Part 1 "Captured"--- It began with a gesture of kindness. A new friend of mine, impressed by my writing, had given me an elaborate gift: a bottle of rum, an eighth of excellent weed, a small baggie of clonazepam, a five dollar bill, and a bottle of pomegranate wine. My people know me. To receive such a lavish and thoughtful gift put me in excellent spirits, and as I headed towards the Austin Public Library that day, I felt that I must be the luckiest man on Earth. So positive was my mood, in fact, that my third eye opened, and I began to see aspects of the world with increased clarity.
In front of the library, I saw a man that I regarded as an enemy, a fellow dumpster diver named Spider, with whom I had developed bad blood. Resources on the street are limited, and competition for the best dumpsters can be fierce. On a number of occasions, I had argued and exchanged unkind words with Spider, and had begun to believe that I hated him. Now, in my enlightened state, I realized this hatred was foolish. It was not personal enmity that drove him to the same dumpsters as I, but a shared desire for freedom. This man who I had raged against was, in fact, much like me.
I walked up to him and said, "Hey look, man, you got a rolling paper?"
He was shocked that I was even talking to him. The few words we spoke to each other were invariably harsh. Before he could say anything I continued, "See, I just scored some killer weed, and I was thinking maybe we could burn a joint and, you know, bury the hatchet. Somehow things got real ugly between us and I feel like it's mostly my fault. I'm kind of a nutcase but I'm in a good mood today, and it just seems like all the negativity between us is pointless."
As I said all this I could see he was getting it. He looked relieved, frankly. He said, "Oh OK, then. I've got a few papers. You want to go to the park?"
We went over to Wooldridge Square Park, where Christopher sits, and spent several hours talking. I rolled up a couple of fat ones, and busted out the pomegranate wine, which was every bit as good as it sounds. Much as I suspected, Spider and I did have a lot in common, though I have never been in the military or stolen any cars.
We killed the wine and had started in on the rum when I remembered the bag of clonazepam in my pocket, "Hey man," I said, "you want some benzodiazepines?"
"Nah, I don't mess with pills."
"Suit yourself," I said as I washed down three of the pills with a swig of rum. It so happens that I had been eating benzodiazepines like candy for days with no ill effects, and for some reason it didn't occur to me that all the alcohol I had been drinking might alter the equation. The last thing I remember is Spider thanking me for all the drugs and booze, and hopping on his bike to go get cigarettes. I vaguely recall thinking I might as well head over to the library and jump online.
When I came to, I was laying on a bench in Travis County Jail. I had no recollection of being arrested, but there I was bathed in florescent light; surrounded by criminals, concrete, and police. When you get arrested in Austin, you are first taken to central booking to begin the long, painfully slow, transformation from a human being into an inmate. Like everything else in the modern world, this process has been perfected and streamlined for maximum efficiency, and every aspect of the procedure, even seemingly insignificant details, has been measured for specific effect.
Dismayed though I was at this circumstance, my first instinct was intense panic at the absence of my backpack, without which I feel thirty pounds lighter, and quite naked. Despite the pounding in my head, I peeled myself off the bench and walked up to the friendliest looking lady at the circular desk in the middle of the room, "Um, hi there. Say, I hate to disturb you, but I was wondering if I was booked in with a backpack and a computer?"
"Don't worry, hon, we got your computer in property," she said with apparent sympathy. Either I had guessed right, and she was the most human one there, or my generally disheveled state had brought out her mother instincts. I decided to hazard another question, "Oh, that's a relief. Have I been processed yet?"
"Yes sir, you're just waiting for transfer up to your cell. Go ahead and have a seat. It won't be too long."
I went and sat on one of the blue foam chairs in the waiting area. These foam chairs are used in the central booking unit of many jails. They look sort of like love seats people would have in their living rooms, and I believe their purpose is to familiarize the environment; to make it less alien and menacing, if only to keep people calm during the booking process.
As I sat down I noticed that, although I was still wearing my own shirt, I was now wearing a pair of jail issued striped pants. This led me to believe I had pissed myself at some point during the booking procedure. This amused me, though I knew it would be unpleasant to put those pants back on after they had been festering in a plastic bag in property for however long.
But at this point I was still way too fucked up to think seriously about my predicament. My immediate concern was getting up to my cell so I could curl up on my bunk, pull the coarse jail blanket over my head, and forget for as long as possible.
I drifted in and out of consciousness for an indeterminate period of time. There was a television on the wall with a sign under it saying, "Don't Ask To Change The Channel." They were playing a show in which a couple of rednecks went around the country wrestling pigs and exterminating muskrats. One of the rednecks was named "Hogman" if I remember correctly. Finally a Corrections Officer (CO) came in and called us one by one to be transferred to our cells upstairs.
Not our final cells mind you, those would come four days from now and sixteen miles away. But these solitary cells would be our homes for the next 24 hours as we went through the process of being mentally evaluated by the counselors, checked out by the nurses, and arraigned by the magistrate, who would formally read us our charges and set our bail. There is another purpose behind this initial confinement to solitary which is that the prisoners, immediately put into the harshest situation imaginable, will feel they are being liberated when they are finally sent to general population. Until then they are forbidden TV or reading material, are fed only boloney sandwiches, and are not allowed to shower or make phone calls. A dastardly tactic, I would almost admire the calculated psychology behind it if only the goal were not something so pernicious as to make people welcome dehumanizing captivity as though it were a reward to be grateful for.
After sleeping for several hours I was awakened by a counselor who's job it was to evaluate my mental health. They had me fill out a form asking me if I ever heard voices, had I ever been committed, was I on any psyche meds etc..? There was a fill in the blank question at the end of the form asking what I felt I needed most in the world besides getting out of jail. I wrote down, "friendship and love."
The counselor looked at my form and asked me, "How are you feeling today?"
"Pretty depressed, to be honest with you."
"That's understandable. Have you ever considered suicide?"
"Not for myself."
"Are you thinking of harming yourself, or someone else, at this moment?"
"Not at all."
"Ok, you can go back to your cell."
A few hours later I got to talk to the doctor who asked me about my medical history. I explained to him that I had high blood pressure,and would need my medicine if I was going to survive for any length of time. He arranged to have the pills delivered to me with the nurse every morning, thus insuring I would have to be in jail, waiting in a line. He couldn't let me keep them because, if another inmate stole them thinking they could get high on them, they would probably kill themselves, not to mention the havoc I could wreak if I decided to start poisoning people. In jail, security is the maximum directive.
After settling up with the doctor it was back to my cell for several more hours of baloney sandwiches and staring at the wall. I was eventually summoned along with twenty or so other guys to see the magistrate. We were brought into the courtroom and made to sit on a long bench. I was now sober enough to feel fear and trepidation. Although I doubted I'd committed any felonies, I figured I had at least three misdemeanor charges, and one, possession of marijuana, would be a second offense. And for all I knew I may well have been drinking from an open container, trespassing, blocking a public thoroughfare, disturbing the peace, behaving lewdly, or all of the above.
Having a last name that begins with "W," however, ensures that I always get to hear plenty of other cases before mine. The magistrate judge, as it turned out, was a pretty funny guy, and I found myself entertained by the proceeding despite the nervous tension. When he got to one old guy, an obvious drinker, he said, "Mr. Clemson, you have been charged with aggravated assault, your bond is set at thirty thousand dollars. Also, by order of the court, you are forbidden to come withing two hundred yards of Raymond Gutierrez. Do you understand?"
"Ahhh...Never met the guy."
"Do you remember an altercation that happened last Saturday? On Lavaca Street? Involving a baseball bat?"
"That guy. Stay away from him."
Everyone in the courtroom laughed. Laughter, in jail, is like oxygen.
When the judge finally got to me, he said, "You have been charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of marijuana, and public intoxication. Your bond will be set at three thousand dollars. Do you need the court to appoint an attorney"
"Alright, you'll go to court this Friday."
I had been arrested on Monday, and this proceeding took place on Tuesday. This meant that I would have to spend three more nights in jail before I found out how long I would be locked up. This was pure torture for me. Even under the best conditions I have a fretful mind, but to be imprisoned in the face of such uncertainty was agonizing. Possession of a controlled substance is a class "a" misdemeanor, which carries with it a maximum sentence of one year. I knew, of course, that I would not be given the maximum sentence, they simply don't have enough jails built yet, but under circumstances, it didn't seem unlikely that I would be sentenced to several months.
It was with black heart and burdened mind that I went through the final process that would rob me of my individuality. My shirt was taken and exchanged for stripes, my shoes were exchanged for plastic flip-flops, and my number was assigned: 1413844. (work on that for me, numerologists)
Part 2 "Confined"--- The next thing that happened was that I was marched to an elevator
("Face to the back!") and shuttled upward to a cell in a general
This pod would be my home for the next
two nights, and as the door locked behind me and the guard told me my
cell number, the reality fully sunk in. Up until then, I had been
isolated, but now I had to contend with one of the most unpredictable
aspects of the whole jail experience, which is: dealing with other
Don't get me wrong, most criminals are pretty
decent fellows. A lot of them are hard working family men who simply
made a wrong choice. But some of them are dangerous, and you have to be
constantly on your guard. I've seen bloody fights break out over card
games in which the stakes were nothing more than a couple of Ramen
Soups. Captivity breeds aggression.
