Washtenaw Jail Diary: Chapter 3

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 3: Life on D Block

After the initial “intake” week, all inmates wear green jumpsuits – whether they are accused of felonies or misdemeanors. So, as I enter D Block, the officer on duty hands me a green uniform to swap for my felony orange, along with a blanket, two sheets and a towel.

As I enter my new cell block, I see three people watching television. Sitting on the table, gazing up at Jeopardy is an incredibly large black man. Standing next to him, also watching, are a smaller white kid and a large white man with a shaven head and shaven eyebrows. The officer points me to my new cell, 4D, coincidentally the same odd-shaped lower-tier room on the elbow of the boomerang that was my home on B Block.

Between the time the officer opens the main door to the block, talks to some inmates and I enter my new cell, Alex Trebek asks three questions. They are easy ones, so without even thinking I blurt out the answers. The smaller white kid looks at me and opens his mouth in exaggerated amazement. The large, bald white guy cocks his head to one side and glares at me in a way that did not seem menacing, really. Just sizing me up. The big black guy ignores me and continues to watch TV.

As I get set up in my new cell, grinning and shrugging my shoulders at my new colleagues, I wonder if I have just made a mistake. I had vowed to myself that I would not make the same blunder I had made in Bam Bam by calling attention to myself. I just wanted to anonymously serve my time, whatever length that turned out to be, and not make any kind of impression on anybody – inmate or guard.

One second into D Block and I have already violated that vow. So, rationalizing my behavior, I decide that maybe it’s OK to call some attention to myself, so I don’t appear to be too standoffish to the other inmates. But blurting out “Jeopardy” answers? I have no idea if that is the right kind of attention.

My only conclusion to this inner dialogue is that I am completely incompetent as an inmate. I have no idea what the fuck I am doing and I will more than likely piss the wrong people off without even knowing it.

The Public Pretender

Before I get to know my new blockmates, it is time to meet the Public Defender who will, in theory, argue my side in court. I have already heard these “defenders” referred to by inmates as “Public Pretenders” who do little to defend their clients. The idea, I am told, is to cut deals with prosecutors as quickly as possible and move on to the next victim on the assembly line. They are simply too busy to deal with you in any other way, and strongly discourage the accused from going to trial. Guilt or innocence does not matter, I have heard. It’s all about the art of the deal.

I have reserved judgment until I meet one for myself. I need to remain optimistic. If not, I’d sink back into despair.

I still cannot decide if I had decent representation within the parameters of the “McJustice” doled out via the overworked Public Defender’s office and the backroom horse trading that goes on. If I could have afforded a real lawyer, one with “connections,” would I have done as much jail time? I do not know the answer to that. I tend to think that I would have gone free sooner. But I will never know for sure.

I am taken from my block and brought to a room back near the dreaded holding tanks, meeting with the person with whom I am to entrust my life. And here, in front of me, is Clarence fucking Darrow, himself – all bluster and a bit cartoonish, reveling, it seems to me, in being the center of attention. He is surrounded by assistants, interns, law students – almost all of whom, I am strangely curious to discover, are attractive young women.

It throws me a little. I am telling my story to a Public Pretender who is surrounded by a staff of young females, after I have spent more than a week living in close quarters with nobody but men.

The Pretender tells me that I am not the usual kind of person he represents, since I am apparently well-spoken and educated. But that does not prevent him from launching into street lingo, some of which I ask him to translate for me. He speaks this way out of habit, I am guessing, to try to win the trust of his usual crop of clients.

I have mixed feelings about my Pretender. Do I want what appears to me to be a snake oil salesman representing my interests in these felony cases? Maybe this is exactly the kind of person I need on my side. The lawyer in my misdemeanor cases seemed much too timid for me – in fact, agreeing with the prosecutor in court.

Moot question. The price is right for the Public Pretender. Free is all I can afford, and I guess you get what you pay for.

We talk about the case. I urge him to please, please try to get me out of here as soon as possible. Then I tell him about my nightmarish experience in Bam Bam, adding that I tried to comfort myself by thinking that at least what I endured in “suicide watch” was not quite as bad as the conditions my relatives had endured in Auschwitz.

Completely failing to detect my sarcasm, the Pretender says, “See, now that’s what you need to do. Stay positive.”

He gives me what seems to be a stock pep talk – urging me not to lose hope, not to dwell on the mistakes that got me here, and to think optimistically.

When we are done discussing the case, the Pretender does something strange that I do not “get” until I think about it later in my cell. He leans forward over the table until his shirt is very close to my head and asks me: “Have I lied to you? Have I given everything to you straight?” I answer that, as far as I know, he has not lied to me.

