Editor’s Note: After the break begins the final 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 has 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.
I am on a top bunk in a four-man cell on the Medical Block at the Washtenaw County Jail and for the first time in my nearly five months here I can see clearly out a window. I gaze beyond the basketball court below, where my former colleagues from D Block exercise, and in the distance I see leaves turning color against the overcast sky. I am guessing that the slight breeze that blows the leaves is somewhat cool.
I have missed the summer. It was a hot one, according to the weather reports I’ve seen on TV. I wouldn’t know. I’ve only been outdoors about a half-dozen times since my ordeal began in late May. A hot summer is not the only thing I missed. I missed all four of my kids’ birthdays. But, on the bright side, I also missed $4-per-gallon gas prices.
I have about a week left until my “out” date, but I still cannot picture myself walking that yellow line from the inmate entrance to freedom. Looking out this window is the first hint I’ve had in many months that there is, indeed, a world outside these walls.
Myth of justice
Excerpts from a letter I wrote to my judge while in J Block:
I recently submitted a work card for your consideration under the jail’s “earned release” program. As a followup, I wanted to update you on what I have accomplished so far during my stay here. I have been serving meals, cleaning the blocks, stripping paint, polishing door handles, among other duties. As I have mentioned in court appearances, I remain fearful for the welfare of my wife and children as they struggle to pay the mortgage and other bills while I am unable to earn a living from jail.
“… As you know, I have no previous criminal record, and my crime was the result of a unique event that will never be repeated, and for which I remain remorseful. I have never committed a violent act in my life and pose no threat to the community.
“I would like to request that you take these factors into consideration as you decide whether to release me back into my home and to my family. Thank you again for your consideration.”
Names are called for early release from the overcrowded jail. Drug dealers, spouse abusers go home. My name is not called. I remain.
My request was denied.
Why? I have my suspicions as to why, but none of it can be proven. Here’s what I think: Some “connected” people are making sure that I serve every … single … second … of my sentence. Sound like paranoid ranting? Five months ago, I would have thought so.
But my time in jail, getting to know the people and their stories, has taught me that there is no such thing as blind and fair justice. It is a myth, a fairy tale we tell ourselves – especially in the United States – to make ourselves feel good.
I think of the guy I met in J Block who killed somebody in a drunken driving accident. He got off with six months, admitting that it was the best lawyer his family’s money could buy that did the trick for him. I think of an old alcoholic I befriended in J Block who was jailed after he crashed his car with his favorite prostitute with him in the vehicle – “all my exes have infections,” he used to say, with apologies to George Strait. He was surprised he went to jail this time around. It’s not like the good ol’ days, he said, when his lawyer would grease the palms of the judge – or put in a word or two over a round of golf – and charges would magically go away.
This, at any rate, is what goes through my head after being imprisoned in this filthy pit for five months. I feel the anger, the resentment, even more now because I can feel the end coming. I have to learn to control these thoughts – otherwise my last week here will become as psychologically hellish as my first 56 hours back in the spring, when I was held illegally incommunicado in “suicide watch.”
To distract myself, I ask one of my three roommates if he’s up for another round of rummy. He says he is, and then begins the painstaking process of setting up a makeshift card table by stacking two plastic bins on top of one another. It is painful to watch because he does not have complete control over parts of his body. My rummy opponent has cerebral palsy. He’s the same guy I first saw months ago, half in tears and struggling to walk, in the visiting area.
I have been living on the Medical Block only a few days now, and already our games of rummy are beginning to become routine. There is a comfort in routine, but I know not to count on it in here. You’d think that spending months at a time in one spot would foster nothing but the same old routine, but interpersonal dynamics are always changing – indeed, the “vibe” of a block is always changing – as people come in and out. One day, you’re living with tolerable people and are having interesting conversations, playing cards, and the next you feel like you’re living in a motherfucking animal cage.
A few weeks ago, living in J Block, I thought I had a routine that would last until my “out” date. J Block was tolerable within an intolerable world. I had no idea why or how this would end for me, but it did.
I usually sat in a corner of the common room that many understood to be my “office.” People would approach me there and ask my advice on legal issues whose answers I was far from qualified to give, or if they wanted some point of trivia answered (“Hey, is the Panama Canal owned by China?”). Apparently, my rulings settled arguments. And business was booming. I wrote reports for two inmates’ “probation survival” classes in exchange for coffee. I’d given up on trading candy bars for my services. Candy bars gave fleeting pleasure. A bag of tuna satisfied my hunger and coffee satisfied my brain.