A "pod" is a locked
unit consisting of a day room surrounded by two tiers of cells. As I
walked in, several inmates sitting at the steel tables bolted in the
middle of the room looked up from their game of cards, and nodded banal
greetings. I inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. I had lucked into a pod
with a low frequency.
I carried the bedding and
toiletries the jail had supplied me with to my cell in the corner. After
making my bed on the cement slab against the wall, and setting up my
bathroom area, I went out into the day room to see what kind of company I
Immediately upon entering, one of the
prisoners, a skinny guy about my age, walked up to me, looked me in the
eyes, extended his hand, and in a welcoming voice said, "Hi. My name is
Now I knew I was in luck. Not only had I
stumbled upon a harmonious pod, but also one which contained at least
one smart inmate. If you ever go to jail, I recommend doing just what he
did, and greet any unfamiliar inmate coming into your living space in
exactly this way.(almost any) You can learn a lot from a guy by
presenting him with the option of civility. I gave this gentlemen
amongst the despondent a firm handshake and said, "Hey man. I'm Mike."
the next two nights I ate, slept, watched tv, read a book about Marlon
Brando, and talked to John. A decent conversation is hard to find in
jail, and I could tell he hadn't had one in a while. As for me, it had
probably been even longer. In this town, the only class of people less
worthy of respect than prisoners, are the homeless.
talked about writing, "I'm kind of a writer too, actually. I was working
on a story a few weeks ago. It's about how the conscious mind locks
itself in, and sets up barriers for itself outside in the world. It
starts with this being, like, writhing around on a platform in a cell,
and a guy walks in, and when he interacts with this being, his conscious
mind, which had been locked up in a cell of it's own, finally becomes
free. I gotta tell you, you've been inspiring me with what you've been
telling me. I'm might pick it up and start working on it again."
talked about fucking up, "My old lady has put up with so much shit from
me. We got a kid, and she's three months pregnant. Everything was going
great until we got a bunch of money a few months ago. I started
thinking, if I could flip it quick, we would be set. Then I started
drinking. If I hadn't been drinking, everything would have been fine. We
got into a fight, and she started trying to rip off my nut sack. I
mean, literally, there was blood dripping down my legs. When the police
showed up, I was so mad that all I wanted to do was get her in trouble.
That's how I got caught. If I'd have played it cool with the cops, I
wouldn't be here now."
But somehow, the subject always
came back around to our cases. The other inmates would give me shit
about having such petty charges, "Hahaha! You're sitting here shitting
your pants over a controlled substance charge. Dude, they caught me with
sixty six grams of heroin. Not point six six grams. Not six point six
grams. Sixty six grams. Do you even know how much heroin that is?"
then. My kids are going to be riding bikes by the time I see them
again. You're looking at a hundred and eighty days. Maximum."
Another inmate spoke up, "I'd say more like sixty days. It's only a class "a," after all."
"Yeah, but he's got a class "b" with a prior," said the first.
"Ah, that would change it then. I see your point."
the same in every jail I've been to: every inmate is in training for
his law career. From the time you get booked, to the time they let you
out, there's no subject more compelling than "The Case."
break up the monotony and give us a chance to exercise, the jailers
would let us onto the roof once a day for outside rec. There was, maybe,
a hundred yard black top you could walk laps on, and a ping-pong table
in the middle. Mostly, we just walked laps. I did get to play a game of
ping-pong with one inmate who was just in from penitentiary. He had done
four years, for what I never found out, and had been awaiting release
when he was expedited at the last minute to Travis County on some old
misdemeanor warrants. Rather than being upset about this, as you would
imagine, the guy was stoked, because he had gotten a free ride home, and
was also living in much nicer conditions than he had been in prison,
"This place is Cadillac," he said as we chased the ping-pong ball all
over the roof, "I got my little room set up. Got my pictures. I can see
the TV from my bed. Don't even have to get up."
"What was it like in penitentiary?"
"It was like a city of pain, man."
the guy was nice enough in this environment, I knew he would be far
more dangerous under other circumstances. He was a predator who was
taking a break for a moment to consider the future. I didn't figure into
The craziest thing about the roof, though,
was that I could see my favorite hill, the one I almost got arrested on
in another story, out in the distance. You can't imagine how tormenting
it was to see that grass, and imagine clearly in my mind what it would
be like to walk on it, but not to be free to do so. Every prisoner has
these little epiphanies of caged suffering from time to time, but few
are able to stare out from confinement at a place they love, "Hey John,
you see that hill with all the graffiti on it out there? That's kind of
where I live."
"I love that place. Used to hang out
there with my girl. You know, the hardest thing about this, for me, is
seeing all you guys just coming in and having to wrap your heads around
it. You see so many guys with a negative attitude. But it's not just
that they have a negative attitude, they want to behave and interact in a
negative way. I can't get over it. Like, why would you want to come
into a place like this and interact in a negative way? It's a negative
environment already. You should try to be positive and take it as easy
After spending two nights in this
temporary housing unit, I was ordered, along with several other
prisoners, to grab my meager belongings, bundle them into my blanket,
and take the elevator back to the first floor, where I was to board a
bus headed for the Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC) in Del
Valle, Texas, sixteen miles, East. In jail, whatever bonds you form are,
by implication, temporary. You live with the knowledge that you can be
moved or transferred at any moment, and when you're told to go, you
don't question it. The environment doesn't lend itself to
sentimentality. But it is rare to find a decent conversation in jail,
and even harder to find anyone you would call, "friend." I hope your
time went easy, man. You remembered the name, right?
Part 3 "Jail On A Bus"--- The most important thing to understand about jail, but the hardest to convey, is the unique flavor of despair that permeates every facet of your existence for the duration of your visit. I'd be surprised if J.K. Rowling has ever been locked up, but all that stuff about the Dementors sapping people's will to live is a dead on allegory for the phenomenon. This darkness is infused into every human interaction, sprays forth from every shower head, is cooked into every morsel of food, and radiates from the florescent lights that the jailers never turn off. In fact, they've even managed to get this feeling onto a bus, and transport it from one place to another.
Around fifty other guys and I were made to sit, once again, in the blue foam chairs of central booking while we waited to be summoned to the bus. After all the inmates had been gathered from various corners of the facility, we were lined up and patted down, then told to partner up to be shackled. I immediately did what I always do, and arranged to get handcuffed to oldest, frailest inmate in the bunch. There are many good reasons to do this. For one, old guys tend to be pretty quiet, at least compared to eighteen year old gang bangers. Less aggressive, too. Most importantly, in the event of a crash, it would be easy to pull his arm off and escape unhindered.
As luck would have it, I got paired up with Mr. Clemson, the old drunk guy I'd seen getting arraigned for hitting someone with a bat. Now he was practically comatose; barely ambulatory. Either he had quit his meds, or was finally back on them. "Hey buddy," I said.
"Ahh, I don't know what time it is."
"Oh? Do you mind if I take the window seat?"
I took that as a, "Yes."
We were taken in twos with our new soul mates to the hanger bay, and told to climb up the steps into the bus. This was made somewhat more difficult on account of being shackled to an old man, but I went slowly so he could keep up. Some other poor guys were getting dragged along with little consideration.
The jail bus looks like a school bus, only white, with tinted windows that allow the inmates to see out, but not for people to see in. The windows are barred with long, iron slats that would be impossible to squeeze through even if you did manage to gnaw off your partner's hand. At the front of the bus is a caged in compartment for the driver, who carries a pistol, and another guard who has a shotgun at the ready. They have to check these weapons in at the front office before entering any jail facility, and pick them up on the way out. Only special, SWAT-like police are allowed to carry guns in jail, and then only in case of a riot. The powers that be know from experience that any weapons allowed in a facility could find their way into the hands of an inmate.
Behind the drivers cage is another set of cages for inmates in red stripes; those who have committed violent or aggravated crimes. Inmates with less serious charges, such as myself were relegated grey stripes, and trustees, inmates who work around the jail, get green, the most desirable color of all.
Old man Clemson and I ended up with seats fairly close to the front of the bus, so I was able to hear the conversation of the one red striped inmate we had on this trip. When they got him in his cage, he looked back at everyone on the bus and saw someone he knew, "Hey, Antonio, you snitch motherfucker. You ratted me out, man. What the fuck?"
"I didn't say nothin'."
"The fuck you didn't. My brother said you was talking to the cops. Why am I in this fucking cage if you didn't say nothin'? Why aint you wearing red stripes?"
"I didn't snitch on no one."
"Yeah, whatever man. Stick to your bullshit. You better not fucking relax, I'll tell you that."
The guards at the front of the bus went about their business impassively. As long as we weren't drawing blood, they didn't give a shit what we said.
One thing I noticed as I looked around was that a disproportionate number of my fellow inmates had gang tattoos all over their necks, arms, and faces. Based on this, I would say, if you want to avoid jail, don't get spider webs or tear drops tattooed anywhere on your body. The police are on to that.
