When I was 19 I robbed a restaurant. It wasn't crazy Pulp Fiction style; there were no hostages, wallets, or intimidating philosophical conversations. I knew the people in the restaurant and I made sure the gun wasn't loaded, but I still did it.
But I'm not going to talk about that event or what led up to it. If you want to read about it, go here. Suffice it to say that I was disillusioned and headed into a bad way of life. What I want to talk about is what happened after that. I want to tell you about jail.
When we first got to the county jail, I was terrified. I looked around me, and what I saw was completely unfamiliar to me. I saw yellow concrete walls and stainless steel toilets and sinks, intimidating guys, mostly black, in orange jumpsuits, and cops…lots of cops. I was put in a holding cell with two or three other guys. I knew what I had done was pretty serious and that I wouldn't get out any time soon, so I envied the Drunk & Disorderlies and the Petty Thieves who would be going home soon. The payphones were turned on at six A.M. and I called home. I had to call collect. The recording said "You are receiving a phone call from," then my voice saying my name, recorded seconds earlier. It continued, "an inmate at the Sedgwick County Jail." It went on to include instructions regarding usage of call waiting or three-way calling features. I remember my heart sinking at that recording because I knew that whoever answered would already know where I was. I wouldn't get to break it to them.
It was my mother. It broke my heart to hear her voice answering the phone. Evidently she had already been contacted by the police, who wanted to search the house. So she knew what was going on. Her voice was weary and sad and it tore me up to hear her that way.
Shortly I was retrieved by a PD officer who drove me to another building, inconspicuous and unmarked. We went in an unobtrusive-looking door, and as we entered, I saw on the bulletin board that I had just entered the Wichita office for the FBI Violent Crime and Commercial Robbery Task Force. Suddenly the scope of what I'd done grew in my mind. I didn't know I had committed a Federal offense. I was introduced to a couple very kind detectives. It was like they were playing "good cop, good cop." One offered to buy me a coke. I didn't really like Coke, but I took him up on his offer because I didn't know when I'd get another. They handcuffed me to a table in a small room with one window and a video camera pointing through it at me. Eventually a detective came in and unhandcuffed me. I laid down on the carpet to try to get some sleep as I'd been up all night. Suddenly I heard a voice that sounded familiar, so I stood up and put my ear to the wall. I heard the person I'd committed the crime with telling the cops everything. My heart dropped again as I figured out there was no longer any point in holding out. Earlier I'd told the police that I wanted to wait for an attorney, but now I knew that was useless. A few moments later they came in to question me, and I knew my only chance at leniency was to tell the truth and have our stories match.
They took me back to the holding cell and I ate the breakfast I was fed. I was still terrified and I ate because I didn't know when I'd have another chance. Of course, regardless of my feelings, I couldn't show fear on the outside. I knew that much. It was easy to transform my apprehension, fear, and frustration on the inside to an appearance of anger, brooding, and intimidation. That evening I was moved to my permanent home, deep in the high security area of the jail. I was told stories of other pods where inmates shared rooms or slept on cots in gymnasiums due to overcrowding. I was told that our pods weren't subject to the same stipulations because we were in the highest security area of the jail. Later on, during trips to the visitation room, the library, or the outdoor recreation area, I caught glimpses into the other areas, or 'pods'. I saw that they did indeed have a completely different layout and a different level of security.
When I first got there, I was very anxious. I frantically tried to talk my parents into bailing me out. My bond was high at first, but my public defender got it reduced. My parents still wouldn't budge. I called every day to tell them how horrible it was. My mind was just in a state of denial over where I was. I refused to accept that I would be there for any length of time. I was unable to deal with that concept, so I just focused on trying to convince my parents to get me out. They could have, there is no question about that, but they wouldn't do it. It took me a long time to forgive my father for that.
Once I realized I was going to stay there for a while, my feeling kind of changed. Life in jail consists of lots of routine. Fights break out over card games or what to watch on television. Everyone is tense and stressed, and talking to people, especially some of the repeat criminals, requires intelligence and finesse. I was in with child molesters, murderers, drug dealers, and arsonists. I was in with people who were very intelligent and people who had serious psychological problems. I was in with people who were very hostile and people who were very friendly.
It took a few weeks of observing the dynamic in our section of the pod for me to gain an understanding of how things worked. There were never more than twelve people there at a time. I never knew when someone would go or someone else would show up. I never knew when someone I had grown to be friends with would "roll to go", a term for packing up your stuff. Twice a week, buses took inmates to Topeka to be booked into the Kansas Department of Corrections. There was a feeling of restlessness and uncertainty that permeated the very walls of the place.
The environment was bleak as well. The bleak grey paint, the steel sinks and toilets, the hard bed frames bolted to the walls and floors, and the dirty stale recycled air all spoke of a feeling of hopelessness when I looked around.
