Washtenaw Jail Diary: Chapter 6, 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 6: Home Stretch



God, I hope I never get sick in this place.

From my top bunk, I see about 12 corrections officers swarm like ants through Door 30 – the one that leads to J Block, where I’ve been transferred. A guy got sick and started throwing up. He approached the officer on duty and asked if he could go to the medical block. The officer disagreed and said he should go to Bam Bam for “observation.”

“You mean, go and wear a dress?” the inmate replied, with some panic in his voice.

I know from experience that the Velcro “dress” is only a surface discomfort when compared to the other horrors of Bam Bam – aka “checks,” aka “suicide watch.”

The officer told the increasingly agitated inmate to calm down. The inmate informed the officer that he would rather go to the medical block, where his illness might be better treated than if he were in the Bam Bam holding tank. But he said so in an animated way that apparently rubbed the officer the wrong way.

Backup was called.

Now, about a dozen officers enter the block, but only a couple of them participate in subduing the inmate. They slam the sick guy against the curved counter at the center of J Block, ‘cuff him behind his back and drag him away.

I suppose it’s good that the man has been removed from my block. But instead of potentially infecting 60 people in a large room, he’ll potentially infect about 10 people packed inside the Bam Bam tank. They’re brilliant over here.

J Block is designated a “therapeutic block.” I am not entirely clear on what that means – it has something to do with a focus on the well-being and rehabilitation of inmates. But it seems that whether the block is true to its name, and goals, depends on what officer is on duty.

There’s one officer I can think of who might have made things turn out differently for my sick colleague.

The yellow line

It’s morning on J Block, just after breakfast. “See yourself floating, floating out of your bunks, hovering in this room, over my desk, then right through Door 30 and out of J Block,” says the corrections officer. Soft, New Age type music plays in the background.

“See yourself floating down the corridor, flying past the holding tanks, then out the glass sliding doors. Now, you’re hovering above that yellow line, following it to freedom.”

Afterward, I approach the corrections officer and say that I did not make it past Door 30 in the meditation. I know when my “out date” is, but I still just cannot picture myself actually leaving the jail and following the yellow line.

The officer tells me that the meditation exercise is not necessarily about physically leaving the jail. It’s about “having a plan” for when you get out. Once you do find the yellow line, once you do leave these walls, then what? What are you going to do to keep yourself from coming right back to jail?

The officer is right. I have, at best, a nebulous plan that involves making things better with my wife and somehow finding employment in a bad economy that has gotten worse during my incarceration, and slowly recovering from the psychological trauma of jail.

Perhaps I cannot picture following the yellow line, cannot come up with a more specific plan, because I am too wrapped up in the world within these doors. My world is now small, I think, and so am I.

The Henchman

It is my first week on J Block and I hop into the shower. There are three shower heads, so I think nothing of going into the shower area when there is another man in there. It’s not that I forget where I am – I never forget I am in jail – it’s simply that I put myself in the wrong frame of mind. High school gym class? A health club? I don’t know. No thought went into it.

I shower. I leave. I forget about it.

One of my blockmates is an Arab man who is the scion of a prominent family of retail owners. He is in jail for setting a couch on fire, I am told. I will call him Ishmael.

Ishmael appears to be everybody’s chum. He is not a leader, himself, but can usually be seen by the side of those on the block with strong personalities. He’s a “yes” man. Or, if this were an old movie or a cartoon (which at times I feel it can be), Ishmael would be cast as the bad guy’s henchman.

Ishmael, clearly in his henchman role, approaches me and says that Malcolm wants to see me in the TV area.

Malcolm is a drug dealer. And, if stories are to believed, a very successful and prosperous one. I am calling him Malcolm here simply because he reminds me of a black version of Malcolm McDowell’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” He speaks calmly, rationally, friendly, yet holds himself slightly aloof and apart from the rest of the group. Like a leader. He looks like he’d shake your hand and pat you on the back as a friend one second and would not hesitate to stab you in the gut the next. Hats, of course, are not allowed in jail. But I picture him with a bowler. I don’t know why.

Malcolm can always be found in the TV area, where DVDs are playing (a special privilege of J Blockers). There is a kind of “drug dealers row” permanently planted in front of the TV, where they swap stories and have one movie playing in a seemingly endless loop. That movie is, of course, “Scarface.”