Once everyone was settled in, and the guards had checked out their weapons from the booking desk, they started up the bus and revved the engine. With a deep grinding noise the gigantic three hinged gate that separates the bus hanger from the outside world began to contract. The driver backed us out and, within moments, we were driving on the street; caged men with front row seats to a world we were no longer free to interact with.
For many of the inmates, those who had been locked up for awhile, this ride was an unreserved treat; a chance to look at the sun and feel the simulated freedom of driving down a road. For myself, and I'd wager some of the other new fish, this small pleasure was tinged with deep melancholy and regret for our foolish actions. As we drove by the Austin Public Library, just a few blocks from the jail, all I could think was, "If only I had gone home instead. If only I'd just passed out in my tent."
But such thoughts win you nothing after the fact. You can drive yourself mad contemplating the various what-ifs of a scenario gone awry. To beat yourself up over a mistake is often a mental substitute for honest self-evaluation. A person will believe they are performing an act of contrition when, in fact, they are simply avoiding the work it will take to ensure the same mistakes don't happen again.
Out the window, I saw the same streets I walk every day as clear as a picture, and just as intangible. I saw my favorite drug alleys pass by as if a whisper from another dimension. It was harsh. Meanwhile the other inmates couldn't get over the women, "Oh yeah, Shorty, bend down and pick up them groceries. Remember to lift with your knees, not with your back. That's good body mechanics. Oh yeah baby, pick up that other bag. You killin' me, Shorty, you killin' me."
When we drove by skid row, all the bums around the shelter waved at the passing bus even though they couldn't see us inside through the tinted glass. Everyone waving knew exactly what it was like to be on the other side of the glass. I remembered all the times I had waved at the bus as I was standing around the shelter, wondering when it would be my turn to roll.
Then it was through to the hipper part of 7th Street, east of I-35, with all the cafes and second hand clothing stores. I watched the well adjusted couples with perfect smiles eating light lunches and staring at their cell phones. They looked so happy and carefree in the afternoon sun. "Fuckin' bastards," I thought.
When we got to the freeway the scenery became less interesting, and the atmosphere on the bus became more boisterous. All around me the inmates began to talk about their cases, "My lawyer is a fucking bitch! Said he can't get those motherfuckers to come down from two."
"What, you got a public pretender?"
"No man, that's what I'm saying. I'm paying this motherfucker and he's saying the prosecutor is right, there's no way I can get off with less than two. Says I'm lucky to get that. I don't give a fuck. This don't bother me. I'll just use this place as my personal gym for two years and come out swoll'. Gotta' do the curls for the girls. Fuck man, I can't believe that bitch saying I'm lucky. I wasn't even in the car that night."
For sixteen miles I had to listen to this kind of talk as my cuff-mate drifted in and out of consciousness and occasionally spouted a non-sequitur, "He's over on his bunk, goddammit!"
As we rolled along, I wondered how much it must cost to shuttle inmates from all over Austin to this jail complex in Del Valle. Five hundred dollars a trip? I guarantee you, it's something ridiculous. Would it not make more sense to house misdemeanor defendants in Austin, where proximity to the courts would make for simpler and less costly transport? I knew the place I was being taken to was no Angola, but it was demoralizing to be brought so far from home to a correctional facility in another town.
Eventually, we arrived at the Travis County Correctional Complex, somewhat like a small city dedicated to mental torture. On the outside, no one refers to the place as the TCCC, but instead to the city in which it resides, "You better stop smoking that crack pipe. They gonna put your ass on the bus to Del Valle." (pronounced Dell Valley)
The complex, which was opened in 1977, consists of twelve inmate housing units, along with various administrative buildings. Our bus pulled up to the front office and, after a brief pause for the deputies to check in their guns, we went for a guided tour of the complex as we stopped at every housing unit, dropping off a few inmates at each along the way.
Some of the units are better than others, and inmates are assigned housing based on their security risk, as well as the severity of their charges. Our red striped inmate, for example, was taken from his cage and sent into building two, where he would be locked in his cell for twenty three hours a day. Can you imagine?
As he was leaving he called back to the guy who had ratted him out, "Don't start to relax over in number four, you punk. Don't drop your guard for a minute. The second you start watching some TV and eating your little cookies, Bap Bap Bap Bap! My people's gonna fuck you up."
"Come on," said the guard in an impatient tone, leading him down the steps, and into the unholy recesses of building two.
Each of the buildings has connected to it a small fenced in yard area surrounded by razor wire. Some of the rec. yards have basketball hoops, others have volleyball nets, but the razor wire around all the yards is festooned with the limp remains of the cloth covered, Nerf-like balls the jail supplies to the inmates. I imagined all the curses, and probably beatings, that must have resulted from all those ruined balls, now left to fade in the sun.
After going through the entire complex, and offloading most of the other inmates on the bus, we finally made it to the minimum security unit I would be housed in: building twelve. We were called by name, and told to exit the bus. We were marched, still shackled, down the steps, through the iron door, and into The Ministry of Love.
Part 4 "My Day in Court" ---
We walked down the stairs into a small receiving room with a metal
detector in the corner. A guard came down the line and unshackled us
from our cuff buddies. I was happy to be independent of old man
Clemson, an autonomous entity once again. He seemed indifferent. He
even walked beside me for a few more paces before realizing the
implications of our separation and falling into line.
We filed through the
metal detector and out into a vast cement corridor, perhaps a
thousand yards in length. We were told to put our bed rolls on the
floor and to turn around and face the wall. The guards patted us down
and rifled through the meager belongings stowed in our blankets. When
we were told to turn back around, I saw that they'd taken the sheet I
had brought with me from Austin and replaced it with a much shorter
I had no time to
ponder the logic of this deprivation, as I was immediately instructed
by a CO to go down the hall to Unit C-3, where I would be housed for
the remainder of my incarceration. I began down the corridor with
several other inmates who filtered out as we passed their units.
Painted all along the wall in big red letters were warnings and
threats, “Keep Hands Behind Back At All Times When Walking In The
Hall!”, “If A CO Says, 'Wall,' Turn And Face The Wall
Immediately!”, and “NO TALKING IN THE HALL!”
The stark poetry of
fascism. I had to admit it was a nice touch.
After walking about
five hundred yards down this creepy hallway, we came to Unit C, the
sealed door to which opened immediately upon our arrival, as though
by the control of some invisible, though all-seeing, entity. We then
had to wait as the Floor Sargent working the control panel in the
center of the room opened the doors to our specific pods. When the
door to Pod 3 opened, I stepped inside my new home, full of
expectation and wonder.
The pod I walked
into was a large room, surrounded by two tiers of cells, with eight
or nine steel tables bolted in the middle. At the far end there was a
row of toilets next to three steel shower stalls. One of the toilets
had a hand written sign above it that said “Pisser Only!” There
were stairs leading up to the top tier of cells which had it's own
toilets and showers. On the other end of the room was a row of
phones, including several equipped with video monitors for “cam
visits,” which a family member could arrange on the jail's website
for fifteen dollars.
As I was taking in
the strangeness of this concept, I saw something that seemed even
more alien to the jail environment: a computerized touch screen
kiosk. This, I would discover, is how inmates at Del Valle order
their “commissary,” food and hygiene items that the jail allows
them to buy at exorbitant prices. In all other jails I've been to,
inmates ordered their commissary items by filling out a form with a
pencil. Here they set up an account with a password and browsed the
slick interface for deodorant and ramen soups. It was a bitter-sweet
reminder that, although I was incarcerated, I was still living in the
There were two large, flat screen televisions on either side of the day room, one
always tuned to a Spanish language channel, the other always to
English. In order to hear the televisions you had to buy a small,
transparent radio from the commissary (batteries not included) and
tune it into a special jail frequency. Frankly, I preferred the
silence, not that I could have bought a radio anyway. While those who
sell drugs may get booked with money, those who merely possess drugs
are likely to have spent it.
As a new arrival, I
went over to check in with the Desk Sargent, a CO that sits in the
unit twenty four hours a day, (in shifts, of course) addressing the
inmate's needs, and keeping an eye on things. He is constantly being
watched on cameras by the Floor Sargent, who is constantly being
watched by the Building Supervisor. He reports to some other guy who
oversees multiple buildings, and if a riot breaks out, he can call
the SWAT police to roll in with the tear gas and rubber bullets.
Mostly the Desk Sargent counts people and gives them aspirin. He
spends a lot of time explaining that he doesn't know when you're
going to court.
The CO on
duty was a short guy with glasses, about ten years younger than I. He
asked my name and number, and told me to go to Cell 1, right next to
the toilets: a blessing and a curse.
It just so happened
that I had arrived when the pod was on lock-down, though to call it
that is a bit misleading, as none of the cells in Building 12 of the
TCCC have bars or doors of any kind. They consist of cinder-block
walls standing only four feet high, making it easy for the Desk
Sargent to see what's going on, but also making it easy for inmates
to pass things from one cell to another. There are four cots to a
cell, each bolted to a corner, and a small area to walk around in
between. Most of the time inmates are free to move about the day
room, play cards, watch television, and exercise, but four times a
day they are instructed to “Rack up!,” which is to say, go to
their cells and be quiet. Arriving at lock-down meant that I would
get to meet all of my cell mates at once.
