"This Really Isn't Necessary"
Part 2: Harris County Hilton
Some faint conversation in the background, almost everyone is sleeping; two rows of double bunks and some overflow cots bring the total occupancy to about 40. I get an upper bunk next to a wall, and climb up carefully, close to exhaustion. Really need this semi-soft surface to catch up on the sleep missed over the past 30 hours of crawling concrete floors.
Turns out this is an unusually quiet midnight. A brother two bunks down is awake and asks me what I did.
"Grew some weed, had an illegal gun… in Michigan."
"Man, they ain't going to come to get you for that."
"Dunno." And I'm in z-ville.
About 03:00, the lights come on, a guard wakes us up with an announcement over the intercom, and some trustees wheel in racks containing trays of food. This is universally referred to as "chow," and chow is an apt term; it's a nondescript mass with low nutritional value on which to chew. As for the unusual hour, I don't have that figured out yet.
So everyone gets up. I mistakenly step down on the bunk below me, narrowly missing the head of the individual there still ensconced. He is not happy with this faux pas, and expresses his displeasure in unmistakable terms. This is also a large black man, not as big as Trooper Sir, but maybe 6'6" and 250#, who I later learn goes by the name Big Boy.
"Hey, man, I'm really sorry, really, really...."
He slowly, reluctantly half-accepts the apology and I come away with a useful point of cellpad etiquette: "Don't Tread on Me." Geez, last time I slept in a bunk bed was with my brother when we were kids; I think there we had a proper ladder. These bunks are 3'x6' steel shelves connected by angle iron. Getting to the top and back requires a semiathletic maneuver.
So that was breakfast. Afterward, most of the guys are awake and dialoging up a storm. Difficult to sleep. I check out the sanitary facilities, which are Spartan: one communal crapper—a handmade sign states "Shiter only (sic), no pissin"—, two pissers, and a shower in the corner with a short concrete modesty wall.
"Privacy? Privacy? You got no stinkin' privacy!"
Back to the mat, this time being very careful of how I place my feet. More sleep for me, even though the general population is boisterously awake. The next chow time is 10:00, and again the message comes over the intercom, after which everyone stands in line to get his tray. Unlike roll call, these mealtimes are optional, so no rule prevents you from ignoring them.
But I sense this is lunch and everyone will be active now for the day. Time to get up and start figuring out how things work here. One thing I notice fairly quickly is there isn't much to do. The common area has two concrete and steel picnic tables, in the top of which are embedded checkerboard patterns.
You can get a box of chess pieces and checkers, and some of the guests are playing those. There is another steel table, without the checkerboards, occupied with a dominoes game, at the end of which are socks, t-shirts, and underwear drying, hanging off the bench edges. A few tenants are reading the Houston Chronicle, delivered daily, but there's a distribution pecking order of slow readers, so most of us get old news.
I begin to work my way into the social order. A lot of primal socializing is associated with barter, particularly trading food. At lunch, someone offers me an apple for this drippy hockey-puck of a sweet roll, which I take him up on. (I have decided to angle for the most healthful food I can, and eventually even learn to properly peel and eat oranges!)
Some chess, dominoes. Then start rapping a little with one of the brothers, Irwin Jones, who seems to have the King Rat position—King Rat being the famous movie starring George Segal as a WWII POW who flourishes through wheeling and dealing in a Japanese prison camp—within the cellpad. He's asking me if I could use a pair of socks, which I sure can.
He's just going to give me the socks, though they're on the short, thin side. The expectation is when I leave, he'll get the majority of the stuff I have to leave behind. No problem.
"Could I get a pen and some paper, somewhere?" A cheap pen and three sheets of paper costs me a chocolate milk, which someone tells me is high.
Irwin is an artist of sorts, using a lot of his commissary resources to purchase handkerchiefs, cardboard items, and ballpoint pens. He then creates ink sketches on the handkerchiefs and cardboard mostly of a Christian theme—Jesus in the manger, Jesus admonishing the moneychangers, Jesus on the cross, and so on—and colors them using extreme pressure. Breaks lots of pens.