Ishmael instructs me to sit down across from Malcolm, who is surrounded by various other henchmen – one of them an older man in his 60s who does a great deal of nodding in agreement.

I am still unclear on what this “meeting” is all about. I find it wise, however, to sit down and hear them out. I sit across from Malcolm, but it is Ishmael who does all the talking. Apparently, aside from being a henchman, Ishmael is also Malcolm’s official spokesman on this matter.

Ishmael is usually the class clown. He’s known for throwing pieces of candy at the heads of blockmates. He has the candy to spare. His family apparently keeps his jail bank account well-stocked. But for this occasion, Ish contorts his face into one that mimics what he believes should be grown-up, mature seriousness. His expression almost makes me want to laugh. When he speaks, he talks to me as if he’s speaking to a child.

“Look, we really don’t care about your sexual preferences. We don’t. Whatever. But, the thing is, you stepped over a line when you invaded my man Malcolm’s shower space …”

The realization hits me at once, and I start mentally “kicking” myself for my stupidity. Yes, of course, Malcolm was the other guy in the shower. I immediately understand how I have violated jail protocol. I knew when I first entered jail that I would end up pissing somebody off without even knowing it. I’ve finally done it. I wonder what the punishment is for such a crime.

Malcolm does not speak to me. He looks away, looks aloof.

The old guy nods.

“Shit,” I say. “You know, I thought maybe I shouldn’t have done that. But, you know, there are three shower heads in there, so I just assumed … um … assumed wrongly …”

“Three shower heads, but only one guy showers at a time,” Ishmael says.

The old guy nods.

“Well, Malcolm,” I say, ignoring the henchman and addressing the aggrieved party directly. “Next time I take a shower with another person, it will be with MY WIFE. Just the other day, I was telling MY WIFE how much I’d love to take a shower with HER. I’ve written letters to MY WIFE fantasizing about HER in the shower. In fact, I am saving all future showers for MY WIFE as soon as I get out of here …”

I jabber on in that mode.

The old guy nods.

Malcolm looks at me with a blank expression on his face for about five seconds. Then he cracks a wide grin. “You’re OK, man.” He reaches out his hand and we shake. I smile, relieved that the crisis had been defused.

The old guy nods.

Drug dealers row then moves on to other topics of conversation.

They speak of a couple of customers they all know. Their names are Grace and Joy, and they are twin blondes who live in a trailer park. The gentlemen of dealers row talk about them, as they talk about all their customers, with disdain. One of them launches into an imitation of Grace, or Joy: “I’ll suck your dick for a hit,” he says in a high-pitched voice. “And I said, ‘Bitch, put that pipe down …’”

What I gather from the conversation is that the good drug dealers do not touch the stuff, themselves, and have no respect for their customers.

At one time, another guy listening in on the conversation makes a crack about “having a little Grace and Joy in your life.”

I laugh, apparently too loudly.

Ishmael is trying to watch “Scarface” and my laugh must have drowned out some key piece of dialogue. He turns around, faces me and says loudly for all to hear, “Shut up, faggot.”

Dozens of inmates turn around, look at me and laugh.

Now, my gut tells me that the situation has not been defused after all.

Here is where the Bizarro world of the incarcerated takes on an internal logic that makes the head spin. If this were the “real world,” I would have laughed off the junior-high-school epithet. In jail, though, a couple of disturbing things enter my mind. I feel I cannot be made a fool of in front of other inmates, who would then consider me weak and victim material.

In the “real world,” I am not the slightest bit homophobic. But in jail, gay men can be victimized. The “shower misunderstanding” has already made its way around the block, despite Malcolm’s willingness to forget about it. Now, the public accusation that I am a “faggot” takes that misunderstanding and turns it into a very public joke at my expense.

Strange. In the “real world,” I would not even care if there were some misunderstanding about my sexual orientation. In here, I feel like there could be potentially dangerous consequences if I let this taunt go unchallenged.

It is in this frame of mind, within the twists and turns of this internal logic, that I decide to do something very out-of-character for me.

I wait until it is time for us all go back to the bunk area to be counted. Ishmael has a bottom bunk across the aisle from me. I wait until he is lying down, so I can appear larger than I am, looming over him. I hover over him, look him straight in the eyes and say, just loud enough so that a few people to our left and right can hear, “Don’t ever call me a fucking faggot again.”

Ishmael’s eyes get very wide, and he jerks to a sitting position. “OK. OK. Fine. Just get the fuck away from me.”