Not all my “deals” were in exchange for my writing services. For example, the old alcoholic I mentioned earlier had a habit of oversleeping right into roll call, when a few times a day we had to stand by our bunks and be counted. If you were not in position, you could be publicly ridiculed by the corrections officer, or worse, depending on who the officer was that day and what mood he or she was in. A few hours in the “sally port” was a possible punishment. The sally port is a small area between two doors at the entrance to J Block, where all you can do is sit on the floor or stand. So, I agreed to wake the old guy up five minutes before roll call in exchange for all the instant coffee I needed to keep my brain charged.
There was a kind of rhythm to life on J Block. There was a routine I could count on and, to some extent, take comfort in. Sometimes there’d be morning meditation. Some inmates mocked it. I enjoyed it, and I suspect that even some of the mockers secretly enjoyed it, as well – if only because of its novelty.
One day, I approached a corrections officer from the far right of the U-shaped desk. As soon as I spoke up, he quickly changed his computer screen from half-naked women to something more “work-appropriate.” As if I really cared what he stares at all day while he babysits us. He must have been annoyed that I interrupted … whatever he was doing, because my request for a new pair of slippers was denied. There was a crack in my current pair that kept digging into my feet. I simply waited a day until a different corrections officer was on duty. One phone call, and I got a new pair of footwear.
After breakfast, I would volunteer to serve breakfast in the other blocks. That lasted until my judge rejected my “earned release” petition. After that, I refused to supply the jail with my free labor.
During the day, I set up specific times to read, to write, to use the computers and use a “learn to type” program to increase my speed. Some fellow inmates seemed not to believe my typing speed until I explained that I did this for a living. Yeah. “Did” this for a living. What I would do after my release, I had no idea. Who would hire a convicted felon in a lousy economy?
On TV, we watch the Olympics. Women’s beach volleyball … of course.
I would play cards with a heavily tattooed man with bipolar disorder (under control through the magic of meds), who once worked in the kitchen as a jail “trustee.” He would talk about how they were encouraged to scrimp on portions. We made vague plans of launching a Web site to expose some of what goes on in jail. I would always bring up the subject of, “Who cares?” I still ask that question.
Sometimes, I would sit and listen to the rantings of a former Detroit firefighter who said he was serving a year in jail for pulling a gun on some of his son’s drug-dealer friends hanging around his property. I am not sure if that was the whole story, but I don’t question fellow inmates’ versions of events. He was a crotchety old racist white guy who railed against the hygienic habits of black inmates and blamed some vague Limbaugh-esque conspiracy of the “feminazi order” for his incarceration.
I would counter that there are just as many smelly white people in here who refused to take daily showers. And, I have learned, there is simply no arguing with a Rush Limbaugh fan, since any disagreement with them is proof in itself that you are the enemy. I listened with attentive amusement as he explained how the enforced “pussification” of men in our society has made it impossible for fathers to properly discipline their sons, thus leading to his own offspring’s association with drug dealers and my fellow inmate’s resulting incarceration.
For a while, I would talk to a guy nicknamed by another inmate as “Ice Cream Man” because he was jailed after getting drunk and breaking into an Ann Arbor Dairy Queen, apparently not stealing any money but perhaps helping himself to some of the product. Police had only found a half-full glass of beer at the scene. Ice Cream Man and I would talk about some of the interesting characters we’ve met so far and he suggested that somebody in Hollywood should produce a jail-themed situation comedy. Not a bad idea.
I made the mistake once of giving Ice Cream Man some free coffee because he begged me for it. He then begged me every single day, and I drew the line at that. After a few refusals, he stopped talking to me altogether and would give me disgusted looks every time he saw me.
There was a guy on my top bunk who slept most of the day and night. I finally asked him once how he could sleep so much. “Depression,” he said. I never learned his entire story, but he told me that he and his wife had a child who died and he was in jail as a result of that. I got the feeling that he never hurt his child, but he might have been incarcerated for hurting his wife.
Conspiracy theories in jail are as rampant a virus as MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus). Among much of the African American population, it seems, it is not even a “theory” that AIDS is a man-made disease created in a lab. It is as established a fact as the wetness of water or the blueness of the sky. If I disagree, I get looks of pity, as if I am a poor, naive dupe who believes the lies the establishment tells me.
Of course, 9-11 conspiracy theories abound. One man, by far, took the prize in J Block when it came to spreading them around. A motivational speaker in his real life – and, apparently also a drug money launderer – he is very bright and convincing. We would get into many conversations about history and current events. To him, everything comes down to the old Freemasons conspiracy theory. He also believed, as did many “thinking” people on J Block, that the World Trade Center was destroyed by the United States government.
And, like Rush Limbaugh fans, any disagreement with the premise of a conspiracy theorist proves that you are either part of the conspiracy or are duped by it.
I told him that it is just as plausible that Panera Bread is responsible for 9-11, because stock in that company went up after the attacks – Americans wanted more “comfort food.” To me, the leaps of logic are not less plausible.