Irwin, too, is a long-timer, but I never do find out his transgression. My guess is his sentence is a few more months, and for something like shoplifting or reading bad poetry in the Galleria. Then "resisting arrest." Houston cops are big in the news, just a few days ago six of them gunning down an unarmed Hispanic teenager on whom I heard they found traces of dope.
Regarding basic necessities, you need to get a commissary order in by Wednesday of the week, and that's when I was all caught up in entry-processing. Then the commissary fills the order on Thursday, which is today. Not good for me, but when the order arrives today for the others, it's like winning the lottery at Christmas.
And I notice how loud it gets in general, not just when there's a party going on. Particularly, now that I decide to use the telephones. Yes there are telephones, three of them, two of which actually function. A detainee can make as many collect calls as he wants—calls do not come in, they only go out—and whoever you contact gets this banner message in an automated, loud, officious male voice:
"This is a collect call from the Harris County Jail. To accept the charges, press *"
Mom hardly expects is to get a call from the jail, and she has no clue of the particular incident back in Michigan behind all this. But she has long been dimly aware of my political notions and of my antipathy toward the state in general. So, eventually figuring out the key to push, she picks up on the second call, thinking it could at least be a friend of mine.
"Hi, Mom. Well, geez, you're not going to believe this, but ..."
Really depressing. I'm telling her the circumstances that led to my confinement, then I try to remember some telephone numbers for people I had planned to be visiting up there in three days.
Poor Mom. This can't be easy for her, either. She's back in Michigan and 72 years old, trying to get all the instructions right, press the right keys, talk to the right people, etc. Worrying about me.
"No, Mom, it doesn't really seem dangerous in here or anything. Just boring and noisy. I get to watch a lot of TV, particularly all those African-American sitcoms I missed the first time. Everyone seems to get along all right."
Eventually, I get her to look up some telephone numbers then to ask for one of my fellow fantasy football owners, then have her indicate to those guys to tell the others that I'll need a substitute for draft day because I'm "detained" in Houston.
Then I ask her to call the secretary of the company where I work in downtown Houston. I had planned to give them a month's notice tomorrow, but now I have no idea when I can even get back to my desk.
"Tell her I have some legal problems, and it'll be a few days."
Then I try to reach my court-appointed attorney, but no one takes the collect call there. Duh. Man, if you're a jailbird and the only help you have is a public defender, you have good prospects of remaining in jail for some time.
It's mostly too loud for making phone calls, and when it isn't loud, the telephones tend to be monopolized by certain individuals. The guys who stay on the phones longest are usually your basic redneck sort with an old lady they beat up and to whom they now intersperse a few sweet-nothings with a continuation of verbal abuse.
Generally, the blacks, who make up about two-thirds of the population in this cellpad are communicative and friendly enough. There are exceptions to the "nice guy" observation; an Islamic brother just scowls at me whenever we happen to make eye contact. And the three or four teenage crackheads seem oblivious to everyone and everything.
The language barrier isn't too wide between the brothers and me, but I'm all the time saying "Excuse me?" Usually they repeat what they were saying. The Hispanics are friendly, but have English problems. A few IQ-challenged skinhead types are in here, who ironically disdain the "lower orders," and some good ol' boys who mostly become sociable as the stupors wear off.
Not a solid stretch of sleep last night.
"What you sayin' 'bout pimpin', you dunno nuttin 'bout no pimpin', mah girls dey be da finest...
"I ain't sayin' you dunno nothin' 'bout pimpin', jus' only dat mah man, Stanley, out west had an OPERATION goin'. An' he kep' his niggah ass outa jail, which you obviously ain't done yoSEF."
This turned into an extended and ultimately heated dialog with a number of others chiming in, including Big Boy, who has quite a comic flair. The participant who mentioned Stanley, was newly arrived and lacked a few front teeth, so he spoke in a distinctive manner, easy to mock. The local pimp took to calling him Stannnleeey, making fun of him, as did most of the others.