Ish and I do not speak to one another the rest of my time in J Block. Nothing more is ever said of the misunderstanding over my sexual orientation. I learn later that Ishmael told others that I looked crazy and scared the shit out of him.

Mission accomplished.


One day, with about two months left in my sentence, we are out mingling in the large common area of J Block, when the officer on duty announces that we are all “locked down” in the bunk area for the foreseeable future. It’s nothing we’ve done wrong, he explains. There was an incident elsewhere in the jail, so everybody’s being locked down for a while. None of it really matters to me. I just lay on my bunk and read, or write.

The next day, I am out pushing carts, serving meals to the other blocks. I do this work in hopes of an early release as a part of the jail’s “earned release” program.

I actually enjoy this work. A kind word here or there, and fellow inmates react with pleasant surprise. “How ya doin’? Ya’all right?” Sometimes, I am asked to deliver messages to inmates in other parts of the jail. I do this as discretion allows.

There is one man who I always see on his knees, praying. He accidentally killed a man in a fight and will likely go to prison for a long time. Every time I serve a meal to him, I catch him in the prayer position. I think he might spend much of his day this way.

I casually ask an officer why the jail was locked down yesterday. I have already heard the rumors that a man had died near the booking area. The officer smirks and says that he can “neither confirm nor deny” any jailhouse rumors.

Another few days go by. I think very little of the incident. Then, I hear more rumors that grow more and more disturbing to me every day. They disturb me because they strangely parallel my own story. Here is what I have heard from various sources.

A detainee is in Bam Bam just as I was. And, like me, he is denied his right to a phone call. Like me, he gets very agitated about being denied contact with the outside world. Unlike me, however, his agitation gets physical. He is removed from Bam Bam and taken to one of the solitary confinement cells. There, according to the official story, he somehow manages to wrap a towel around his neck and the toilet, suffocating himself. According to jailhouse rumor, the man was killed by officers going too wild with their tasers.

I have served meals to the men in solitary, and have spoken to others who have been in those cells. It would take some considerable skill – and perhaps some defiance of the laws of physics – to suffocate yourself with a towel wrapped around the base of a toilet. As soon as your grip lets up, wouldn’t the towel loosen? Perhaps not if it’s wet, I suppose. I just don’t know.

These rumors, in themselves, are only a passing curiosity to me, really, until J Block starts buzzing again with another rumor. An inmate had stood up in an Alcoholics Anonymous class and spilled his guts about much more than his struggles with alcohol.

Here is what I heard, from multiple sources who were in that AA class. The inmate had been in a nearby solitary confinement cell at the time of the “suicide.” After the incident, he and the others who were in solitary were approached by officers, who offered them early release in return for their silence on what they had heard the day of the incident.

I learn that the inmate who gave the AA testimony is now in E Block, but will likely go free soon. A number of my fellow inmates urge me to speak to him and get the truth – they know that I plan to write about my experiences in jail. One of the J Block cart pushers who serves E Block told me that he would gladly let me take his place, so that I could talk to the man who had spoken up at AA.

I agree to take his place. I even prepare to sneak a pen out of the block so I can take notes as I talk to him – if I can do it while the guard is not looking.

Then, for reasons I still do not understand more than a year later now, I change my mind. I never go to E Block. I never speak to the inmate. I tell myself that I just do not care about this “story.” I am worried about myself, and only myself.

I am in the home stretch of my own sentence, and simply do not want to risk getting caught and making things worse for myself. Looking back now, I cannot see how things could have gotten worse for me, anyway. But I was not only physically in jail, I was emotionally there, too, and my own survival instincts trumped my instincts as a writer.

It could very well be that the AA guy was lying, or that the rumors of what he said were not true, or any one of a number of things that would have contradicted the story. Maybe the guy really did commit suicide. But I might have been able to determine what was true and what was not through a short conversation with the inmate.

Today, I regret not getting closer to the real story. And the trail is cold.

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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One Comment

  1. January 4, 2010 at 1:44 pm | permalink

    “All of us are prisoners of our own socialization,” wrote CK Prahalad, referring to the endemic problems of poor nations. It appears that prison affects our socialization, as well. You are, after all, still writing anonymously, just in case. I wonder whether you find yourself still ‘in prison’ in some sense, even now that you’re out. As others commented on the last entry of this series, an epilogue would help complete your story.