My Life in Jail

There are plenty of wonderful places to spend the holiday season in South Florida. As the author explains, the Stockade isn't one of them.

Until, that is, some two-plus years later, when I returned to the town that made me a criminal, was picked up at my hotel on the warrant that had been revived in my absence, and tipped to my second jailhouse Golden Truth: The law never forgives a debt. Now I was gonna pay. The question was just how much.

Every Greater Miami Jail Tour starts in the municipality of the infraction. In my case it was swingin' South Beach, where the house that Miami Vice built looms almost as large (and inexplicable) as the legends that helped create it. Located smack in the middle of The Strip, amid all the nouveau glitz and glam, the Miami Beach Police Department headquarters on Washington Avenue seems perpetually posed for its closeup, forever primed for the attractive video feed should the international press corps again descend to cover another jet-set tragedy. It's Miami Moderne at its least finest: sleek, angular, superfluous.

So this is where Crockett and Tubbs brought all their bad guys, I think. Mind if I say, Wow? Forget that it's monstrous. This is show biz! Eyesore or not, Miami Beach's cop coliseum boasts some of the cleanest cells in this or any other jurisdiction. And though I spent less than three hours as their guest, the Beach crew's cleanliness was a fond fact that would continually run through my mind as I sank further into the darkness of Dade.

Next stop: the proverbial downtown, where the Beach's television gloss quickly fades before the grimness of the Dade County Jail, or as they say in the trade, DCJ. This is where the shock and the horror and the disbelief finally kick in, like a fist. Forget the Hollywood illusion of that cop shop across the causeway and say hello to savage reality. DCJ is ugly, foreboding, and quite simply, filthy. And that's just the outside.

Easily spotted from State Road 836, adjacent to the county's criminal courts, DCJ inside is a fluorescent inferno that would give Dante pause. From the minute I enter the remote-controlled foyer by the transport officers' firearms drop, where the newly incarcerated are made to stand against the wall and wait, it's obvious I'm about to take a heat-endurance test: physical, mental, and emotional.

From the vestibule vacuum, I'm uncuffed and ushered into the glare of the booking area, a sort of assembly-line processing center, where I'm positioned against a wounded wall (How many heads have been hit here?) and instructed to take off my shoes and place the contents of my pockets on a gut-high table. Immediately my smokes and my matches are scooped into a trash can (tobacco is contraband in the county's jails), my shoes are turned inside-out, my money is counted and returned, my watch is catalogued and enveloped, and just in case I'm really slick, I'm shoved against the wall and frisked for the umpteenth time.

Satisfied that I'm now without weapons, drugs, or nicotine, I'm led over to another table for fingerprinting, which, unless one's fingertips are abnormally disfigured, no longer consists of black ink, a roller, print cards, and Handi Wipes. Now John Law has at hand a federally linked, computerized scanner, so I'm spared the old-fashioned mess in favor of large screens and Windex. After being cybertagged, I'm booted to yet another wall (this one charmingly stenciled with a height chart) and propped up in front of a massive Polaroid for a quick mug shot, then it's around a corner to a telephone. Whether or not I've decided to ride out the night without an attorney, there's no way I'm gonna miss a chance at outside communication. So I call a chick ... and get a machine. Then another ... ditto. And finally a pal of mine. And just as he answers the phone -- no machine! -- a guard grabs the receiver from my hand and says, "Time's up." Ouch. Now I know I'm no longer a mere arrestee, I'm again a bona fide inmate.

Now booked, it's off to a holding cell -- three walls, two benches, and one classic jail door -- designed for six people but containing ten, twelve, or fourteen. Immediately I'm struck by the clamor of doom: Hysterics moan and wail, middle-aged drunks shed audible tears, and young veteran toughs (called jits or jitterbugs in the trade) shout out to their pals on both sides of the bars. Even the stoic and silent are possessed of a despair that's almost deafening. It's the racket of crime and its urban solution; the asphalt-jungle cries of capture and confinement.

With that noise comes the stench, a tangy smell of fear, the gamy scent of the mock-brave, the pungent odor of the gutter. Imagine spoiled milk, rotten eggs, rancid meat, and desperation. A suffocating abundance of aromatic badness. In such way-too-close quarters hygiene becomes moot, a bare memory. Even if you had just emerged from a long, hot shower (unlikely) and doused yourself with a liter of jail-issue de-licing fluid, you'd still end up reeking of the man to whom you're handcuffed.

But beyond the racket and the stink, one of the more unsettling aspects of DCJ is its color. Yes, color. Or I should say "color tones," because there is not a color in the natural world that even vaguely corresponds to the shades coating the walls of this infamous South Florida institution: nauseous, far too pale, eerily murky. Where the hell does this paint come from? What sadist selects these shades? Has research proven that these putrid hybrids are psychologically immobilizing?

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