As I've explained,
this is a make-or-break moment. The ease or difficulty of your
incarceration depends in large part on the quality of your
cell-mates. I've spent jail time that was far more unpleasant than it
had to be simply because I had the misfortune of being assigned
asshole cellies. For me, this is perhaps the most brutal aspect of
jail: being forced into close proximity with people I would otherwise
I was relieved to
see that my situation appeared ideal: three subdued looking guys, all
my age or older, and only one of them with gang tattoos. The two
younger fellows were working on some kind of writing project
together, and the older guy with the tats was sitting on his bunk,
drawing a picture of a broken heart. The worst case scenario would
have been to walk into a cell full of teenage gang bangers. You can't
even generalize them, because some are perfectly decent fellows, but
they are wild-cards at best. Older gang members have never given me
any trouble, either because they no longer feel they have anything to
prove, or because they're bored of the whole charade and just want to
do their time in peace.
I walked in, nodding
hello to everyone, and immediately started making my bed. As I was
struggling with the bogus sheet the guards had stuck me with, the
older guy laughed and said, “Those fucking pricks shorted you,
“Yeah man, what's
up with that?”
“Who knows? They
do shit at random. I gave up trying to figure it out years ago.
What're you in for cellie?”
“Possession of a controlled substance, possession of
marijuana, and public
“Let's see, that's
an A, a B, and a C. You pretty much covered all the bases. It's a
good thing you didn't get any further into the alphabet.”
“Yeah, I get
pretty stupid when I'm drinking sometimes.”
“I got the same
problem. That's why I'm in here right now. If only I could fucking go
back in time.”
“It's too late now
I guess. I like your drawing.”
“Oh, thanks. I'm
going to mail it to my old lady. I call her my Fat Girl. It's a
broken heart, and across the top I'm gonna write, 'I'm broken hearted
without my Fat Girl.'”
“How long you been
“Only two weeks in
this cell. I was over in Building 9 for three months, but they moved
me for some reason. I don't get out until July.”
“Yeah, I miss my
kids so much. I got a three year old and a six month old. He's going
to be a one year old by the time I see him again.”
“Can't they come
“Well, not really.
It's kind of complicated because my girl has a restraining order
I decided to turn
the conversation back to my own case, “So what kind of time do you
think I'm looking at?”
“Depends on what
judge you get. Probably ninety days. A hundred and eighty at the
most.” He said it like a hundred and eighty days in jail was
inconsequential, a trivial amount of time. All throughout my
incarceration, I met men who were far more accustomed to the idea of
spending months behind bars than I ever hope to be. The conventional
approach of the convict is to make as though no amount of time will
faze him, which is a reasonable philosophy only after you've been
sentenced. For me, any amount of jail time is like poison for the
soul. Maybe I'm sensitive.
“I wonder when
I'll go to court.”
tomorrow. If not tomorrow it'll be Monday for sure. Looks like it's
almost chow time. I'm Victor, by the way.”
“Mike.” I shook
hands with him and the other two guys, who as it turns out didn't
speak English. One of them was from Mexico, and the other from
Guatemala. Victor told me that the other Chicano gang members didn't
like him because he refused to “blast” with them, meaning he
wouldn't participate in gang activity. Instead he hung out with the
Mexicans and South Americans, who had bad blood with the Chicano
gangs. “Why do they dislike each other?” I asked him over our
baloney sandwiches and canned pineapple chunks.
Mexicans...except they're not all really Mexican. A lot of them came
from Argentina, Guatemala, Columbia, and came through Mexico to cross
the boarder. But anyway, the Mexicans don't like the Chicanos because
they think we're all lazy and just want to sell drugs and rob people.
They came here to work. And the Chicanos think the Mexicans are
stupid chumps for not selling drugs and robbing people. So the South
Americans stick together and the Chicanos stick together, and the
Chicanos don't like me because I hang out with everybody. I'm not
trying to be involved with all that stupid shit.”
“Say, that reminds
me, I saw you had a tablet of writing paper in there. I'll trade you
my blueberry muffin for a couple of pieces of paper and one of those
“Nah, you don't
have to give me your muffin. I'll give you some paper.”
“That's great. I
haven't been able to write since I've been in here.”
“You gonna write
to your family?”
“No, I'm going to
write down everything that's happened since I got arrested.”
After dinner I sat
on my bunk and spent several hours writing the first part of this
story. For the rest of my incarceration, I kept my notes near at hand
trying to jot down every interesting thing I heard someone say.
Whether it's drawing, playing chess, or betting on cards, you need to
find something to occupy your mind, unless you really, really like
As I was trying to
go to sleep that night, I was restless and pensive, unable to stop
thinking about my impending court date. I kept running through my
mind the possible outcomes, and imagining the coping mechanisms I
would use to get through the worst case scenario. The numbers I kept
hearing from other inmates were ninety and a hundred and eighty. I
told myself, if I got the six months, I'd write constantly, from dawn
until dusk, taking breaks only to eat and do push-ups. I would
structure my days as rigidly as an army cadet, and achieve states of
altered consciousness through fasting and meditation. And jail-house
swill, if there was any available. By the time I dozed off, I had
myself convinced that being locked up was the best thing that had
ever happened to me.
After breakfast the
next morning, I waited nervously for the 8 o'clock court call. I got
to see two episodes of Rob Dyrdek's ghastly show “Ridiculousness,”
before they finally called my name, along with several others,
letting us know we should get ready to take the bus back to Austin
Yes, that's correct,
I spent just one night in Del Valle before boarding a bus straight
back to the very same complex I had been housed at the day before. To
make the logic even more perplexing, consider that, even if I were
pronounced not guilty and released by the court, I would still have
to ride the bus back to Del Valle, return to my cell, and await
release from the TCCC after all my paperwork had been filed. Luckily,
as a homeless inmate I would be eligible to receive a bus pass back
to civilization upon my release. If I'd given the police a current
address, I would've been forced to find my own ride back to Austin.
We tried to make
ourselves look presentable and took seats at the tables nearest the
door. At 8 o'clock a guard came in and told us to line up against the
wall. After we got into place he said, “OK, go ahead and pat
There was confused
silence for a moment before he repeated, “I'm serious, go ahead and
pat yourselves down.”
“If you say so.” We went through the motions of patting ourselves
down and the guard, an absurdest comedian apparently, asked, “Are
yall clean? Did you find any contraband?”
talking in the hall.”
This trip on the
jail bus was somewhat more tense than the last, partly because
everyone was nervous about court, and partly because I had failed to
get shackled to an old man, but had instead wound up with a burned
out hippie dude from California. As the driver went to get his gun
from the front office, the kid looked at me and said, “Do you think
he's got a nine millimeter or a .45?”
“I don't know.”
“I don't think
he's man enough for the .45. I think he's got a nine millimeter to go
with his nine millimeter hair. Do you prefer Super Nintendo or Sega
Nintendo is superior in many ways, but the Genesis is my personal
favorite. It has mythic resonance.”
“I got busted for
smoking sticks down by the creek. I need to hitchhike back to
California. The churches feed up nice out there. You should move to
“Nah, I wouldn't
know what to do with all that peace and love.”
This might sound
like pleasant enough conversation, but the guy kept zoning out and
repeating the same things over and over again for the entire trip. It
got old quick.
There was one guy on
the bus who had just signed for eight years in penitentiary for some
unknown charge, and was going to misdemeanor court to get some
smaller charges incorporated into the time he was already serving. He
was telling his story as loudly as possible to anyone who cared to
listen, “OH MAN AM I HAPPY. THIS IS THE HAPPIEST DAY OF MY LIFE.
YOU NEVER SEEN ANYONE SO HAPPY TO SIGN FOR EIGHT YEARS! AT FIRST THEY
WERE TELLING ME TWENTY YEARS, AND MY LAWYER TOLD ME TO WAIT AND SEE
IF WE COULD GET IT REDUCED. THEN THEY SAID TEN YEARS, AND MY LAWYER
SAID I SHOULD TAKE IT. I SAID, 'FUCK NO, I AINT TAKIN' IT. I'M GONNA
TALK TO THE JUDGE AND TRY TO REASON WITH THAT MOTHERFUCKER.' THEM
DOUBLE DIGETS SCARED THE FUCK OUT OF ME. WHEN I GOT IN FRONT OF THE
JUDGE, I SAID, 'YOUR HONOR, WHY DON'T YOU SHOW ME SOME MERCY AND
REDUCE THE TIME. I'M A YOUNG MAN, ONLY TWENTY ONE YEARS OLD. I STILL
GOT SOME LIFE IN ME YET. CUT ME A BREAK YOUR HONOR.' THE JUDGE SAID,
'WELL, YOU'RE A VERY WELL SPOKEN YOUNG MAN, AND I'M GOING TO TAKE
THAT INTO CONSIDERATION.' AND HE TURNED AROUND AND DROPPED IT DOWN TO
EIGHT! I SIGNED THAT PAPER LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER. FUCKIN' EIGHT YEARS
AINT NOTHIN'. THIS DON'T EVEN BOTHER ME. I KNOW MY GIRL GONNA BE OUT
THERE FUCKIN' OTHER GUYS, BUT THERE AINT NOTHIN' I CAN DO ABOUT
THAT. AS LONG AS SHE BRING ME MY MONEY, I DON'T GIVE A FUCK WHAT SHE
The hippie guy
looked at me and said, “I got busted for smoking sticks down by the
creek. I need to hitchhike back to California. The churches feed up
nice out there. You should move to Santa Cruz.”
