This Really Isn't Necessary, Part 1

It is no secret we feel the drug laws present the most serious immediate health-and-freedom threat to all Americans.  The following article is based on actual experience of a dear friend of ours, freelance writer Logan Brandt; it appeared in Liberty Magazine, in October 2000 under the title, "American Justice: Up Close and Personal."  We present it, in three parts, as an illustration of the more benign consequences of the drug laws on ordinary, peaceful Americans--Mr. Brandt did not have to go to real prison where he would have joined approximately 325,000 people currently incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.   []

"This Really Isn't Necessary"   (Read:  Part 1  Part 2  Part 3)

Part 1: Houston Roadkill

It was late August '98, and I couldn't put it off any longer.

Time to stand in line for Texas, get a driver's license.  Having already experienced the rigmarole of car registration with Harris County, and been soaked for the Texas sales tax (~$650) on a vehicle leased in Michigan, I just want to get the whole bureaucratic mess behind me.

Similar to the county clerk, these folks at (Department of Public Safety) DPS have their panties in a bunch about extracting social security numbers from you.  Whatever.  So I give them some proof-of-SS stubs and write my numbers in the boxes of their form in fine, bold strokes.  Immediately the clerk sends the form to a scanner.

The reason I know it goes straight to a scanner is that as I leave—I have a smile on my face because I'm finally done with this crap and even took a decent picture—a large black trooper, fully accessorized in the Lone Star law-enforcement package, i.e. Stetson hat, cowboy boots, Colt Border Patrol .357 Magnum, and bulletproof vest, stands in front of me pointing emphatically to the right:

"Come this way."

"Thanks, but I don't need a driving test today," I counter.

From his stern demeanor, it's clear something of more import than a driving test is on the agenda.  So, with a quick jolt of primal apprehension, my mind races into the realm of things I might have done that could generate unpleasant system attention... IRS?  Red Squad?  Donut Pilferage?"

"Damn!"  I know what it is.

Trooper Roy asks me my name again, then indicates he has a record in the LEIN (Law Enforcement Interstate Network) database that matches.  To make a long story short, the SS# has drawn a hit on me for an outstanding arrest warrant from Michigan.  I tell him there's no way, "I don't even have kids," knowing they publicly justify their SS# fetish by nabbing out-of-state deadbeat dads.

Bo' you in a heap o' trouble.

While Trooper Roy is checking it out, he makes special seating arrangements for me in the DPS office.  The handcuff to the steel folding chair symbolizes the new relationship I would have with the state of Texas for the next few days: unwilling guest, varying degrees of discomfort, caged or tethered in proximity to hard surfaces.

Hard surfaces for a hardened criminal.  "Drugs and guns," basically felony possession charges for which the search warrant was tainted and the arrest warrant, as far as anyone knew, had never been issued.  It's a long story, and we'll get into it later, but the actual "crime" had occurred 6 1/2 years ago.  Obviously, some Michigan official had finally written up a warrant and recently put it in the LEIN.

So, on account of some presumably malicious blunder, here I wait, a fugitive from justice, 1400 miles away.... waiting for the bailiff to come and cart me away to the Harris County Jail.  "Look, trooper"—I have quickly discerned these DPS officers like to be called troopers—"how about I just go out to my car and get a few things?"

No dice.  Roy's mind also enters a more agitated state when he reads the official charges from the warrant.  The pitch of his voice rises and even shakes some as he's asking me questions.  He's nervous.

My one phone call, to a coworker (who might be able to get my car from the lot, hence avoid its impoundment), goes to his answering machine.  Internally, my adrenaline-drenched central nervous system has gone into full-tilt panic, and I can barely point and grunt, much less generate full sentences.

Eventually the bailiff arrives in his county car and strolls amiably into the office.  Trooper Roy is a big man, but this "County Mounty of Fetching and Toting" blocks the sun at 20 paces, easily 6'8" and 350#, and not chubby either, a giant.  Referrin' to him as Trooper Sir.  Then Sir, Roy, and Roy's supervisor start chewing the fat, talking about the wives, girlfriends, jobs, partying, working out, etc.

