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.

So I cover my ears, hold my nose, and close my eyes. And then I realize that the assault on my senses is the least of my worries. I'm in jail, man. Not at some tacky resort. Tossed in the hoosegow amid some of society's worst. And I'm griping about the color of the walls? I'd damn well better start worrying about survival. I'm below bottom now, buried alive and out of sight, with who knows how long before I get anywhere. So I fasten my seatbelt and begin the slow crawl of the incarcerate.

Like jail systems all across America (or so I've heard), Miami-Dade employs a very special brand of barbarity: bullpen therapy. Basically a program designed to teach a crook a lesson, this treatment consists of being bumped from one overcrowded cell to the next for no apparent reason. And then when you're sufficiently disoriented, left in limbo. It's kinda like having your psyche repeatedly shuffled, punched, kicked, and thrown off a cliff.

But it's the bullpens themselves rather than the periodic shuffling between them, that are most punishing. Crammed with a minimum of twice the maximum inmate capacity, each and every cell is a study in human depravity.

Despite the occasional once-over with some gut-wrenching disinfectant, the floors are caked with layer upon layer of impregnable filth, equal parts mold, dirt, sweat, and spit, though more often than not they're so littered with sprawled bodies it's hardly noticeable. And let's not forget the remains of the day's feeding, a meal that morning, noon, and night consists of four pieces of stale white bread, two slabs of often grossly discolored mystery meat, two slices of orange, and oily squares known as sandwich slices (none dare call it cheese).

This being not the most mannered of environments, much of what is meant to be ingested ends up on the floor. And it stays there until the roaches or mice cart it away, which is quite often. Add to this a motley array of men on the wrong side of the law who've no room to breathe, much reason to worry, and no concern for each other, and you have a scene worthy of H. Bosch, a masterpiece of bottled bedlam.

This is where I stayed, hour after hour after hour, until the longest of nights became my day in court.

Ah, court. The place where hopes are dashed, or worse if you're without private representation. If that's the case there's little hope anyway. On your own you're nothing but a maybe, your future dependent upon someone appointed by the state to do a job that's but a step to another job.

That's not to say public defenders are incompetent, mind you. In any other line of work, they'd rank well ahead of the pack. But no amount of competence could possibly compete with the insane workload strapped to the backs of big-city PDs. And just because your PD can't remember your name doesn't mean he or she doesn't care. These people care as much as anyone burdened with the weight of a violent age; they're just pressed for time. Unfortunately it's your time. So forgive them if they inadvertently send you up the river without a paddle. At least they gave you a boat.

Until this latest arrest my experience with public defenders had been peripheral. I had always managed to hustle up enough loot to get my own attorney into the courtroom. Yet even at a distance the woes of those at the mercy of state-appointed defense had been frightening. It was the legal equivalent of "Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am," a Tex Avery version of ready, set, next: name called, charges cited, deal proffered, plea. All in a nanosecond. But it's one thing to watch someone else drown. It's another thing entirely to go down in the same damn rip tide.

Figuring that my arrest was a mere formal, if pointed, request for me to officially answer for my actions, and assuming that the state couldn't possibly want much of me after all these years, I opted to ride out my court appearance without the usual hired gun.

Big mistake.
Putting faith in the fickle hands of state-appointed fate is like careening out of control in a car without a driver. You're betting on the slim-to-none chance that the vehicle might miraculously right itself. But it's a bet placed with someone else's money on a track slick with grease. Fast? Yeah. And suicidal.

The courts are designed to expedite matters, and they do it with incredible (and surprising) flourish. In truth they're too expeditious. Things just go too fast. If you blink, you'll miss it. And if you miss it, you'll have to go back and start all over again. In 21 days, maybe more.

That's how it was with me. A clerk called my name, a prosecutor mumbled something about violation and bond, the judge said set it off, and it was, or I was. Set off, that is. To be continued in three weeks. My "attorney" said nothing, I said nothing, and nothing seemed to happen. Except in that flash of an instant I lost something -- a three-quarter-month chunk of my life.

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