03:00 chow, then at 05:00 the guards do a roll call.
"Yo." "Yo." "Yo." ...
Roll call at 05:00 is plain harassment, psy war. No way anyone can disappear in here, and you sure can't get out. Concrete block on all sides except for some bulletproof glass and a door that exits to a central area where the guards staff an electronic control console, inside a steel and bulletproof-glass enclosure. Vent-shaft grates are the size of an envelope.
Regularly scheduled activities? Three. If you don't count the infirmary:
- Religious services and study groups—Christian, Muslim, Jewish. If you're a Buddhist, believe in the Great Pumpkin or more unconventional religions, you're out of luck.
- Library visits—the library contains some legal material, but mainly Bibles and Christian literature, precious little else.
- Exercise sessions.
I volunteer to join an exercise session, just to get out of the cellpad. We go downstairs to this non-airconditioned gym, where a volleyball net has been set up and a make-shift handball court off a section of wall. If you don't get into one of the games, you can walk around aimlessly and enjoy Houston in Summer, Unplugged.
Eventually, an opening occurs on one of the volleyball teams, and I play for half an hour, actually doing well enough to earn some attaboys from the veterans. This despite tromping around in the hard-plastic deck shoes, which have begun to draw blood on the top right foot. We file back to the cell after an hour and a half, drenched in sweat.
A shower would be fitting—forgot to mention, towels and sheets (in various stages of decay) are also standard issue, and the shower has soap and a brush—but just like when you use the crapper, you maneuver for a time when there's a routine dispersal of activity in the cellpad so as not to draw attention. At least with the shower, you do have that modesty panel I mentioned earlier.
Most eschew the scheduled out-of-cell activities. TV-In-A-Box is on all the time, except when lights-out is officially called, and the brothers mainly control the program selection process. During the day, it's the soap operas. Soaps is big.
There is virtually no theft, certainly nothing of your major stuff, which everyone keeps unsecured near their bunks. The social environment has a natural laissez-faire quality, a spontaneous order. When it seems right to vote on something, like a TV program, we do it and accept the vote.
Heck, if you lived in this society, no one would put you away for smoking a joint or having a gun. They wouldn't draft you into the army or launch wars in your name or with your money. Wouldn't roust you for gambling or whoring, etc. I.e., they'd pretty much leave you alone.
As I told a friend later, "I hate to say it, but I think these may be my kind of people."
Like Irwin, several others are taken with the Christian message, displaying high biblical understanding. And you have to admit there is an appeal and comfort in believing you have some father-figure or buddy in the sky who watches over you and cares about you personally ...especially under these circumstances, or worse ones that can easily be imagined.
The absolute worst part of incarceration is loss of freedom, these massive, impervious walls closing in on you. Confinement. Knowing there's a world out there you have to occupy but can't. Something in the human soul has to at least be able to move without restraint in the fresh air, to feel the sun and see the sky. Not knowing whether I'll be here for 3 days or for 45 is excruciating.
I keep from falling apart by meditating a lot. Dial down my life force to conservation-mode, refusing to panic or indulge emotions of outrage, hate, and anger, and empty the heart of desire for immediate freedom. Accept the small things, like the fact I'm breathing.
Reading. Books, good or even bad works of fiction, novels, long stories of people living in other worlds. Truly remarkable how excited one becomes finding a random piece of decent literature. It's scarce. Novels, anything that might fire the imagination or offer vicarious pleasure, are obstructed. Bibles, on the other hand, are highly favored.
Once a week is uniform cleaning. They call roll and you give 'em your orange jammies, marking them with a pen some way. The uniforms come back early in the morning (4:00 or 5:00 a.m.) in a damp pile, and we sort through it to find our stylish monogrammed threads. They dry to an fine array of wrinkles by afternoon.
Weekend 8/30, 8/31
This hyperconversational brother arrived a day ago. Cousin of a star baseball player in the St. Louis organization, he's the one the others, derisively, are now calling Stanley. His family is fairly well-to-do, even, but he made the mistake of picking up a hitchhiker years ago.