I did not think about it at the time, but I do now, sitting on my bunk in the medical block, waiting another week for my release. These conspiracy theories – AIDS as man-made disease, 9-11 perpetrated by the government, even the “feminazi order” – are all dearly held beliefs of much of the inmate population. These things make sense because – whether they are guilty of their crimes or not – there really was some kind of small or large “conspiracy” to take away their freedom. Some grew up with the assumption that the police and other authorities are brutal and the enemy, reinforced with bitter experience over the years – the latest of which is a “public defender” who did nothing to defend them.
And now, sitting in cells or on J Block with little contact with “reality” outside this world, it is easy to assume that the world of power continues to conspire against the powerless in unseen ways.
I think of my assumption that powerful and influential people had kept my name off the list for early release. I do truly believe that wealthy, connected people conspired to keep me in jail until the last possible second. Is this assumption of conspiracy any more sane than those of my colleagues? I suppose I cannot judge.
At any rate, I knew that J Block was too good to last. One day, an officer read off a bunch of names and asked them to report to the sally port. I was among them. I was informed that there was some mistake, and I do not qualify to be in J Block. I almost laughed out loud at how ridiculous that was. I had never caused trouble, and in fact had gone out of my way to help my fellow inmates whenever possible, but apparently I was unfit to live among them.
I was shipped back to B Block again, which is the “intake” block. I spent about three days there, then was unexpectedly brought back to J Block for a week. Then, again, back to B Block. Long story short, there was a disagreement between two officers over which inmates qualify to live in J Block. Whichever officer was on my side apparently lost.
My time back in B Block was notable for one person I met. I’ll call him “Jim.” Jim was a homeless man who would have no place else to go if he were not in jail. I gave him free coffee, and he was my friend for life. He confirmed that status with me once, asking me: “Are you my friend?” I think he really wanted to know, since his conversations often went in and out of current reality. I said that yes, he is my “jail friend.” He seemed happy with that. He was so happy to get free coffee from me that he would make excuses to talk to me about the coffee. “Should I drink my coffee before lunch or after?” I told him that after would be fine.
Then, two weeks before my release, I was transferred here to Medical Block. I am not sick. There is simply no room anywhere else in the jail for me. A guy a few cells down, though, truly needed to be here. Both his arms are in casts. They were broken when police wrenched his hands behind his back during his arrest. Now, he cannot even wipe himself, and no officer will volunteer for that duty.
I almost “lost it” with a corrections officer over three hard-boiled eggs. I had been saving them from breakfast. The officer just took them away, saying we’re not allowed to save food. So, I’m going to bed hungry again. It put me in such a foul mood, it made my head spin.
I am playing rummy with my friend, the one with cerebral palsy. He is in jail because, according to the story he tells me, he had a fling with a woman who runs the homeless shelter where he stayed. The woman’s boyfriend did not like it and somehow got him thrown in jail on a trumped-up charge. I never question inmates’ versions of events. In jail, I simply accept people as they present themselves to me. There is an unspoken understanding that we all have our demons.
We are saddened that one of our roommates was taken away for calling a guard of Russian descent “comrade.” The guard was not amused. Before the incident, though, on some evenings he would ask our handicapped roommate to sing us a song. Tonight, after our rummy game, my friend with cerebral palsy sings without being prompted. The sounds from his voice, over which he sometimes does not have complete control, are melodic and strange. I cannot understand most of the words. It sounds alien, haunting in the receding light as it lulls me to sleep.
It is the evening before my “out date.” I can choose to leave the jail at midnight, as long as there is somebody there to pick me up, or be freed at 6 a.m. the next morning. I choose the next morning, since that is when my wife can pick me up.
At 6 a.m., a guard comes in and wakes me up.
“You ready to go home?”
I give the rest of my commissary food to my cellmates. I walk a little ahead, and to the right of the guard, who takes me down hallways and past the holding tanks where I began my stay five months and a lifetime ago and into the “property” room.
The officer hands me a bag containing the clothes I wore to court those five months ago. I put them on. They no longer fit. I have lost at least 20 pounds. My shoelaces are nowhere to be found. The guard finds some unclaimed shoelaces and hands them to me.
My hands shake a little as I try to lace up my shoes.
I am given back whatever was in my pocket when I was arrested – my keys, my wallet, some prescription medication. I am also given a check for the amount of money left in my jail account: 26 cents.
The officer leads me to the sliding glass doors and wishes me luck. I tell him that I will not be back. He gives me a bored “that’s what they all say” look.
The yellow line leads me from the garage, to a door, to a stairway, to another door that opens into a parking lot.
I emerge into a cool autumn morning.
Editor’s note: This is the final installment of the “Washtenaw Jail Diary.” All installments of the series can be found here.