I wrote this post quite a while ago, when an acquaintance’s experience in the Southeast Ohio Regional Jail gave me an inside peek at the American system of (in)justice. I didn’t publish it at the time because of privacy concerns. The case is now well in the past (and my friend is okay), but now one of my former students is facing serious charges, which I’m confident are either baseless or extremely trumped-up. I suspect his main offense is that he’s young, black, and poor. (I may write about his case if it becomes more public, as seems likely.)
Consider this a piece of fiction that is nonetheless entirely true.
* * * * * * *
You are arrested. It’s the middle of the night. Before you’re hauled off, you’re allowed to collect a few phone numbers from your cell phone. That’s it. You’re driven through the darkness to the jail in Nelsonville, the next town over, some miles from your home.
You are dumbstruck because you have no reason to believe you’ve broken any law.
Upon entering the jail, you are stripped of every thing you own. You’re not even allowed to have pen and paper.
The orange institutional clothing goes all the way down. You’re not even allowed to keep your own underwear. The standard-issue underwear are orange, too.
From inside the jail, you’re allowed more than the “one phone call” that TV cop shows. However, all calls must be placed collect. Cell phones can’t accept collect calls. You have a couple of phone number for lawyers who practice civil law. But it’s a weekend and answering machines aren’t so great at accepting collect calls either. You make an initial call in the wee hours just to alert a friend of your whereabouts.
You aren’t a hardened criminal, so you don’t know any attorneys who might represent you. Certainly you don’t have their phone numbers.
You wait, hoping for help.
Unbeknownst to you, your friends are trying to call you, cringing at the shame and, well, pollution they feel at dialing the jail. In fact, the jail isn’t even listed in the phone book, though there are numbers for the dog catcher and for the office that deals with numbering houses. They call the sheriff’s office, which has the jail’s number. They get through to the jail and are told that you’re not allowed to receive any messages. They ask if you can receive visitors, and they’re informed that visitations do occur on the weekend, but you’d have to make advance arrangements for that. They are left wondering if you were supposed to book visitors a day earlier, when you had no idea that you’d ever be arrested.
You call one of your friends. She’s uncertain and a little wooden on the phone, lacking even the vaguest idea of how to proceed or what to say. She says, Make sure you don’t say anything that could possibly incriminate yourself. You know she’s right, but her words widen the gulf between her comfortable world and the massive cell you share with 40 other prisoners. She says another friend wants to visit, and you should call him when you can. She makes reassuring noises about getting a lawyer, but you can hear that she really has no clue. You don’t break down, but nonetheless you sound defeated.
You pass a second night in the jail. With 40 men in the room, silence is a sweet fantasy. So is sleep. Maybe you think about the parallels between this 24-hour noise chamber and the intentional infliction of noise as an interrogation technique – or was that a torture technique? Maybe you don’t think about that, or anything coherent, because you’re scared and exhausted beyond words.
Next day, your friend visits. He tells you what he’s been able to learn about legal rights, based on his frantic googling. No, he’s not a lawyer, but he has excellent and dogged research skills. Not all of what he tells you is reassuring, because you seem to have fallen into a cleft in American law where the presumption of innocence is reversed and the normal rules of evidence don’t apply. You look ragged, worn, and demoralized, but he too looks visibly shocked at the jail’s surroundings: All these prisoners speaking through phones that crackle unto inaudibility. All these visitors who, like their locked-up men, look old far beyond their years. Every last visitor is female, apart from your friend. As for the prison personnel, they’re omnipresent through cameras (or so one must assume), but visible nowhere. This shabby regional jail is the ultimate faceless modern bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, your friends are trying to hunt down a lawyer. It’s surprisingly hard on a Sunday – surprisingly, because arrests don’t exactly plummet on weekends. A friend finally reaches a defense attorney who comes warmly recommended, and who thinks he doesn’t have a schedule conflict with the arraignment.
Again, this is all unbeknownst to you. A friend tries to call you Sunday evening and is first told that no messages can be conveyed to inmates. She shudders at thinking that you’re an inmate. But that is precisely what you are until the jail’s talons loosen their hold on your flesh and you’re dropped to earth like half-eaten roadkill. (At which point you’ll need a ride, because the law won’t transport you back to your hometown.) The line then goes briefly silent, and her heart leaps as she realizes she’s being put through to a supervisor. Oh, she’s good at reasoning with supervisors! So she mentions to the police officer who picks up that you really need to know that you can expect legal representation the next morning. After all, you’ve got a constitutional right to counsel. “That’s right, ma’am,” replies the officer. “He’s got a constitutional right to counsel. But he has no right to receive messages. That’s just policy.” He doesn’t say “sorry,” and his voice suggests he’s anything but.
Would you have felt better or worse, had you been able to overhear that conversation? It hardly matters, though, because you’re embarking on a third night of sleeplessness, and while your friends have heard from multiple sources that you’re likely to be released on your own recognizance, you’ve not heard that from anyone authoritative. All you can think of is the consequences of baseless charges for your family, career, and freedom. And without the distraction of a book or internet access, you’ve got infinite time to think and fret, for as long as you’re incarcerated.
* * * * *
What’s changed since I first wrote this? Only the phone system. Now it’s impossible to reach a real person, however unfriendly. There’s only a convoluted automated answering system.