss’s voice is so far-away sounding, I cannot hear above the clatter of the city.

I shout. I try to shout the reason why I did not show up for work. Something happened to me that [reporter name] would be interested in.

My boss cannot hear me. All I hear are unintelligible whispers. I shout more and more about my arrest, my rights being denied in Bam Bam. The more I shout, the more the voice on the other end fades, until there is just silence. Extremely frustrated, I decide to run to work.

I do not ordinarily dream in the form of bad disaster-movie epics, nor are they normally so heavy handed in metaphor. But this is no ordinary time. Like the “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” dream I overheard in Holding 2, maybe the subconscious knows when it’s crisis time and time to be obvious. Whatever the reason, here’s what happens next:

I run down this strange city street. The city is definitely NYC, even though I work in Detroit. My dream mind has no trouble with this. But I do have trouble staying on my feet. The sidewalk starts shaking with every step. It’s a variation on the “can’t-run-in-my-dreams” thing. But I can run. The concrete won’t let me. There is a bridge up ahead that begins to cross over an ocean, then doubles back to where the city meets the shore. It splits into two tiers.

My office, in my mind, is over the bridge. I run on the upper tier, glance at the ocean and see a bridge-wrecking, city-swallowing tsunami.

I will not go into all the twists and turns of my dream, which would probably make a shrink see dollar-signs for decades. The elements: extreme frustration, need to tell/warn somebody, impending disaster.

My need to tell what happened to me in jail “suicide watch” becomes an obsession in reality and in dream. Yet, in both, nobody really cares.

It unsettles me greatly, this knowledge that because I’m accused of a crime, most would believe I deserve all bad things that happen in jail.

In the end, the tsunami strikes, destroying the bridge, but I scramble with a couple other survivors to the top of a tall, strong building. Atop this building, I see ruins below. In future dreams, I will wander among those ruins.

I wake up. I am in my cell.

Editor’s note: All installments of the “Washtenaw Jail Diary” that have been published to date can be found here.

Section: Govt., Opinion

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  1. By zollar
    October 14, 2009 at 1:04 pm | permalink

    What a whiner, Washtenaw County jail is like going to a Boy Scout camp.Been there briefly, done that.At the jail I talked to inmates who had been in jails in the City of Detriot.There you don’t have time to whine or feel sorry for yourself. You spend your time trying to get along with your fellow inmates so that you don’t get you butt beat.

  2. By Dave
    October 14, 2009 at 2:08 pm | permalink

    It’s too bad his opportunity to become a man came so late in life.

    “Oh, the injustice!” This guy cracks me up. It’s called JAIL dude. He chose to go there by being a half-assed criminal.

    Very well written though, I really like this series.

  3. By ChrisW
    October 15, 2009 at 10:14 am | permalink

    I love these stories. Keep writing!

  4. By Richard
    October 15, 2009 at 12:42 pm | permalink

    Interesting account…Does it ever say what he is in prison for?

  5. By Bear
    October 15, 2009 at 3:55 pm | permalink

    He isn’t in prison richard, he is in county jail. Big difference. Washtenaw is easy money compared to other jails in Michigan. Houston city jail was a real drag in the 70′s.

    And Dave, you don’t have to be a criminal, half-assed or otherwise to end up in jail. Happens to be a lot of laws have little to do with justice and more to do with ‘control’. Whatever, I don’t try too hard to analyze it, just deal with it.

    Some county jails use subtle forms of torture to make life miserable for the inmates, like putting you on the edge of hypothermia when you sleep, by taking all warm clothing and giving no blanket and having you sleep on stone ledges with the temps set at 65 degrees. After a couple of hours, you are frigid and your joints and muscles lock up and become very painful. No rest for the wicked.

    A good way to counteract that is to do stretching exercises and calisthenics to warm up the body’s furnace without sweating so that you will stay limber and get some quality rest. Meanest looking guy in the cell gets the toilet paper roll to use for a pillow.

    But that was another lifetime, in a land long gone…

    on with the story. Amusing to hear a white-bread account of jail.

  6. By Mugger_Mike
    October 15, 2009 at 7:11 pm | permalink

    Can’t wait until the next chapter!


  7. By Johnny Jr.
    October 16, 2009 at 11:35 am | permalink

    Went to court once in a show of support for a friend arrested on serious felony charges. He’d been in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice lockup for a few days before this hearing, which was intended to lower his high six-figure bail to a lower six-figure bail. He was marched into the courtroom with maybe a dozen other inmates in jail colors. He was not a soft guy and had had plenty of trouble with the police when he was a kid. But the look on his face as he scanned the room: exhausted, stunned, and at the same time mugging and putting up a front. You never want to see a friend in that jail orange.

    I’m not sure how many of the people who’d come from work to show the judge our colleague was a good guy despite the charges ever saw him again after that day. I never did. He eventually pleaded out but still had to do a year in state prison. Not summer camp by any stretch of the imagination.

    Keep the jail diary coming. And I enjoy the twisted logic of the commenters who suggest that if you’ve done something to land yourself in jail, then you deserve whatever’s dished out.

  8. By Vito
    October 16, 2009 at 3:20 pm | permalink

    To whom this may concern:

    My name is Vito and I am a law student at the University of Michigan. I am doing some research on sexual harassment at the Washtenaw County Jail.

    If you worked at the jail, were incacerated at the jail or otherwise have information regarding sexual harassment, especially sexual harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, then please contact me at vitosals@umich.edu.