Later, I think of that moment and feel certain that I saw the outlines of a miniature tape recorder in his breast pocket. Of course, I think. The Public Pretender is quite used to unsatisfied clients complaining about their representation after the fact. He just got me on tape saying that I was satisfied with his advice. As savvy as I think I am in many things, I am obviously completely out of my depth in the mills of “justice.”


I go back to D Block in not the greatest of spirits after my visit with The Pretender. My body language must have said as much. There is a man on my block, I will call him Cassius, who notices the way I am walking – head down, slumping over slightly. He is a black man, medium height, receding hairline, thin beard, wiry and muscular.

“Oh, now don’t walk that way in front of the CO,” Cassius says. “He sees you walking around like that he’ll think you’re suicidal and put you in Bam Bam.”

I straighten up immediately.

Cassius is a drug dealer who will become one of my best friends, and tutors, throughout my stay in jail. He possesses such a keen mathematical intellect, curiosity about the world and insight into people that, in another life and set of circumstances, he would have succeeded in any respectable endeavor. Or, if honesty is a problem for him in all possible universes, he could have at least become a successful lawyer or politician.

I do not call him African American here because he always insists he is Moorish American. I will later look this up and discover that there really is an entire subset of black Americans who believe they are descended from the Moors. The sect was founded in the early 20th century and was a precursor to the Nation of Islam.

We will have many discussions over the months about religion, philosophy and human nature. When I tell him about the Falasha of Ethiopia, he will express amazement at the existence of black African Jews. Cassius is always writing letters to his sister, asking her to look up information for him on the Internet. A letter back from his sister will confirm that I am telling the truth about the Falasha.

Cassius hates this inability to quickly access information. It is one reason why, later, he becomes what the jail calls a “trustee,” or an inmate who is given preferential treatment in return for work. As a trustee, he gets access to more parts of the jail, travels from block to block and can use his skills as a “dealer” to trade information and other valuable goods and services. Cassius and I will later strike a deal. He will give me some interesting information and hard-to-come-by food and coffee in exchange for what I can do – write. More on that later.

For now, Cassius is outraged that the jail’s legal library is open only to inmates who are representing themselves in court. He asks me whether that is constitutional. Thinking of my experience in Bam Bam, I answer that while I am not certain whether the rule is a violation of our constitutional rights, it really does not matter in here. The jail makes the rules, and people on the “outside” really do not care whether our rights are violated or not.


There is a man on my block who is in “protective custody,” which means he cannot be around other prisoners because of possible threats on his life. He gets separate “out” times than the rest of us. He is accused of raping his underage daughter. Perhaps it is for this reason that he is in protective custody. Or it could be that, before he was given protective custody status, he was frequently seen in private conversations with corrections officers. This led to the rumor that he is a “snitch,” reporting information on fellow inmates in exchange for … better treatment? Lighter sentence? I do not know the man’s name, save for the moniker that one inmate has given him, which he screams at him in frequent taunts from his cell: “Ho-ass bitch.”

Bill’s crime scene

The large man who gave me the curious look when I first entered D Block and answered the Jeopardy questions – the one who shaves his eyebrows – I will call Bill. He turns out to be an intelligent, well-read man who apparently has one  flaw: His temper. He will be bumped from block to block because he will amass more than a few enemies everywhere he stays. He is kicked off D Block (later to return) for lifting a man up and hurling him against the large glass window that encloses our block. But to me, he is very personable and we have many conversations about a broad range of topics.

The usual etiquette in jail is not to ask a fellow inmate what crime he is accused of committing unless he shares it with you first. I do not learn of Bill’s alleged crime until I begin noticing holes have been ripped out of the block’s daily copy of The Ann Arbor News (a subscription that will mysteriously end a little later in my narrative). I mention these holes casually to Bill one day and he goes back to his cell to produce the missing clippings from a period of a couple of months.

They were all news articles about him, his bloody crime scene and a victim who is barely surviving an attack. If the victim dies, Bill will be in much worse trouble than he is already in. Bill is in jail awaiting trial, but it seems he will likely go to prison for a very long time.

To pass the time, Bill helps me come up with a glossary of jail slang. Here are excerpts:

  • Heron: (accent on the last syllable) Heroin
  • Hit it: Have sexual relations
  • Bunk and Junk: Pack up your stuff and go home
  • Dis Bitch: Jail
  • Skittles: Prescription medication
  • Catch a case: Refers to where you were arrested. I “caught my case” in Ann Arbor.
  • Cookup: A mix of commissary and jail food, usually with Ramen noodles as a base and other ingredients added to taste.