After maybe 25 minutes, during which I'm just sitting there cuffed to the chair, dry-throated, wide-eyed, slack as a fish on a stringer, trying to mentally adjust to what is obviously going to be a very bad day, Sir decides it's time to mosey with his charge.  But he does put on the cuffs with deft consideration, and they're in front.

The rear seat behind the bulletproof plastic is small and your legs have to crook and go sideways.  For me, 5'10" and 170#, it's like sitting horizontal in a telephone booth.  But I can hear through small holes in the Plexiglas and, with some pulmonary exertion, actually breathe the stale, humid Boomtown air making its way languidly rearward from the A/C.

Sir gives me the surreal courtesy of piping in public radio at 80 decibels for the half an hour it takes to drive me to the Jail Annex at 701 N. San Jacinto.  Even if I want to chat, or if he could hear me, I figure he probably exhausted his scintillating repartee on his buds at DPS, and is now wholly focused on world affairs with Nina Totenberg and "All Things Considered."

And considering things, I'm thinking: "Geez.  How'm I gonna pay my bills?  Keep my job, get paid?  Who will draft my fantasy football team in Michigan.  And mostly, how the hell do I get out of here, and when?"

In a way I'm lucky not to have any family in the area.  It would be nice to have some close people to call here, though it would upset them.  And it could be a lot worse, too:  What if I'm the single father of a small child due home from school?  What if I have a wife who needs me?  A sick mother?  A barmaid facing imminent unemployment?  Pets?  Plants?

Sorry, Charlie, when the system takes you down, you're pretty much out.  Say your prayers for anyone or anything depending on you.

In the criminal justice system, apprehension and transport provide you with some variety: someone might think they got it wrong and let you go, the cops can be friendly or annoying pissants, you're moving around sometimes, occasionally outside, escape is even a remote possibility.  I mean you're not free, but at least you're in transit somewhere.

When, however, you reach the actual place of steel bars and concrete, everything forward is a locked-down process, excruciatingly boring, unyielding and systematic ... not, for a moment, to imply rational or efficient.  The preliminaries—appearing briefly before a magistrate (required for show of due process), fingerprints, checking in your stuff, answering some questions for filling out forms, getting some papers—are perfunctory.

The fundamental jail-entry process is a multi-hour period of moving from one crowded concrete-block and grated-steel enclosure to another.  When you move, and with what select group of detainees, is totally random and arbitrary.

You will pass through approximately three milestones leading to the ultimate objective of getting a bunk with a mat: 1) shower and uniform, 2) a formal hearing in court, and 3) medical interview and assignment to a cell block.  In between each of these milestones you move several times to different holding cells—I easily marched to 15 to 20 cells, and only repeated one or two.

This is when the system starts the psychological war against you, too.  When you're moving from holding tank to holding tank, you keep thinking or hearing rumors that this is the cell from which you will directly get your uniform or whatever-next milestone.  And when you first get there, sometimes there are only a few of you, so you can stretch out and maybe get some Z's.

But it takes forever to reach a milestone.  Further, the random number generator keeps sending new groups of detainees into your holding tank.  And before long, it's like the Star Trek episode where no one on the planet believes in birth control; you can hardly find a spot to sit, even on the floor.

Naturally, you tend to strike up conversations with the normal-looking guys who speak English.  When you're in line to transfer between holding tanks, the guards don't want you to talk, but in the tank, it's okay provided it doesn't get too loud.  Which is fine with me, too, because often I want sleep, don't want no jive crackheads or pontificating hillbillies carrying on in loud tones.

You begin to get an idea of the cross-section of people who have been caught in the same web.  There's obviously a basis for conversation, i.e. ", does this suck, what'd they get you for?"  A few DWIs, some spouse-abuse types, lots of small-time drug possessors or traders, petty transgressors of firearms laws, parole/probation violators, several DWBHs (driving while black or Hispanic), and a jaywalker or two.

Just kidding about the jaywalkers.  Not much, though.  One guy, calling him the Baleful Turk, though he is perhaps an immigrant from some other middle-eastern country, has a remarkable story.  Seems he, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter are leaving a department store, when, unbeknownst to the parents, the girl grabs a video from a display stand and tosses it in their bag.