Eventually we rolled
back through downtown Austin and into the courthouse. We were taken
off the bus, unshackled, and, after waiting in a holding cell for
over an hour, we were taken into the courtroom and made to sit on a
long bench in the front row. “Do not talk during court. Do not
attempt to communicate with anyone in the courtroom other than your
attorney. If you are caught trying to communicate with anyone, your
court date will be reset. Good luck.”
The judge was
already there, and the courtroom was bustling with activity. Dozens
of lawyers were walking around from client to client trying to
resolve as many cases as possible. I sat waiting for my
court-appointed attorney to arrive, and tried not to look like I was
communicating with anyone.
Looking around, I
saw that one old guy had hit a snag. It turned out that the man,
maybe seventy, was from Africa, and only spoke Swahili. He was in on
a simple trespassing charge, but the court didn't have any
interpreters on hand who could speak the language. As soon as they
got the call saying the interpreter wouldn't be able to appear that
day, they told the judge, who promptly reset the man's court date and
sent him back to the holding cells to wait for the bus. The African
tried to explain himself in Swahili, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, the guy
looking at eight years was telling his attorney of his triumph over
the system. The attorney laughed and said, “You're pretty smart
with your legal skills there. Sometimes the clients know better than
The inmate beamed with
pride, and I thought, “Jesus Christ buddy, I have to ride home with
Finally my lawyer
arrived. He was a big man with glasses and, like many defense
attorneys I've known, he had a bizarrely unique way of carrying
himself. Defense attorneys are a tribe-like sect, and part of their
code appears to be flamboyant dress, unusual speech mannerisms, and
slightly outlandish facial hair. As I met this one, I was filled with
anticipation and dread, for it was he who would ultimately tell me my
“Hi there sir, I'm
Ken Gestron, your court-appointed lawyer. I see you have a couple of
possession charges. I haven't been in to see to the prosecutors yet,
haven't even looked at the discovery on your case, so let me go in
there and talk to them, and see if I can get up to speed. I'll be
back in a few minutes and let you know what's happening.”
This was a
disappointment. In the past, my court appointed attorneys had always
talked to the prosecutors before coming and talking to me. Whatever
the prosecutor recommends, or can be bargained down to, is ninety
nine times out of a hundred what the judge is going to sentence you
with. I sat and waited. I noticed that the judge had a big nose.
After a very long
ten minutes, Ken returned to give me the scoop, “OK, it says here
that the police saw you sleeping in a public place, decided to check
on you to make sure you were alright, and determined that you were
intoxicated. In the subsequent search, they discovered the controlled
substances. Does that pretty much jibe with your recollection of what
I didn't have any
recollection of what happened, but in order to speed things along I
said yes. “Well, I've convinced the prosecutors to quash the
controlled substance charge. It can't be used to convict you. It can
still be used for other purposes, but as far as this case is
concerned, the charge is dead. On the possession of marijuana charge,
I managed to talk her down to fifteen days. You're getting “state
time,” which means you'll get two days of credit for every day you
serve. You should be released on Monday. Does that sounds like a deal
you would be interested in?”
“Yes! I'll take
it. Thank you so much.” I said, reaching out to shake his hand for
a second time. I almost got up and gave him a hug, but the court
deputy was already giving me the eye. “Don't mention it,” he
said, “When the judge calls your name, walk up in front of the
bench and keep your hands behind your back. When he asks you what
your plea is, tell him, 'No contest.' Do you understand?”
“I got it Ken.
When the judge
called my name, I walked up to the bench. He asked how I was doing and
I said, “Reasonably well sir, and yourself?” My attorney gave me
a panicked look that suggested improvisation was inadvisable, but the
judge smiled and said, “Very well, thank you for asking. OK sir,
you've been charged with possession of a controlled substance and
possession of marijuana. It is my understanding that the state has
agreed to quash the controlled substance charge. Did your lawyer
explain the implications of that?”
I said yes, but he
went over the implications anyway, in what seemed excessive detail.
Basically, the charge is still on my record, but can never be used to
get a conviction. Then he asked me how I was pleading on the
marijuana charge. I said “No Contest” and he replied, “OK, the
state has recommended a sentence of fifteen days. I'm going to take
that recommendation and sentence you as such. Don't forget to go down
to community court after you get out and take care of your public
“I will, sir.”
And that was it. My
attorney told me to go through the door back towards the holding
cells, and the guards locked me up to await transport back to the
TCCC. I, and almost everyone else around me in the cell felt like a
million bucks. It was smiles and nods of approval all around. It's
always like that in the holding cell after misdemeanor court. Most of
the inmates would be getting out that night.
As for me, I had
three more nights to serve in Del Valle. Compared to the months I had
mentally prepared for, that was quite an improvement. I have no way
of knowing if what the defense attorney had arranged was remarkable
or routine, but it goes to show that you should always take the
predictions of other inmates with a grain of salt. And, of course,
much depends on the agenda of the prosecutor, who I'm assuming had
bigger fish to fry.
I only got to
reflect on the situation for a minute before the door opened, “AWW
YEAH, YOU KNOW WHAT MY LAWYER TOLD ME? SAID, 'YOU SMARTER THAN THE
ATTORNEYS, SON.' SAID, 'YOU DID THE RIGHT THING TO WAIT.' YALL OUGHTA
HIRE ME TO REPRESENT YALL IN YALL CASES. I'D DO A BETTER JOB THAN
THESE BITCH ASS PUBLIC DEFENDERS, THAT'S FOR DAMN SURE. SAID, 'YOU
SMARTER THAN A LAYWER.' SAID, 'YOU DID THE RIGHT THING.'”
But there was a
weary undertone to his rhetoric that suggested he was merely going
through the motions. On the bus ride back, he grew quiet and
introspective, staring out the window at the passing scenery with a
wistful look in his eyes. I could feel those eight years weighing on
him. I wondered what kind of man he would be when he was released in
2021, and how many times he would have repeated the story of the
attorney who told him he was smarter than a judge. He's in there
telling it to someone right now, as I'm telling it to you.
Part 5 "Released" --- A typical day at the Travis County Correctional Complex begins at 4 AM, before the sun has risen, with the summons to breakfast. The ubiquitous fluorescent lights go from dim to bright, and the familiar call rings throughout the pod, “Chow time!” Inmates, many of whom have only just gone to sleep, rise groggily from their mats and mill about their cell doors waiting to be called out for their trays. Two inmates are selected at random to dispense the trays, and get second helpings for their trouble.
The bartering and trading begins even before the meals are uncovered. Inmates who have been in for any length of time are already quite familiar with the menu, and most have the daily schedule memorized. “I got a milk and a muffin for a scrambled egg.”
“I got a soup for a sausage patty.”
“I got two milks for sausage and eggs.”
“I got a muffin for a milk.”
“A muffin for a milk?! What kind of weak bullshit is that?”
“I gotta try.”
Though trading of food items is technically against jail policy, it is done openly at all hours of the day and night, whether the guards are paying attention or not. They look the other way, because the jail's miniature economy is amongst the only things these men have to keep them sane. A person takes comfort in knowing they have some means of bettering their situation through active participation and choice.
Before the inmates were allowed to have caffeinated coffee, I'm told breakfast could be a harrowing experience, and even still it was unwise to get in anyone's way. As Victor and I sat down at the table nearest the television, one of the gang members came up, and said, “This is our table.” as though even a child would know it. Victor said, quite amiably I thought, “Oh OK. Let's go grab another table, cellie.”
Though he was peaceable about it at the time, he told me later that he'd felt slighted, “That guy was trying to punk me. He's trying to say I'm not one of them because I don't play their reindeer games. I wanted to pop him in the fucking mouth. But I gotta stay out of trouble.”
Jail food is cheap and of poor quality. For breakfast one might get a scoop of eggs, a sausage patty, a scoop of oatmeal, a small carton of milk, and a muffin, which isn't really a muffin, but a muffin-like disk, often referred to as a “hockey puck.” The most consistent thing about the food is it's total lack of nutrition. After just a few days I was feeling weak and nauseous, with a general sense of malaise. Everyone was in agreement, however, that the eggs were delicious.
After breakfast, the vast majority of the prisoners go back to sleep. Usually only those with trustee duty will still be up in the day room waiting to be called out for work. It is assumed by many inmates that the early breakfast is just another arbitrary torture of the state, but in fact, it is simply so they can get as much work out of their slave labor force as possible. For the rest of the prisoners, night-time is only halfway over, as the florescent lights once again dim, and the snoring commences.