Reminders of home

As it was for me in Bam Bam, when I get to know other people’s stories, it distracts me from my own troubles. But with my court dates coming, and conversations with my wife and kids by phone (very, very expensive collect calls are allowed, so I keep them at a minimum), hiding from my own horrible situation is impossible.

I have two teenage daughters from a previous marriage. I receive a short letter from my ex-wife informing me that my daughters will not communicate with me at all while I am in jail.

I speak on the phone to my oldest son, whose 4th birthday I miss while I am incarcerated. He still thinks I am on a “work trip,” but the boy is very bright and senses holes in “the story.” He quizzes me on why my work trip must continue “for weeks and weeks and weeks,” and why my car remains in the driveway (a friend brought it home from the parking garage off Ann Arbor’s Main Street after my arrest). There is nothing I can do but be vague and assure him that I will be home as soon as humanly possible. I will not lie directly to him because, someday, he will be told the truth about where I was and I do not want him to have memories of his father lying to him.

I hurry back to my cell and break down into uncontrollable sobs – trying to keep them silent for fear that the officer on duty will hear it and send me back to “suicide watch.”

Ghost writer

One day, Cassius sees me scribbling down some notes in preparation for a court date. He asks what I am doing, and I tell him that I preparing some words I want to say to the judge. I let him read what I wrote, and he likes the language used. Cassius has an important sentencing date coming up and wants to say a few things to his judge. It is unknown whether he will go to prison for a few years or be allowed to serve a year in the county jail, with probable early release to a drug rehab center.

So, I strike the first of many deals I will make during my own five months in jail. I ghost write Cassius’ speech in exchange for a couple of Butterfingers candy bars (I have been craving them ever since a heroin addict in Bam Bam spoke endlessly of them), a few scoops of instant coffee and – the Holy Grail of jail junk food – a honeybun. Honeybuns are very much sought-after in jail. In fact, later in my narrative, the theft of a few honeybuns will prompt a huge scandal and lockdown on my block.

Weeks later, I am pleased to see Cassius return from court with a huge grin on his face. He received the best sentence he could have hoped for – no prison time, a year in jail. He says the judge could tell that he did not write the speech, but Cassius informed him, truthfully, that they were all his ideas and that a fellow inmate merely put them into words.

Major ingredients for a successful speech to a judge include:

  1. Apologize to the court, to the community and to any victims harmed and admit your mistakes.
  2. Talk about what you are doing while in jail to further your education, help the jail community or help control destructive behavior (AA, Alternatives to Domestic Abuse, GED, etc.).
  3. Discuss your job possibilities after you return to the community and the support system of family and friends that awaits you.
  4. Mention family members, teachers, members of the community who might have written letters to the judge on your behalf.

Do not:

  1. Insist you are innocent.
  2. Tell a hard-luck story about yourself and your family.
  3. Fail to address the court clearly and with respect.

I made sure I put all these ingredients into the speeches I wrote for fellow inmates, most of whom reported very positive results.

When it comes to my own speech before my two judges, I am afraid that I will not be quite so successful. But that is a story for another chapter.

Letter to the editor

One other writing project I gave myself to keep my mind engaged was a letter to the editor of The Ann Arbor News in response to its coverage of the race for Washtenaw County sheriff. Here is an excerpt of a rough draft that I saved.

Your front-page, lead story on July 20, and accompanying editorial, made repeated references to the “chronic, crisis-level jail overcrowding” in Washtenaw County. As an inmate … I wanted to help illustrate the overcrowding problem. …

As of this writing, there are 415 inmates at the 332-bed jail. Five inmates are currently under quarantine for MRSA. The conditions in the gym (used for inmate overflow) are notoriously filthy.

These unhygienic conditions, combined with criminally small portions at mealtimes and inhumane, filthy conditions in the “suicide watch” tank – known ominously among inmates as ‘Bam Bam’ – combine to make the phrase “jail overcrowding” appear to be a darkly comical understatement among the guests here at the facility.

The $22 million, 112-bed expansion will not even begin to address the problems here. Sheriff candidates, and voters, should remember that inmates in our jail are not separate from the community. We are your sons, daughters, husbands, wives and other loved ones. And when we return to the community, we vote.

I will learn later that it was against the policy of The Ann Arbor News to run letters from inmates.

Of course, inmates can receive letters. And a month or so later I will receive a much-welcomed letter from someone I knew before I was in jail.