Store alarms go off, and the manager calls in one of Houston's finest.  Convinced the act was intentional, and unimpressed by the Turk's obvious professional standing (master's degree, civil engineer for a local firm), he hauls them in.  Mom and Dad go to their respective sides of the jail for processing, and the terrified, screaming kid gets shuttled to some other Harris County pit for protective custody.  The Turk is frantic and in tears.

So what kind of system lets some wannabe-Nazi cop and his jailer buddies rip apart a family over an errant copy of The Lion King?!  Later, after getting uniforms, the Turk is finally able to arrange bond and get the flock out of here.  Had to be about 10 hours for them, though.  Welcome to America.

Meanwhile, I'm still only halfway through the first drill.  The uniforms are comical, and obviously part of the "Psy War:"

Orange, they consist of a pocketless short-sleeve, heavy-cotton pullover shirt and pocketless pants.  The pants have elastic waistbands in varying degrees of disintegration, and in many cases the bands have given way entirely and the separated sections have been ingeniously though crudely kept together with mop rope.  On the back is stenciled "Harris County Jail," in case, I'm speculating, you escape and people mistake you for a hospital orderly.

I'm lucky, in that my pants will stay up without having to tie any knots in them and the shirt doesn't have too many holes in it.  The hard plastic sandals are another story:

[One thing you need to do if you suspect imminent incarceration in America: wear "tennis shoes" (Nikes, Reeboks, etc.) and white socks.  They let you keep only these for footwear.  This custom may have started with letting some of the more sartorial, prideful brothers keep their Air Jordans.  Whatever the origin, keeping your own shoes and socks is hugely preferable to standard issue.]

The sandals are elevated at the heel, and it's difficult to lift your feet to walk in a normal fashion.  What you do is shuffle along trying to minimize the chafing of the wide hard-plastic strap that rides over the top of your bare foot.  Socks are not standard issue, and neither, for that matter, is underwear.  These you can order every Wednesday from the commissary once you reach your cellpad.

It's Wednesday morning now, and I figure for sure I'll be reaching the cellpad in a few hours.  I've been marched around all night, since six o'clock p.m. Tuesday, meeting new guests, striking up an occasional conversation, seeing them come and go, depending on the holding-tank roulette.

I even manage to catch some cold-concrete-floor shuteye maybe fifteen fitful minutes at a time.  Shortly after the longest stretch of sleep, about 07:00, we get rousted for the court hearing, which is actually a more formal arraignment process in my case.  Seven of us are accommodated in this cold, dark, dank ~20'x20'x20' anteroom with iron-clad walls and an iron bench.

A tall, lanky guy is in here shaking from the cold.  Has a bad back, and, in fact, that's what got him here.  He was taking Vicodin, the only painkiller that worked for him, but it had an unsuspected side effect of causing some erratic driving.  So a Houston police professional nabs him, thinking it's a DWI case, and brings him down to the pokey.  Like, he needs to be here for sure.

Partly because I feel sorry for this guy, and partly because I'm cold, too, I decide to look into some relief.  From this chamber you can see out to an office through a narrow slit of bullet-proof glass, and I position myself near this opening, knocking on the door.  The officer walks over.

"Sir, would it be possible to turn up the thermostat in here?  It's freezing and one of these guys is really in pain."

Well, I'll tell you.  His ears start spewing little steam puffs.  I thought this oversized oinker was going to take his oversized pistol off his oversized butt, then either pistol-whip or shoot me.  He did mutter something about never speaking to him again unless somebody dies in there.

Herder cops!

Anyway, our time to go before the judge finally comes.  We have attained the status of petitioners in a courtroom, so naturally we are shackled and cuffed together.  Walking in a line wearing these goofy orange pajamas.  Several people fill the courtroom benches, along with the judge and prosecutors in front, and various defense attorneys, mostly court-appointed.

The judge proceeds through each case.  My grasp of the technicalities of the session is a little loose, but basically it's a form of disposing of you until a trial or plea agreement can be arranged.  If bail is admissible, then the judge will determine how much, and arrangements will be made, then you will be released until the formal preliminary court hearing.

My case is not a good one for getting bailed.  Technically, I'm a fugitive charged with two felonies from a different state, and my only choice is to fight extradition or to accept it.  If I fight, bail is permissible until the preliminary hearing, but my court-appointed attorney (lackey) informs me it means extending ~$50,000 to Texas, with "right-now" money of ~$10,000.