I did very little sleeping in the three days after I had been sentenced, usually spending the time between breakfast and wake-up call either writing down everything I heard, or reading my Marlon Brando book for the tenth time. It was a grim prospect, but as far as I could tell, it was the only non-fiction book in the Travis County jail system. Their are few things more depressing than sitting in jail and reading a John Grisham novel, a thing I'd been forced to do in the past. “Runaway Jury,” in the same jail, two years prior. It was harsh. I'd rather read the instructions to a board game I don't own. But it was better than nothing.
It was hard to concentrate though, because my Guatemalan cell-mate had the loudest snore of any human being I've ever encountered. It was supernatural. There was a lot of variety in timber and tone, sometimes achieving high F in a trumpet-like register, and other times reminiscent of the lower notes on a trombone. He was a one-man brass band playing the same song for hours on end. I sat in the dark and marveled at him in silent dismay, as I would an erupting volcano, or the winds of Patagonia.
At eight o'clock the lights would once again intensify, and the televisions would spring to life, signalling that it was OK to leave our cells and move about the day room. The more industrious inmates would head to the steel shower stalls, taking care not to look too closely at the poor fellows trying to take a dump in the semi-private commodes. Other inmates would go out to the yard to exercise or play ball.
The Travis County Correctional Complex is the only county jail I've ever been to, in which inmates have unrestricted access to the yard. An enclosed area of maybe two hundred square feet, walled in with cement, and covered with steel mesh; the only thing separating the day room from the yard is a metal door that remains unlocked at all hours of the day. The inmates are called in for lockdown or bad weather, but other than that, they are free to come and go as they like.
Activity is sparse in the mornings, and many inmates sleep until lunch. I love television, but only if I get to pick the channel. The jail televisions were always tuned to reality shows, low-brow comedies, ultimate fighting contests, or telenovelas. I would certainly have found myself impatient for lunch had my cell-mate Victor not always offered me a cup of coffee: the convict's drug of little choice. In the absence of all other stimulation, caffeine is a powerful force.
Lunch arrives at ten thirty, and this is when the cell block truly awakens for the day. Inmates line up as before and go through the rituals. Baloney and cheese was not uncommon, though sometimes you would luck out with meat-based gruel. To add to the variety of their diets, many prisoners devise cooking techniques of stunning inventiveness, unknown to professors of the finest culinary institutes. In other lock-ups I'd been to, ones where the inmates were less supervised, jail-house gourmands would call on all the resources at their disposal, using ingenuity and the power of science to bring their gastronomic creations to life. In Orleans Parish Prison, I once saw some guys start a fire in a sink with batteries and toilet paper, using aluminum foil to conduct the heat. They kept it burning with hand sanitizer as they roasted foil-wrapped hot-pockets they'd made out of mashed up bread, and filled with ground meatloaf. It came out piping hot, and looked fantastic.
Such advanced techniques are not possible at the TCCC, where prisoners are under 24 hour surveillance, so instead they turn to that most enduring staple of jail-house cuisine: the spread. A “spread” is a kind of Ramen Noodle-based casserole, made with whatever ingredients the inmates can gather from commissary and their three meals of the day. Velveeta cheese and summer sausages are both frequent additions, though exotic elements such as peanut butter are not unknown. The ingredients are put onto a sheet of plastic which is picked up from the sides and folded into a bag. It's then filled with just the right amount of the hottest water the inmates can acquire, and shaken vigorously about. Care is taken to make sure no water escapes during the process. When the mixture is done, the inmates spread the plastic back out onto a table, steam rising from the mountain of edible glop, and scoop it up into whatever bowls are at their disposal, often converted soda bottles. There are many interpretations of the spread throughout the country, and if one travels, they can become familiar with the various regional nuances. In Texas, for example, the glop is often spooned into tortillas.
As for me, I was very thankful that my cell mates insisted on including me in their communal spread every day, even though I had little to contribute.
After lunch the games begin. The tables are cleared off, and many inmates wrap the tops in bed sheets to provide a more comfortable playing surface. Cards are the mainstay, being cheap, easy to maintain, and usable in an infinite number of variations. Gambling games are not allowed, so spades and rummy take up the slack. The players taunt each other mercilessly, with more than one fight having broken out over a card laid down with a bit too much “Thwack!” I'll leave it to you to guess whether or not secret bets are made under the table despite the prohibition.
Myself, I'm a chess player, so on the first day I instinctively gravitated to one of the two games I saw striking up in the corner, and took my place around the table with the other kibitzers. I saw immediately that one man was dominating the action, a muscular black guy who had been in the military and went by the name of True. I came to find out in the following days that True was something of a mover and shaker around the pod, often directing well attended exercise regimens in the yard, and presiding over the bizarre prayer circles at night. He had been friendly and outgoing with me, and invited me to come sit and play a game any time, “I can see you watching. I know you want to play.” An obvious alpha male, the other inmates looked up to and respected True, but for the life of them, they could not trap his king.
After watching him play a few games, I knew that I could. On the second night, when the inmates convened to play, I walked up to the table where True was already sitting, and said, “You ready for that game?” Smelling fresh blood, he gave a predatory grin, and said, “Have a seat.”
The openings were simple and uneventful, some give and take, but neither of us making any obvious mistakes. He was a good player, but the weak competition he'd been dealing with had made him soft and complacent. He'd gotten into the habit of moving his queen out quite early, and then charging into his opponent's ranks when they had yet to detect the danger. I knew there was a good chance he would try to use this maneuver on me.
He soon began foreshadowing his intentions. Nearing mid-game he moved his queen to the center of the board, where she appeared to have a great deal of unrestricted mobility. I struggled to conceal my excitement as I moved a pawn onto a strategically significant, but unprotected square. I was casual about it, but inwardly I was begging him to take the bait. As predicted, on the very next move he darted his queen across the board and captured the undefended pawn, assuming I'd neglected to consider the implications of his recently mobilized queen. Believing he had me at a material disadvantage, and queen-deep within my territory besides, he allowed himself an exclamation of triumph, “Ha! Didn't see that coming, did you?”
I showed no emotion, just moved my knight out of the way. He examined the board, first with anticipation, then with concern, then with mounting dread. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he made the calculations, examining every possibility, but his fate had already been decided. On the next move, no matter what he did, he was losing his queen. He could conceivably still beat me without his most powerful piece, of course, but I'd seen how he'd relied on her and built his strategies around her. I knew he would be lost without her.
And he was, nine turns later. After a bloody battle of attrition that need not be recounted here, I used my own queen to crowd his king into a corner, systematically cutting off all his options before finally slipping my rook into place, and uttering my two favorite words in the English language, “Check mate.”
He groused a bit, making some noise about not being fully awake, but he shook hands and gave proper respect, “You really got me there. I didn't remember you moving that bishop over to the edge like that. You must play out in the world, huh?”
“Yeah, I play pretty often.” I told him, but in truth, he was my first human opponent in two and a half years. I'd spent all the time in between getting my ass handed to me by computers.
It was a moment of great triumph, but in jail, any victories are short lived. No matter what an inmate thinks he has going on in his life, when the guards call, “Lockdown!” he must drop whatever he's doing and go immediately to his cell, where he must remain dormant until the guards say otherwise. The mood during lockdown is like nothing so much as a preschool at nap time. Though talking and moving about the cell is permitted, the COs will tolerate only so much noise before they bestow even harsher punishments, such as turning off the televisions.
One thing no movie or book could ever convey, is the amount of time an inmate sits blankly doing nothing. The soul crushing boredom is the main thing about the experience. In such situations, locked with hundreds of other men in a mind numbing stir, some guys become professional comedians just to stay alive. Spurned by the mania of isolation, I've seen average Joes become masters of the craft in a matter of days.
In our pod, the resident comedian was a big redneck from El Paso named Buford Dagget, who was in for beating his wife. He was in Cell 2, right next door to mine. On the first lockdown of my first day, I was laying down on my plastic bed, trying not to panic, when I heard his booming drawl from the other side of the four foot tall cement wall that separates the cells, “You know what really sucks about these cells? The ceilings aint even high enough for you to hang yourself. You know those motherfuckers did that on purpose. The best chance you got, is to go up on the second tier, tie a bed sheet around one of the railings, and jump off. Probably wouldn't break your neck. Just hang there floppin' around until the CO comes and cuts ya down. Maybe get an audio asphyxiation thing going and splooge on him.” That might not sound like professional quality stand-up, but Buford knew his audience. Suicide humor is big in jail.
Sometimes he would keep up a continuous monologue to no one in particular, and it was hard to tell if he was being serious or not, "They used to have a monkey at the farmer's market who would smoke cigarettes and beg for quarters. You could pay a dollar and get your picture taken with it. Cutest little bastard you ever saw. They eventually shot that monkey for some reason. Goddamn, I need some pussy juice and a straw!"
