From Holding Cell to the Big House-It’s Just a Bus Ride

The holding cell was a large enclosed room with no windows and the walls were cement cylinder blocks.  The room was 21 blocks high, approximately 14 feet; 18 blocks long, about 27 feet, and 7 to 8 blocks wide, 12 feet.  In the far corner of the room, opposite the doorway was a short wall 5 blocks high and five blocks wide which served as a barrier.  Behind it was a stainless steel toilet with no toilet seat, the back of the toilet culminating in a sink with three buttons: flush, hot water, cold water. In the panel of the toilet back was a round hole for storing toilet paper, but no paper was present.

The walls were painted dreary, dark, industrial beige from the floor to approximately four feet from the ceiling.  From that point upwards, including the ceiling, the room was painted an off-white crème, or winter white.  The floor was polished cement – imitation marble with brown and black specs to make it look like sand – I suspected it was really that way more to camouflage the dirt, than for its aesthetic value.  In the center of the floor – which gently sloped toward it- was a drain.

There were four light fixtures in the ceiling – the one closest to the door was square and not working; the other three were round.  Despite the size of the fixtures, they gave off little light and the room was shadowy and dark and a layer of musk lingered.

It was here in my holding cell waiting for transfer to the county jail that I had my first opportunity to meet and engage with my colleagues. Approximately one hour later, after I had memorized the intricacies of my holding cell, a young Latino fellow, not a day over 18, and the acne to prove it, was delivered to my chamber.  He was approximately 5’7”, 140 pounds, dressed in a blue tee shirt, tan khaki trousers and Adidas sneakers.  He smiled apologetically and took a seat on my right approximately six feet from me. He sat facing the door.  Periodically we would exchange glances, but neither of us uttered a word, lost souls just anticipating what was to happen next.  My immediate emotion was compassion. I felt for him.  He seemed so out of place, so young.

A few minutes later – though realistically it could have been hours – Spencer arrived.  Spencer was 5’10”, 280 pounds, a black man dressed in a brown leisure suit, white tee shirt, and white Puma sneakers.  Spencer was in a fiberglass – full body cast and carried a cane.  He took a seat to my left, and immediately lay down on the bench with a sigh.  It was obvious Spencer was no novice to this procedure, and his mannerisms suggested the whole process was more of an inconvenience than punishment to him. “Does any body know what time is it?” he asked.  I pointed to a clock on the wall just outside the door.  It was 10:25 AM.  “We need to get moving here, this thing is killing me,” he said, and pointed to his body cast.

My young Latino companion took the bait, “What happened?” he asked.

Spencer then began to report the details of his injury.  He had been run-over by an automobile, apparently driven by an individual who, a few moments earlier, he had challenged to a fight.  He had sustained a fracture of his lumbar vertebrae and a compression injury of his left leg.  He needed the cane to walk, but I was concerned that his breathing seemed drastically labored.

My initial response was to ignore him, but as time wore on his effort to breathe increased. He had now added humming and a grunting to his arsenal. When it became obvious to my young Latino colleague that Spencer could not go on much longer breathing like this – who was now staring in amazement at Spencer’s efforts – I spoke up, “You going to be okay?”  I asked. “Your breathing is getting much more labored.

“Labored?” he repeated with astonishment. “You a doctor or somethin’?”

“Yeah,” I said turning back to stare at the wall.

“Well, I hope I get to bunk with you.” was all he said, and then turned back to the task at hand – appearing as miserable as possible.  I just nodded and went back to ignoring him as best I could.  Unfortunately, only a few minutes elapsed before guilt overtook me.  I formally asked him his name and reassured him that I would look out for him.  That calmed his breathing and oddly enough, the theatrics also.

The clinking of chains once again interrupted the silence, and a fourth member was added to the group.  He was huge. He could not have been more than five feet tall, but had to be at least 400 pounds.  He was Latino, dressed in a black Izod shirt, black pants, and black sneakers.  He walked directly to the furthest part of the room, stretched  out on the bench, and promptly went to sleep – snoring shamelessly – and loudly – eliciting a giggle from my sheepish 18 year old colleague.