I spent the first five months there feeling small and afraid. I got good at dealing with personality types I'd never had to deal with before, and I got good at Spades, but in my mind was always the question, 'what's going to happen to me?' Occasionally I would meet with my attorney, but there were never any changes. The plan was always to throw myself to the mercy of the court.
After looking around me at the people I was with, I knew I didn't belong there. I knew that this life was not for me. The people there were violent and primitive. Control was exercised by use of force or intimidation. Obvious control, anyway. I gradually gained a certain level of control in a subtle way. I learned how to manipulate people and was able to create situations of my preference, sometimes. But this only demonstrated further to me that I was out of my element. I wrote a letter to the judge who would be presiding over my case and told him how I felt. I told him that I was far too intelligent for a life of this kind. I told him I knew I had the potential to make so much more of myself. I said a lot of things I hoped would persuade him that I was not the typical element to be found in this situation.
Even though I was fairly certain my parents weren't going to get me out, there was always a sense of uncertainty in my mind as to where I would go. I didn't know if I would be going to prison in a few months or if I would be transferred to a county jail in another county for holding, due to overcrowding. I didn't even know if I would be transferred to another section of the jail. It was a very disconcerting feeling.
After five months, it was time for me to be sentenced. This was the moment I had been waiting for. This was the moment when I would find out where my life would be headed for potentially the next four years. They called the people who had court that day first thing in the morning. I'd been briefed by my attorney so I knew when my court date was, and I was prepared. I shaved my face and pulled my hair back using a makeshift hair tie made from the elastic bands inside the jumpsuits. They took us through a tunnel under the street over to the courthouse and held us in the area that was once, years ago, the county jail. I was even more terrified then than I had been when I had first arrived. This area, now used only to hold inmates for hours at a time, was terribly crowded. The cells were dark, with only one dim light bulb per cell. The light was very inadequate, which left the place dark, depressing, and scary. I was afraid of what might lurk in the shadows of that place. The cells had the old iron bars like you see in western movies, only with the ugly yellow paint peeling and chipping off. And graffiti was carved on every available inch of space. Occasionally an attorney would come to the area outside our cell and shout the name of his client until the client squeezed his way to the front of the cell, at which point the attorney and client would talk about the case. My lawyer never appeared.
I was 20 years old, stuck in this dark, scary place with a bunch of other criminals but still alone, about to have the next four years of my life dictated to me by a judge. I was terrified.
A bailiff came and called my name. I was led into the courtroom where I saw my family, my accomplice who had made bail, and one of the people who had been in the restaurant at the time. The proceedings went as planned, and then the judge looked at me and said "I understand you have something you want to say." I nodded and pulled the folded piece of paper out of my pocket. Even though I'd written the judge a letter, I'd never received any reply. I didn't know whether he'd read it or not. This was my only opportunity to speak to the judge directly and know that he was receiving everything I said. Without repeating what I'd said in the letter, I made another appeal to the judge, promising my future ambitions and plans. I will never know whether either of those appeals made any difference to him, but I like to think they did. My sentence was three more months in jail followed by intensive supervision probation.
This began a completely different part of my time in jail. I went back to the same pod, the same section, the same cell, and the same group of people I'd left that morning, but I felt differently. I had been hoping to be released that same day to probation, so there was a keen, biting sense of disappointment. It hurt so much that it felt like needles through my chest. Mixed with that though was a huge sigh of relief. I would not be going to prison. I would not be thrown into a general population situation that would have been without a doubt a threat to my health and safety and the most horrible experience of my life. And, there was a feeling of resignation. I would be in that pod for an additional ninety days and there was nothing I or anyone could do to change it. Although my surroundings were less than ideal, it felt good to leave that feeling of uncertainty behind. It was a relief to know that I would be where I was for a while longer.
At that point I became as comfortable as I could be with where I was. I felt more optimistic, and it was during this time that I went through the most change as a person. It had taken a long time for the consequences of my actions to break through my thick skin, but it happened. One hears statistics about how some large percentage of those who commit crimes will eventually commit another. Rescidivism, they call it. After having been in jail, I can't imagine being there and *not* being changed as a person. I can't conceptualize it. Jail is a horrible, oppressive, dirty, angry, tense, and hopeless place to be. I won't say that I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but I'd certainly think twice about it.
Life in jail became easier for me at that point. I knew that when I got out I wanted to cut my hair short, bleach it blonde, change my style, and change who I was as a person. It was an external reflection of the internal change I had made. Jail was a smooth sail from that point on. I have never been so excited as I was the morning I was released. I had been in contact with my parents who in turn had contacted the probation office so I knew when I was getting out. Every minute seemed to last an hour that morning. I remember when I put on jeans and shoes again, they felt so foreign after eight months of wearing a jumpsuit. I have never appreciated life for itself as I did that day. I have never smelled such a good smell as the fresh air that morning and I have never seen colors so vibrant as those of the sky, the trees, the concrete and asphalt of that crisp November morning.
Two days later was Thanksgiving, and I spent it with my family.