His prime objective in life was trading food. He was trying to pawn off the peanut butter and jelly tray he would be served for dinner on Sunday night, as early as Thursday afternoon, and probably much earlier than that, “I got a peanut butter tray on Sunday for two soups and a honey bun.”
“Man, you aint never gonna get up off that peanut butter tray, Dagget.” taunted his cell-mate.
“I got a peanut butter tray on Sunday for a spaghetti tray tomorrow.”
“You know you're gonna be eattin' that peanut butter tray. Aint no one gonna take it as a matter of principal.”
“I got a peanut butter tray on Sunday for a Snickers.”
“I hope you getting' hungry for your peanut butter tray.”
“I got a peanut butter tray on Sunday for a milk tomorrow morning.”
“You better save your own milk to wash down that peanut butter tray, Dagget, you redneck-ass motherfucker.”
Such witty repartee goes a long way towards lightening the load of the incarcerated. I have been in very few, truly humorless, jails.
After lockdown on the afternoon of my last full day, I made an instant coffee and went out to the yard to watch a game of wallball: A variation of handball played with the soft, cloth covered balls that the jail provides. Wallball was by far the most popular game in the yard, beating it's closest competitor, basketball, by a wide margin. One of the players would serve the ball by hitting it at the wall with all his might, then the other would return the shot, and they would go back and forth until one of them scored a point, playing to seven. Points were awarded according to a complicated system that I never fully understood. If one player missed the ball, the other scored, but there were all kinds of arcane rules about what happened if the ball hit the water fountain or the search lights. One inmate acted as the referee, selecting who would play the winner, and yelling, “Ball up!” when it was time to serve. He settled any disputes regarding the score, but there didn't really seem to be any. Apparently I was the only one there without a refined knowledge of the game, and I suppose if I was a worse criminal, I would know now also.
I went over to the sidelines and sat down on my towel by some other spectators. A muscular and wiry Mexican named Diego was on a seemingly unbeatable winning streak, knocking out the competition like Mike Tyson in his prime. He didn't seem to be using too much strategy, he didn't need to. He hit the ball with such force that some of the guys were dodging out of the way rather than trying to return his shots. He wasn't being gracious in victory either, brushing aside the congratulations and handshakes of his vanquished foes with brazen disregard.
It seemed no one could touch him, until a stocky and weathered Guatemalan of maybe fifty five stood up from the sidelines and started taking off his florescent orange shirt. Murmurs of “Corazon” from around the yard. “Let's see if he can take on Corazon.”
The grizzled Guatemalan walked up to the playing field and reached out for a pre-game fist bump from Diego. Showing the older man a respect he had denied the other players, he touched gloves and tossed him the ball. The referee yelled, “Ball up!” and Corazon let it fly.
It was fascinating to see how his technique differed from Diego's. He could hit the ball every bit as hard, but rather than doing so every time, he used subtle strategy, taking advantage of the convoluted point system. He would bank shots off the corners in such a way that the ball would fall to the ground robbed of it's kinetic energy, putting Diego on his toes, and forcing him to dive for the rebounds. As he began scoring points, I could see the younger man getting frustrated. He was holding his own, but he started playing angry and making mistakes, which the grizzled old Guatemalan was a wizard of exploiting. Diego began yelling and cursing every time he lost a point, causing the referee to counsel him, “You can't win every time, bro.”
“I can try!” said the oblivious Diego.
When they were down to game point, Diego took the serve and gave it his traditional all-or-nothing approach. Corazon had to jump to catch it, returning with his own quick volley, trying to catch Diego off guard after the serve. They went back and forth, running and jumping for the ball as it ricocheted all around the courtyard. With Corazon on the ropes, it was looking like the younger man's ferocity might win out, but he eventually overestimated a shot, sending the ball on a wild trajectory towards an area that was out of bounds. The old man recognized it instantly, and moved deftly out of the way, as the ball fell limply onto the edge of the basketball court, cloth cover tearing away to reveal the foam rubber within.
The yard went wild, applauding as though they were at an outdoor arena. It had been a world class display of athleticism and tactical oneupmanship. The proud young Mexican yelled, “Fuck!” taking off his rubber flip-flops and throwing them to the ground. “Fucking bullshit jail shoes.” he complained. It seemed he was ignominious is defeat as well as victory.
Corazon, on the other hand, had the luxury of a victor's grace. He ambled over to his bested competitor, holding out his hand for a shake. Despite his fury, Diego once again relented and gave the older man his due.
It was the most entertaining sporting event I've ever attended. I feel lucky to have been there.
When it started to get dark, the CO knocked on the tinted window that allows him to see everything going on in the yard, and motioned that it was time to come in. The inmates obeyed without argument and gathered their belongings. When the last one was inside, the magnetic lock buzzed shut, as it would stay until ten o'clock the next day...when I was no longer there.
As I was standing in the day room watching television and waiting for the second to last meal I would be served in Pod C, an older gentleman who I didn't recognize walked up to me and said, “Hey, how you doing? I'm Russel.”
“Hi there Russel, you just getting in today?”
“Yup. They got me for failure to ID. Now listen, the cop come up and asked me for my name, and I told him, “Jenkins.” But now, see, my name aint Jenkins...I'm Russel. I gave him a fake name.”
“I follow you so far.”
“He said, “Let me see your ID.” I said, “I aint got no ID.” So he called in the name and the birthday I gave him on that microphone, and they come back and said, “We aint got a record for Jenkins.” So, he said, “Stand against the wall and put your hands behind your back.” Now how are they gonna book me for failure to ID, when I aint even the guy I said I was? I aint even Jenkins!”
Before I could answer his question, he continued, “When I get to court, I'm gonna tell the judge to sequester the tapes from that microphone on the cop's shoulder, cause I know he didn't say no, “Russel.” They'll probably say they don't have 'em, lying motherfuckers.”
“What can I tell ya man, the system's fucked. These cops aren't after the real criminals. Hell, they're basically working for them. I don't know, good luck though. I hope the judge sequesters those tapes for you.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.”
Dinner was peanut butter trays. “I got a peanut butter tray for two soups and a honey bun.”
“Man, shut the fuck up and eat your peanut butter tray, Dagget, you buck toothed, hillbilly mutant.”
I finished quickly and headed to my cell to lay down and read about Marlon Brando. (An actor who I, incidentally, have no interest in whatsoever.) The lights would be on for a couple more hours, and most of the pod would be awake in their cells until breakfast, but I was so wound up about my imminent return to the human world, that I wanted to go to bed as early as possible, even if I had no chance of getting to sleep. A child on Christmas Eve has nothing on an inmate about to be released.
Laying down on my plastic mat, I heard True calling for the nightly prayer circle to form up in the corner, “Prayer call! Prayer call!” He said it with a military cadence. The inmates would form a circle and take turns reading verses from the Bible. Then they would recount personal experiences they'd had with the holy spirit, finishing up with a communal recitation of The Lord's Prayer. After the meeting they would chant, “Much prayer, much power! Little Prayer, little power! Much prayer, much power! Little prayer, little power!” before going back over to the televisions to watch another episode of “Rob Dyrdek's Ridiculousness.” At least their ideology was easy to grasp.
I had to admit, jail seemed like the perfect place for Christianity. I'm sure I would have grown tired of their chanting after a few more nights, but as it was, it seemed like a phenomenon taking place in it's natural habitat.
Victor, on the other hand, was openly disgusted by the prayer circle, “That shit pisses me off, man. They're a bunch of fucking hypocrites. They're all about their prayers and their Bible, but they just use it to justify hating on gay people, or anyone they don't like. The rest of the day they treat everyone like shit, and they think they can say their prayers at night and make it OK.”
It was undeniable, the tattooed gang members who dominated the prayer circle were the most unfriendly group in the TCCC. They weren't openly hostile, but they kept to themselves and made a point of talking down to the other inmates, as if they were the only ones who knew how to properly do time. Of course, even a gang is comprised of individuals. There was one banger in there named Felix who was cool as hell. He had a superior attitude also, but had a subtly hilarious way of expressing it.
For example, there was this one inmate named Angelo who was doing a two year stint for aggravated battery. Angelo was a bit overweight, and like a lot of heavy guys who have some time to do, he'd vowed to use that time working out, and getting into shape. He spent all day running laps around the yard, doing crunches and jumping jacks, playing “Push,” a basketball game in which any inmate who lands a free-throw gets to make another inmate drop and give twenty push ups (forty for three pointers), and practicing leg lifts on the shower stalls. He did pull ups on the light fixtures in his cell, and used the full mop buckets as free weights. He ran up and down the stairs, shadow boxed, lived on a diet of plain oatmeal, and always attended True's afternoon exercise regimen, in which the men would run in place, jump up and down, scream affirmations at the top of their lungs, and beat themselves on the chests until they were on the verge of blacking out.
One day, as Angelo was in the yard doing squats, Felix quietly walked up to him, and in his low key way, said, “You're working out too hard.”
Angelo, in the full grip of his religious fervor, looked at Felix as though he was an alien being, “What?!”
“You're working out too hard.” said Felix, in the exact same tone of voice.
“You're working out too hard.”
“You're doing a good job.”