The hitchhiker wanted to stop at a party store, so while Stanley is parked outside, the hitchhiker robs the store. Stanley doesn't know anything about it. They get caught. Texas justice, lousy court-appointed lawyer, sentence is 10 years.
After three years, Stanley is paroled and put on a tether. He throws the tether on a passing truck, then takes off to California for work. Pulled over for some car problem in California, he's arrested on the parole violation, and, after 45 days, extradited to Texas. And now he's here, probably going to spend another year or two in jail.
Okay, so don't believe the story. I do, and it's representative. All I know is if you're looking for dangerous criminals who need to be put away for the safety of society, they ain't here. Mainly, the system is a ruling-class trap for people who drew a bad set of cards.
Little was I aware this Sunday would be my last night in the Harris County Hilton. It had already seemed like an eternity, and I was doubtful any of the narcocops in Michigan would care enough about a nothing case like mine to hustle for it.
So about 05:00 Monday morning I awoke to my name spoken over the intercom, with a mixture of astonishment, relief, and apprehension. This was it: they had come to get me, and I had only a few minutes to get my items together—only a folder containing my papers, and the jammies on my back. Everything else, mainly just some nonperishable food items, pens, paper, soap, TP, was left to Irwin.
For the past few days I'd been troubling my mind with thoughts of what these narcs were going to do with me on the way back. I had an image of being cuffed and stuffed in the back of a van, beaten regularly with a battle mace, and showing up in the Oakland County jail three days later as a smelly—more smelly— black and blue hulk.
It wasn't going to be like that. Two 30ish white middle-class, mild-mannered plainclothes cops, driving a big airport-rental car, show up at the check-out room. I assure the lead guy, "Hey, it only says fugitive, I didn't know about the warrant and I'm sure as hell not dangerous."
Everything's cool. I'm even helping them with instructions to get back to the airport. We take a 727 from Houston Intercontinental to Detroit Metro. Cuffed in front while walking or in the car, but not cuffed on the plane—FAA regulations prohibit that. Walking through an airport with cuffs, escorted by cops, just like the movies. Real badass.
As we're leaving Metro, recognizing that it never hurts to pay a compliment to someone who might put in a good word for you with a judge, I say, "You guys aren't the drooling psychopaths I expected, and I want you to know I appreciate that."
Another night in jail, this time my hometown variety. Like Houston, worse in some ways, better in others, just as crowded, less supervised, slightly more-menacing gang types. So through Monday night and into Tuesday, I'm playing the holding-tank-sleep-on-concrete mamba, until these escorts of mine from narcotics come back to the jail to take me to court.
Tuesday, September 2, is the point of release, a lucky set of circumstances. Keep in mind, there are a lot of poor blokes in this jail, too, innocent victims of the state who got stuck mainly because they're black and/or poor.
One DWB (driving while black), a Chrysler worker, picked up in West Bloomfield on a profile traffic stop, supposedly had an outstanding warrant from Wayne County. Wrong guy. So he was going to be let go, but he had to sit for 12 hours!!! in this crowded exit tank until the paperwork cleared.
I'm fortunate to have managed to reach a Michigan attorney through calls to Mom and to my ex-wife, Ariana. He's Walt Puchalski, personal acquaintance, former beau of Ari's twin sister, former prosecutor, now criminal defense attorney, occasional political ally. He agrees to take the case.
Step one is arraignment before a magistrate for setting of bail.
My ex—whatever caused us to drift apart, she's always been there for me in my hour o' need—and her sister, Amy are there. They've arranged with Puchalski and Mom to get my brother and my two aunts from Battle Creek, along with themselves, to the 24th District Court in Pontiac.
This is an important show of moral support and community ties. Amy takes it on herself to get the correspondence from my original attorney which shows my genuine attempts to "come in" back in '92 and '95.
Magistrate Janice Haviland presiding. As she reads incredulously through the warrants and the recent history of the case, my mind drifts back to the fateful day…
Continued in Part 3
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