The letter will be his second attempt to write to me. The first one will be sent back to him as “unacceptable contents” because he will include two blank sheets of paper. Apparently, you are not allowed to send stationery to inmates.

The “logo” that appears with each of these Washtenaw Jail Diary installments is a scan of that returned envelope. The old friend who will write is somebody I know as “Homeless Dave.” He is now editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

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

Section: Govt., Opinion

The following terms describe the content of this article. Click on a term to see all articles described with that term:


  1. By John
    November 12, 2009 at 5:01 pm | permalink

    This account is really interesting – gives me a new perspective on our criminal justice system. I look forward to reading the new chapters each week.

  2. By Barney Klein
    November 12, 2009 at 8:49 pm | permalink

    Mary, I LOVE this series.This is really a great read. Keep it coming.

  3. By Mugger_Mike
    November 13, 2009 at 11:45 am | permalink

    Ahhhhh….Diebetics and Hunny Buns….Funny!

  4. By glane
    November 16, 2009 at 10:17 am | permalink

    i was of the impression that honeybuns were used as coded language amongst inmates and never to take one that was left on your pillow.

  5. By cripes
    November 17, 2009 at 2:59 am | permalink

    As a former detainee myself, I can relate to much of the detail recounted here for the benefit of the unincarcerated public.

    County jails are dumps with little in the way of medical care, recreation, food, or legal representation. For anyone who thinks these things are not important for “inmates” ( a misnomer here, pre-trial county jail residents are “detainees” not inmates), try doing without them for even a few weeks in your free life; then imagine having no access, no control, hell, no toilet paper, except at the whim of the resentful staff at the typical county jail.

    I have three words of advice for Mr. Former Inmate: Don’t Get Sick.

    I will never forget the county jail where I stayed, more than a decade ago, and the criminal neglect of medical needs I witnessed there. To put this in perspective, the medical staff themsleves had posted a sign in the clinic that bore the words” “The best inmate is a dead inmate.”

    Kind of hard to get your head around that, isn’t it?

    Looking forward to the conclusion.

  6. November 17, 2009 at 10:37 am | permalink

    I don’t remember reading until this installment that the author was an old friend of one of the editors…

  7. By Jeff
    November 17, 2009 at 2:55 pm | permalink

    “A society should not be judged on how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals…” — Dostoyevsky

    What does this inmate’s account–and the horrifying sign outside medical staff office in Cripes’ comment–say about our society? Should any of us really be surprised by the horrors of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib? When we view those in prison — regardless of what they’ve done — as somehow subhuman, it’s hardly any wonder that we continue to support such unconscionable practices as the death penalty, mandatory minimum sentencing, sex offender registries, trying minors as adults, turning over our prisons to private, for-profit organizations, etc. Justice for all, my ass.

    Thank you, AA Chronicle, for publishing this series; I only wish more people would read it (and, of course, give a damn).

  8. November 18, 2009 at 10:15 am | permalink

    Jeff, do you really think that the following things are unconscionable?

    * sex offender registries that take proper account of the actual risk of reoffense;
    * adult trial for a 17.9 year old convicted of a brutal murder;
    * a privately run prison that is safer and better operated than a poorly managed public prison;
    * mandatory minimum sentences for a select few “absolute liability” crimes;
    * death penalty for mass murderers whose guilt is established not just beyond a reasonable doubt but by an even higher standard (let’s call it “irrefutable video evidence”)?

    The problem with the practices you criticize is that they have been poorly (and usually overbroadly) implemented, not that they are inherently bad ideas.

  9. By Jeff
    November 19, 2009 at 8:26 am | permalink

    Yes Fred, I do indeed stand by my statements and am happy to respond to your questions:

    * Sex offender registries, as you suggest, are indeed applied overbroadly. While narrowing their scope would help the issue somewhat, the harm that this practice would still do, not just to the former offenders themselves but to the offenders’ families as well, is not justified by the benefit rendered to society — a benefit that is dubious and, at best, small. For more information on this topic, I would encourage you to look at “No Easy Answers” (available at [link]), an exhaustive report on the inefficacy of and grave harm caused by U.S. sex offender registration laws. The report was prepared by Human Rights Watch in 2007 and includes a summary of their findings in the “Acknowledgements” section. For additional background reading, I would also recommend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”

    * If one is legally a minor at 17.9 years of age, then the laws that apply to minors apply to this individual as well, regardless of the severity of the crime. I do not believe that arbitrarily relaxing these laws for some individuals and not for others is an acceptable practice in a country governed by the rule of law. I do understand very much where you’re coming from, however, and would argue that our laws should be more nuanced in this regard so that they reflect individuals’ changing levels of maturity and accountability as they age, i.e., that we not have a random cut-off age at which a person is magically considered accountable when they were theoretically not accountable the day before. I’m thinking here in particular of cases where 18-year-olds, for instance, have been convicted of consensual sex with a slightly younger partner and, as a consequence, had their lives devastated and future livelihoods destroyed by being forced to register as sex-offenders.