The irony is that the system has caught me just a few weeks before I expect to take a new contract back in Michigan.  I had planned to give notice to my current Houston client and Dallas consulting firm in a couple of days.

I can't realistically make bail, and so, according to state law, Texas can keep me in jail for 45 days before the Guv (former scholar and party-boy GW Bush) even gets to hear my appeal.  Plus, there would be the attorney fees, the attempt to find one—I hardly know anyone outside of work—, and so forth.  I doubt I can make much of a case, anyway, certainly not from jail.

The choice is easy: extradition.  The public defender recommends this course, too, and hands me his business card.  Naively, I assume I'll be able to contact him for free legal advice down the line.  The bunch of us that had collected in the antechamber, then the courtroom, now resume routine entry processing in the jail proper.  09:00, Wednesday.

Now that we have jail clothing, one might wonder about food and drink, sanitary provisions, and other basics.  Well, during this prep phase, they figure you're going to be here a while, so whatever holding tank you're in gets a bag containing bologna sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  No napkins, and the beverage requires a stroll to the water fountain.

As for the sanitary thing, the stainless steel crapper(s) give one all the privacy of an open air latrine, except for the open-air part.  My recollection is in half the holding tanks, a small amount of toilet paper was available.  You sure don't want to be really sick in here or have a bad case of the runs (and, obviously, you don't want anyone else to suffer these problems either).

So the day wears on, going from tank to crowded tank, I'm thinking any time I'll arrive at the cellpad and actually have a soft surface to sleep on.  Aside from the discomfort, incredible tedium grinds you down.  But I do keep meeting interesting people.  One of the young Hispanics strikes up a conversation:

"Hey mon, wha' ju in for?  Ju know somethin', ju look jus' like Carlito..., in Carlito's Way."

I was wearing my prescription blueblocker shades when they so rudely apprehended me at the DPS.  Apparently one possible advantage of not having my regular glasses is some of the esteemed enrollees think I have that tough criminal-enterpriser look.  I explain my situation, he asks animatedly how much weed you can get from a Growtronic system.  I tell him what I remember.

I also ask him, "Why the hell do DPS cops at motor vehicles departments in Houston strap those big .357 cannons on their hips and wear bullet-proof vests, especially when it's so damned hot?"

"Man, mos' people here hate the cops."

Somewhere in the afternoon, from one of the larger holding tanks, we visit with a medical professional, a pleasantly vacant elderly lady in a nurse outfit who outlines the procedure for acquiring aspirin and asks if we have a medical condition.  I tell her a nerve in my leg bothers me, and also my back is a little sore now, too; "I was taking Ibuprofen."

"You can also get that from the commissary."  Next.

By early evening, the holding tanks are varying their appearance.  Nothing that overwhelms you, but you're not repeating any.  The herders stand you in more lines along new corridors, an occasional internal guard shack appears here and there, housing the more-sedentary monitor-cops.  Plus we're rising to higher floors.

At a point before actually reaching the cellpad, I strike up a conversation with a guy who's been in the system previously, and in fact has gone to the state prison at Huntsville.  So what's it like?  Apparently, it has some advantages to the county because most of the guys perform work and are not constantly confined in a cell.

Violence is normally not a problem if you exercise a little caution and are fortunate enough to avoid being locked up in proximity to big, mean, crazy guys.  Here, in the whole time it's taken to be processed, I saw three or four out of 400 or 500 guys who had that unfed psycho look.  Anyway, at Harris County, the herders and attendants keep pretty close watch, and would prevent most assaults they weren't in on.

Some of my cohorts have been in here before, one brother, in particular, a worn-down thin man in his 50s.  I conclude he prefers the county jail to whatever homeless shelter or street he probably inhabits otherwise.  Ask him a few questions and he's a fountain of knowledge on how the Harris County system works.

"They keep the jail full because the county gets a bunch of state money for it."

That's a fairly common refrain among the population: your state tax dollars at work for your county tax dollars.  At midnight, Wednesday, in subdued light, walking into the cellpad with pillow and blanket, like a kindergartner late for his nap, I finally reach what will be home for the next six days.

Continued in Part 2

Read:  Part 1  Part 2  Part 3