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Memoir: Part 2

Installment 2

At this point I had been locked up in a real pod for 36 hours with other inmates. 'Little Tommy' or was it 'Timmy' (who can remember, having only heard the name in passing) hung himself. Seems he was known. Something you get used to is people all knowing each other in jails. Coming from the same 'hood,' constantly relating to each other news from the outside. Not being from the hood alone marked me as an outsider, not being from the same socio-economic class made me totally other, not to be trusted and sure as all get out not to be cared for. No one dared confide in me anything. I heard taunts and earnest requests that I convey sometime in the future what really goes on inside. They believed that being white and privileged 'someone might listen to [me]' - I assure them that I am as screwed as they are. They don't believe me because no honkey could be that screwed and we settle into mutual a disregard. 'Tourists' come and go in every jail I encountered, but the 'locals' in local jail is the typical population.

What did we do to pass the time in jail? Unlike prison, there is so little to do in jail. Most just talk to each other while you sit around on a steel bench or concrete floor. There's only so much sleeping you can do. Rumors go round, stories, some jokes. All are annoyed, some worried, but for many it's just part of the process of their lives. For many, the cycle of arrest and the process of the system are all too familiar. Their communities are inured to their people being locked up, they see themselves as under siege, definitely them vs the system.

Processing. They can't use cattle prods, so instead they scream and threaten, though the jails with tasers use them freely. Hurry up and wait. Some jails are notorious for processing you in and out very slowly. What incentive do they have anyway? You're not a customer, not even a person, just scum units to be processed. Hours and hours sitting in various rooms till you're marshaled out to another room to sit for more hours. In between you may see a disinterested party that makes a few entries on a form, but no news. Meanwhile the men you're crammed in with suffer from withdrawals, delusions, D.T.'s, psychotic episodes, and worse.

Once you are a prisoner, there is no “due process”, no legal rights to speak of. The jail may overtly inflict whatever is constitutionally allowed and secretly whatever they want to maintain “control,” a vague term that varies from one jailer to the next. It all seemed to depend on how scared, bored or angry they were at any given time. Bored staff who have to deal with some of the worst people in society come up with new and interesting ways to break people down. New charges can be added to your charge sheet, privileges withdrawn, and it is always just your word against the staff member as to what happened to bring on the heat.

'Roger' was a former Marine who was "going through a period of homelessness," in his own words. He awoke from some kind of stupor under the bench I was sitting on. Waking up and finding yourself in jail must suck, but it wasn't his first time. I was reminded of the times I woke up in hospital: the first time I was relieved, then subsequent filled with "not again" knowing the pain of the injury that would come when the drugs wore off and the rehab began so I could appreciate his moment of disorientation and dismay. He and I chatted to kill the time. Seems he was on the railroad tracks facing central prison, throwing his empty bottles at the prison fence when the cops rolled up. They arrested him for belligerence and trespassing. A hard upbringing, no social safety net, a lot of PTSD and self-medication; the dude liked a drink.

'Not knowing' is the hardest thing for a person to bear. Many elite military units finish their grueling physical & mental exercises for admission by leaving the applicant just sitting around waiting without news about how they did while trainers surreptitiously watch them to see how they respond to uncertainty. None of us had any idea how long we would be where we were or what would happen to us. Being completely helpless produces a certain look, maybe a suppressed flinch. When it's on every face around you, it resonates.

Uncertainty coupled with total removal from news about loved ones produces its own kind of stress. I remember worrying over my wife and her condition, as she was pregnant at the time. I wanted news of her, news to her, you get the picture. Of course that wasn't possible, so instead I just sat listening to the screaming, and in jails and prisons it's always screaming. From the mentally ill to those who never learned 'inside voice,' there's a constant din. Jails are never insulated as insulation is flammable. They are made of steel, concrete and plexiglass; wonderful echo makers. So compound the din with the echo of the din and imagine if you can a continuous cacophony, the opera of the damned. Instead of connection, news, relief from worry, just the din. So you sit and worry if anyone knows you are in jail, do you have an attorney (the appointed public defender said “g'bye” and went silent days ago). There is nothing to do but fret about all the stuff you can't do. Being powerless sucks.

I began to hear from other detainees about the Federal system and what I heard was was not good. It seemed I was to have a bond hearing on Thursday or Friday, and that gave me a hope to hang on to that I might be released on bond until I "took the plea" (none of the federal detainees suggested that a trial was in the offing. All but the wealthy plea bargain because federal trials are just too expensive for normal folks. I admit I didn't believe that at the time, I just heard it and assumed I would find a way. To my chagrin, I learned otherwise in the fullness of time. Tuition, it is said, is always expensive.

[Plead guilty? Yep. Seems that the Feds in the US have a 99% conviction rate. They don't need evidence and you can't beat them (remember when I said hearsay is admissible) as they control the narrative presented to the court with virtually no chance for refutation. [The best synopsis of this incredible tilting in he prosecutions favor in the USA was from The Economist of London, which, in the summer of 2014, had a cover story entitled "Why US prosecutors have too much power]. If this interests you, you can also read such fine legal thrillers as "The Lincoln Lawyer" from Michael Connelly, or the wonderful book The Racketeer by John Grisham which I highly recommend because in it he destroys the Department of Justice (DOJ) & the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) with some hard truths they'd rather not have cast about.]

Meanwhile, I'm sitting in bedlam, on a hard bench fretting. Naturally my thoughts were all about my innocence. I didn't even know what I was being charged with. What I was learning, though, was that there is a judicial assembly line from which no one gets off. That gave me a new topic to fret about and so the week went.