“Oh, thanks man.” said Angelo, returning to his personal wormhole.
Truth be told, it seemed like most guys at the TCCC shared Victor's philosophy of inclusiveness. If you're going to be locked up with hundreds of strangers for months, or years, it helps if you can get along easily with criminals of all different creeds and colors. Unfortunately, the gang mentality is to discourage such fraternization.
“Hey Victor, what are you drawing, dude?”
He laughed and held up his sketch pad to reveal a carefully detailed and shaded drawing of Sponge Bob Square Pants, “It's for my little daughter, Rachel. She loves anything Sponge Bob related. It's fucked up I gotta wait three more months to see her.”
“So, why can't she come and visit you? I know it's a pain in the ass, but surely your old lady could make it up here one of these days.”
"Ohhh well, see, that's the reason I'm in here. I tried to pull my old lady through a fence. You know, a metal fence with a gate and everything? Dislocated her shoulder. She has a restraining order against me that says we can't get within two hundred yards of each other.”
I'd never asked Victor what his charges were. I was surprised to hear that he'd committed such a brutal crime. In the few days I'd known him, he'd seemed rational and even tempered. I couldn't picture him trying to yank someone through a fence by their arm.
“I can't picture you trying to yank someone through a fence by their arm.” I said, “You seem so laid back.”
“Oh, I am hommie, until I been drinking. Then all bets are off. But this time, when I get out, I'm going to stay away from that shit. I love my Fat Girl too much.”
I heard so many stories in jail from guys who were intelligent, well spoken, perfectly decent company, who'd done horrible things when high on drugs and alcohol. I have no choice but to conclude from the evidence, that incarceration brings out the best in some men, for whom freedom means only the freedom to destroy themselves. Some of us couldn't wait to get out and go right back to it.
“I'm going to try and turn in, cellie. You're getting out tomorrow, huh?”
“Yep! Just one more meal to go.”
“You want a cup of coffee before I go to sleep? You know you aren't getting any.”
“Yeah, sure thing Victor. Thanks man.”
I handed him my Styrofoam cup and he poured me some coffee from a soda bottle, then he laid down and wrapped his towel around his head, disappearing into his own private universe.
I swigged down the coffee in one shot, then laid down, and stared at the ceiling until the lights went off for the night.
When they came back on again, I was so zombified from staring at the ceiling that I could barely look at my breakfast, so I gave the tray to Victor. It was fitting, as departing inmates often leave gifts with their comrades remaining inside. He thanked me and said, “Alright Mike, it was nice meeting you. I'm gonna go back to bed and try to get some more sleep.” It was just another day for him, after all. I wondered when his next cellie would arrive, and if he would be a total lunatic.
I still had four hours to kill until eight o'clock, when they called inmates for roll-out. I sat down on my bunk and read a copy of yesterday's newspaper. The wait was excruciating.
At seven minutes after eight, the CO called my name. My heart leaped. You can't imagine the joy unless you've experienced it yourself. In that split second, my world changed from black and white into full color, for I knew I was about to undergo the final rituals reversing the process that had turned me into an inmate, and restoring me to my human form.
I walked quickly up to the stone desk, where the CO said, “Go get your sheets, blankets, and extra clothing.” I ran and gathered the laundry as Victor slept, and the oblivious Guatemalan played his song. I brought them back to the CO, who said, “Put them in that hamper over there.”
I tossed them in.
“Go out the door when it buzzes open, and the Floor Sargent will tell you what to do.”
The door buzzed open, and I walked out to the where the Floor Sargent was sitting at his control panel. “Wait until the door opens, and walk down to the end of the hall.” he said.
When the door slid shut behind me, I found myself in The Hall of Fascist Poetry for the last time. I'd expected to be released with several other inmates, but it turned out the only other guy being freed that day was an older Hispanic fellow who was already sitting in a plastic chair at the end of the hall, a CO standing by indifferently. This meant that I had the evil catacombs all to myself, and was able to soak in and savor the rarefied air, knowing that I was now being allowed to escape it.
When I got to the end of the hallway, the CO said, “Sit in the plastic chairs. A deputy will be here in a few minutes to take you to processing.”
I looked at the older guy as I sat down, and we gave each other a nod of shared understanding. We had survived. He was probably going home to be with his wife and family, and I was going home to get blindly loaded in my ditch. I was so happy for both of us. “How long were you in for, buddy?”
“NO TALKING IN THE HALL!” said the CO, without looking up.
The deputies arrived shortly. For whatever reason, actual Travis County police officers handle the booking out procedure rather than Corrections Officers. They signed a few forms at the desk, made sure we knew our birthdays, and said “OK, lets go.”
“We don't need cuffs?” asked the older guy, obviously institutionalized.
“Nah, you're getting out. Come on.”
We got into a large police SUV, and drove around the complex from building to building, picking up the few prisoners being released that day; a half dozen in all. As you would expect, the mood was jovial. Most of the guys were young and had only been in for a matter of weeks, but they were nonetheless filled with excitement as they anticipated the food they would eat, and women the would have sex with, once free. Many had been there before, and traded notes on what conditions and amenities could be expected in the various buildings. “What was it like in 7?”
“It was alright. We were on lockdown a lot, but they got a decent weight room, and a volleyball court in the yard.”
The guy I'd been released from 12 with spoke up, “Man, 12 was a dungeon. You aint even got a yard. Just a concrete box.”
I thought back to the other jails I'd been in, like the septic miasma of Orleans Parish Prison, or the violent and unpredictable “gladiator tiers” of Harris County. The easy going and sterile environment of the TCCC was smooth sailing by comparison. “There are worse jails in the world.” I said, wistfully.
Meanwhile the cops were in the front seats bullshitting about video games, “Are you going to pre-order Halo 4?”
“I don't know, I haven't decided yet.”
“I pre-ordered it yesterday. It looks pretty sweet.”
“I'll probably get it when it comes out.”
I guess it was considered light duty for them. I found it interesting that these personifications of the fascist police state had such mundane concerns.
As we neared the main building where we would be processed, I saw a group of female prisoners out in their yard. They were sitting in a circle on the ground, and were participating in some kind of discussion group being presided over by a CO. It looked like they were having a very sane, and contemplative jail experience.
Upon reaching the main building at the front of the complex, we piled out of the SUV and followed the deputies into the room where we would be reassigned our identities. We were told to sit on a wooden bench while they went through a wall of plastic bins, looking for the ones that had our names and numbers taped to the sides. When they found one, they would call the guy up and have him sign for his property, then direct them to a small dressing room to change back into their street clothes. In my case, I would also receive my backpack, and discover if I'd lost anything important between the time I got fucked up, and the time I got arrested. So, I still had one last thing to be nervous about.
When they called me, I jumped up, signed the papers, and opened my bin, to find everything I owned wrapped in a heavy-duty plastic bag. I took it into the dressing room and tore into it, overjoyed to be reunited with my humble belongings. Everything was there, and intact. Even my pants, which I'd assumed I'd pissed in, seemed to be in good shape. I took off the orange jail uniform, tossed it into a basket in the corner, and put on the clothes I'd been wearing one week prior when I was captured. I put my computer into the large zipper compartment of my backpack, and stowed my various tools and electronic equipment into the smaller pockets. Much to my dismay, they had thrown away the massive collection of lighters I'd accumulated over time, but considering the circumstances, I felt I'd lucked out.
Stepping back out into the main room, I was beginning to feel like myself again. There was only one more hoop I had to jump through before being shown the door. I sat and waited for ten more minutes until a lady called me up to a glass window, and said, “You were booked with seventy five cents. Sign here to receive your money.”
“Thanks. Say, I happen to be an indigent inmate, and I was wondering if I could get a bus pass back to the city?”
“Yes, I can issue you a bus pass. Just a minute...here you go. This pass is good for twenty four hours from the time of issue. OK, that's it. Just go through that door and follow the fence to the double doors.”
I walked out the door, followed the fence, stepped through the double doors, and found myself in the receiving room of the TCCC, where families sit and wait for their loved ones to be released. They all looked up with anticipation when I walked in, then looked down again in disappointment when they realized I wasn't the one they were waiting for. I saw to my right a set of glass doors leading to the outside world. I hurried trough, looked up at the sky, and yelled, “Whoo Hoo! I'm free!” A moment of pure elation, almost, but not quite, worth the ordeal that preceded it.
Several of the guys I'd been booked out with were standing by the bus stop that sits directly in the center of the complex. They laughed when they heard my celebratory shout and motioned me to come over. One of them had gotten a few cigarettes somehow, and was handing them out to whoever wanted one. That I accepted the cigarette he offered me is the only thing I regret about the entire experience, other than not going home after taking those pills. With the week-long head start, I could have quit smoking for good, but I guess if self control was my strong suit, I wouldn't have been there in the first place.
“How long were you in for?” the guy asked me.
“You lose your job?”
“No. I'm a writer. I'm going to write about being arrested.”
Everyone laughed, seeming to appreciate the irony. Then the bus arrived, and we climbed on just as hail began to fall from the sky, pelting us relentlessly all the way back to Austin.