I spent what seemed an eternity there that morning; that is my colleagues and me. I had arrived there first – at approximately 8:45 AM.  It was now only noon. I already felt as if I had been there much too long. If this was any indication, doing time would be a very slow process and perhaps I had made a mistake. The three hours or so had passed in what seemed to take a month, and nothing had happened.  The guards passed the window –only occasionally – but when it occurred, they always seemed to be in a rush.  They had perfected the art of ignoring the inhabitants – making sure they made no eye contact by looking through the window so that one might get their attention, only to moments later rush past in the opposite direction, in equally as much a hurry, going – for all I knew – nowhere.

About an hour later there was a great deal of commotion, and just outside our window men in prison garb: orange and white stripes, black and white stripes and green and white stripes began to line up against the opposite wall.  I could not see their faces, as they all were facing the wall, but I was impressed with their hair-dos.  There were men in braids, dreads, shaved heads, ponytails and every other hair-do imaginable.  The four of us in this room were definitely going to be out of place amongst this crowd.  The guard then barked some orders that I could not make out, and in a flash, they made a quick left at the clock and were gone.  I thought I’d never see them again, but then our door swung open.

“Okay gentlemen,” the guard said, “we’re going to get you on the bus.  There’s a yellow line on the floor; stay to the left of it against the wall.  We then lined up, the 18 year-old, me, Spencer, and the sleepy big fellow, and to the buses – in chains – we shuffled.

The bus was a short, white, dingy thing with bars on the windows and “Sheriff” painted on the side in black.  It actually reminded me of the short buses you see in the neighborhood picking-up the kids who are mentally challenged. The step up was exceptionally high and in a post-operative boot and chains, I found it difficult to balance. Nor did it help that my hands were chained at my side.  The men in stripes, whom I had seen a few minutes earlier, were already on the bus.  They were laughing, and talking loud, and complaining about their experiences. In reality they just seemed too happy. Apparently, they all had been transported from jail to the courthouse for hearings. If you do not, or cannot “make bail” you stay incarcerated until the disposition of your case. That was their fate.

That served to clear up my first mystery: throughout my trial, I had from time to time sat in on cases where the judge had talked about “time served”. I was at a lost to understand first, what that meant and secondly, why people not yet convicted where dressed in prison garb. Now I knew.

As I reached the top stair, I looked down the aisle running through the center of the bus. Every seat seemed to be taken.  Fifteen inmates had boarded before me, and my colleagues.  I began the uncomfortable walk – chained and in a boot – toward the back and when I reached the next to the last seat, the young black guy sitting there alone slid closer to the window. I nodded and slid in.

The bus then grunted, jerked forward and off we were; a quick right turn out of the driveway and wham, we were skirting along over surface streets at 60 mph. The ride on the bus was an adventure in itself.  The shock absorbers were non-existent and so every bump on the road was sent through your entire body with a bone jarring thud. I sank lower in my seat to keep from being thrown out.  My young Latino colleague, who had boarded with me looked over and shared a frown.  This was beginning to quickly become a nightmare for him. The remainder of the group, the guys dressed in prison stripes, continued talking and clowning like nothing out of the ordinary was happening. This was simply a ride back home for them.

Behind me, a young black guy dressed in black and whites passed the time by screaming out the window, through the bars at women walking down the street. “There is one in every crowd” I thought.  A few quicker, dangerous turns were made, the driver careful to be sure that we encountered every bump and then a hard right. We pulled down a hidden driveway into a structure and the bus stopped abruptly.

The new additions to Solano County, my three colleagues and I, were the first to exit the bus.  The driver, a county sheriff, was explicit in ordering the others to remain seated.  Directly beside the bus was a sliding doorway.  He took us through it and sat us on benches immediately inside the door.

The “veterans” in their orange, black, and green-striped outfits filed off the bus and disappeared in the opposite direction.  As I entered the foyer of the building, heavy sliding doors closed behind me with a bang and a click.  The foyer measured approximately 12 feet square, benches were on either side, and the walls were painted the same beige as my holding cell had been.  The four of us, the new arrivals, sat in the foyer at the entrance to the building. We were incarcerated, but also not quite in.  There was enough security to suggest that escape was futile, and enough distance so you knew you were not part – at least yet – of what was going on in this building.  “You, my friend, are not in charge here, we are” was the message being imparted.

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