Friday morning I was still living on a floor when I was awoken by a flashlight in the face (better than the toe of a boot) and placed in holding cell alone downstairs at 4am. In the next couple of hours it filled with primarily Latinos who were being deported (a roaring trade), and I had a chance to practice my elementary Spanish and discuss what they thought was going to happen to them (We were in a cell built for about 6, but there were 16 of us and some had dysentery, which was unfortunate for all of us).

They actually chained me up with all of them before one guard asked where I was from. I said in English "Mexico" (Hey, it was worth a shot.) and the rest of the guards laughed at him. Learned a lesson then; do not make one guard the butt of the jokes of his coworkers. Did I say, “Tuition is always expensive? **

Back in the box, after couple of hours go by, an unidentified agent came and took me to court shuffling in full Hannibal Lecter shackles and chains. Made a great looking defendant, unwashed and looking like I just spent the morning in an overcrowded cell - did I mention the dysentery cases? - unshaven, well you get it.

I was the Federal court house, in the cage when the public defender came and told me that my family was in the court room. She had managed to get in touch with them. The PD told me the family were all well but of course worried. As the cased was “sealed, the attorney could not discuss the case with them." The PD then then told me that she'd been in touch with my in-laws in the UK and that the UK police had raided my house on Wednesday. From that information, the PD determined that the AUSA had decided to prosecute me.

A US probation service (USPS) representative came and interviewed me. The USPS is the government agency that handles pre-trial probation for federal prisoners who are to receive bond. So this was good news. The representative said said that I would, of course, be a good candidate for bond and that I would be able sign a document saying that if I failed to appear I would have to forfeit $100,000.*** He also said that the hearing would just be a formality. I was then led into the hearing and the prosecution opened by laying out a large criminal conspiracy with unnamed individuals. My mother took the stand and the judge said that she is a fine person for me to live with on bond, but the prosecution objected saying that "they have questions" and that they wanted me classified instead as a flight risk and that I should not therefore be granted bond. The judge shrugged and all of a sudden I have no hope of being on the outside awaiting trial. My PD utterly choked, presented no counter-contentions, sought no relief. So, in summary: we said nothing coherent throughout the hearing, did not challenge the prosecution's characterization of “flight risk," nothing. Wham, bam, it was done and the judge turned to the next case. I didn't know at the time that I would spend the next 19 months in the jail system with 12 months straight in solitary confinement as they ratcheted up the pressure.

Denied bond, I was placed in the jail system for an indefinite time in an undefined place. I described jail already. Conditions there are dreadful and, it seems, intentionally so. Dreadful conditions influence a detainee's willingness to fight for their innocence. The Assistant US Attorney (AUSA) determines when a case will be heard, and AUSAs can, and do, keep people in conditions the UN calls torture, for years trying to, and mostly succeeding, to breaking them so they will plead plead guilty. ****

Imprisonment, if it teaches nothing else, does at least compel a submission to the inevitable which resembles patience.



* It seems most were picked up in stop and frisks, or traffic stops, or raids on businesses - none were actually charged with any crime in the USA so they were simply being put into the private prison industry for an indeterminate amount of time where they would see judges on screens in proceedings that weren't translated and eventually, after the private prison industry took their time and a lot of money from Uncle Sam, drop them at the Mexican border with no money/phone etc. Seems that our border with Mexico is kind of in civil war at this time thanks to our war on drugs, so they were enthusiastic about the process.

**The Constitution lists only three federal crimes; piracy, counterfeiting & treason, but years of get tough on crime legislation has expanded the number of things that are federal crimes are require imprisonment to over 500,000. Worlds' largest prison system remember…

*** On the state level, everyone except the very worst of the worst are granted bond as the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to reasonable bond so that one may play a role in their case and not be coerced into pleading guilty by rough treatment before trial. The way state judges get around this is to make the bonds ridiculously high. Therefore there are over 500,000 people in the jails in the US (as of 2011 according to the Economist) who can not afford their bonds which in total exceed $16 Billion US dollars. Legislation to prevent this practice is constantly stalled by the efforts of lobbyists for the Bail Bondsman Lobby & the Prison Guard Lobby, amongst others, who are trying to protect their racket or jobs. Bail bondsman in the US issue bonds for people in exchange for a non refundable fee, usually a minimum of 10% of the total bond amount, but as high as 30%. So a bond of $100,000 would require $10,000 to $30,000 in non refundable fee to the bondsman. If you have property (e.g. house & land), you may place it directly in bond to the state, but it is only a percentage of tax value, not the current market rate.

In the Federal system, bond is issued through the USPS as I described above, with an evaluation being made of the person by interview and a review of their record and assets. This deal is worked out before a bond hearing. However, there was a piece of legislation in the mid 1980's called the Bail Reform Act which states that Federal judges - it is usually magistrate judges, not senior sentencing judges, who hear bond hearings and 96% are former prosecutors (thank you again The Economist) - may deny anyone bond who is either a "flight risk or a danger to the community". This extremely broad definition allows most Federal detainees to be denied bond based on the prosecutor inferring at the bond hearing that the defendant would be or is, one of those two things. So if you've ever walked out of your front door, you're a flight risk and if you've got any criminal record, you're a danger to the community. ****Recently President Obama told the Federal Bureau of Prisons to stop using solitary confinement so much. This will affect only a portion of the nearly 100,000 people in solitary conditions - conditions that I will describe later and which the UN Special Raporteur for torture called in January 2012 "Torture" - as the AUSA's keep innocent until proven guilty defendants in solitary at state facilities, thus getting around the injunction. The good news from the President's directive, and he is the head of the Department of Justice, is that its use on juveniles - that's right folks, we don't just execute mentally handicapped juveniles (thank you Texas) we torture them to the tune of 16,000 at any given time - will be reduced.

Steven N. Greenoe

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