    * I do not doubt that a privately run prison could potentially be safer or “better run” than a public facility (although a definition of quality would certainly be helpful here). The problem, however, is that the interests of a private, for-profit institution could not truly be served by rehabilitating offenders, when these very offenders are a source of revenue. In a similar vein, it would also be in the best interests of such an institution to fight meaningful alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders, as these alternatives would threaten the prison’s bottom line. Whereas rehabilitation and reintegration would at least theoretically be in the best interests of a publicly run institution that is chartered to serve the good of the people and responsible to the voting public, the interests of a profit-driven institution would best be served simply by drumming up more business. A related issue here is the practice (which, yes, I feel is unconscionable as well) of having prison medical care run by private organizations. If you would like to discuss this more, I could refer you to some worthwhile articles where these topics are discussed in greater detail.

    * Even if a crime is truly an “absolute liability” crime, it is still the job of the judge/jury to determine the final sentence based on the sentencing guidelines and the facts of the case. Mandatory minimum sentences tie judges’ hands and do not allow an individual’s situation, prior criminal record or other mitigating circumstances to be taken into account. They are a simplistic, one-size-fits-all answer to difficult, highly individualized situations.

    * Guilt or innocence of a capital crime, however well established a person’s guilt may be, is not the issue here. Surveys of police chiefs throughout the United States consistently reveal that the very people who deal with crime every day do not feel the death penalty actually deters crime. (Again, I could refer you to more detailed information here if you would like.) Also, the fact that many Western, industrialized nations abandoned the practice many years ago with no ill effect serves (at least to my mind) as compelling evidence that the practice is of no practical value. This begs the question as to why we continue the practice at all. What exactly is our motivation for the death penalty if it both fails as a practical deterrent and can demonstrably be replaced by other forms of sentencing? Satisfying our primal desires for retribution is not justification enough. Michigan, incidentally, abolished the death penalty in the 19th century.

  10. November 19, 2009 at 10:19 am | permalink

    Jeff, thanks for the thoughtful response. As you imply, we could go back and forth in great “policy wonk” detail on each of these issues, but perhaps it suffices to say that my reflex is to worry about the *victims* of crime and that your conscience is more easily shocked than mine.

    My view of incarceration is more pragmatic than punitive or rehabilitative: some people are more prone than others to causing damaging incidents in other people’s lives and sometimes need to be separated from society for that reason. This does not mean that they mean well, that they are bad people, or that they should be treated inhumanely.

    Bringing this to the original poster, nothing he has written has made me doubt that he is someone who may have needed to be separated from society for a time.

  11. November 19, 2009 at 10:20 am | permalink

    #10 — I meant “mean badly” in para 2.

  12. By jcp2
    November 19, 2009 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    #10 – “My view of incarceration is more pragmatic than punitive or rehabilitative: some people are more prone than others to causing damaging incidents in other people’s lives and sometimes need to be separated from society for that reason. This does not mean that they mean badly, that they are bad people, or that they should be treated inhumanely.”

    Without addressing intent, this sounds like a rationale for bringing back insane asylums.

  13. November 19, 2009 at 2:54 pm | permalink

    JCP2: I suspect you and Jeff would agree that both offenders and the mentally ill should be treated in a more “outpatient” like setting with supervision that reduces the collateral damage to others. I don’t have any objection to that, as long as it is effective.

    What strikes me as remarkable about the reaction to this post (including my own!) is the way that people look at offenders’ rights in isolation from victims’ rights (and vice versa). I would be much more impressed with the calls for prison reform presented in this thread if they were presented in the context of a concern for reducing the impact on victims of crime and increasing the personal accountability of offenders.

  14. By Kansas v. Hendricks
    November 20, 2009 at 2:32 am | permalink

    Mr. Zimmerman, your thoughts and views on preventative detention remind of a (very recent) former professor of mine. You might want to check out some of Christopher Slobogin’s work. Samples here: [link]
    and here: [link]

    Happy reading!

  15. November 20, 2009 at 9:20 am | permalink

    Thanks for the link, Kansas. Interesting stuff.