People watching became a treat for me. This place was overrun with characters and the group on the upper tier was extremely interesting. They were younger and wilder than us older guys on the bottom tier. Their “unlock” was alternated with ours each day. This was done to limit the number of guys in the day room at one time; but more importantly it was done to separate guys who might not get along. Nonetheless, I was able to observe them from my cell and they offered amusing entertainment. The shouting and horseplay that engulfed the common room when they were released was odd. They were more like children released to recess.
The first one I was to meet from the upper tier was Corey. Our first encounter occurred when I looked up from reading “Great Expectations”. I sensed someone standing at my cell door and when I looked up, there was this little head peering through the slit that was my cell door window. When our eyes met, he immediately smiled and nodded nervously, “You got any sugar?” he asked.
“What?” I asked.
He smiled again, nodded and was gone. Cory was a small black guy with a round clown face and an unkempt afro and beard. He seemed to always have a smile and a look in his eyes that demonstrated that he never quite got what you were saying. During the next hour after I had first caught him looking in, Cory paraded past my window five or six times. He would look in, avoid eye contact, and if I happened to look directly at him, he would nod and smile, and then take off like he had seen a ghost.
A few days later at his “unlock”, this clown face with the dull, smiling expression appeared again. “You got any sugar?” he asked.
“What was it with the sugar with this guy”, I wondered. This time I walked to the window. Cory stepped back, a bit startled though I was at a loss to understand why – there was a locked door between us. “If I give you sugar, what’s in it for me?” I asked. Cory just smiled and nodded. I slid two packets of sugar under the door and Cory was gone.
It turned out that Cory had been my bunky’s (Mike) cellmate before, in this very cell. Mike had wondered where he had gone. When I told him the story, he just laughed. “That’s Corey” he chuckled. “He’s harmless. He’s just looking for sugar for his coffee, or to trade for something.”
Cory though wasn’t quite harmless. He was also relentless and annoying. He would badger you like a six year old and wouldn’t really quit until he got what he wanted. Corey made many more trips to my window after his first successful panhandle. And with time, his requests advanced from sugar to milk to envelopes. When I finally told him no, the visits became less frequent until they finally stopped. I never looked for Cory again. You don’t get attached here because people are shipped out – never to be heard from again – all the time.
Each of us dealt with being in Solano County differently. My approach was to control my environment and my schedule as best I could. My celly seemed to hope to sleep for the next eight to 10 years. Even the guards had their routines, but the one thing that was obvious was that they were even more miserable than the inmates. I’m sure, as part of their training, they were instructed to keep interaction to a minimum. And I’m sure they also realized that a great number of my colleagues were extremely dangerous. They had to be vigilant all the time. But I’m also sure the vast majority of the guards loved being in control, and so took the opportunity to shit on us all the time.
In the morning – and I’m talking 0400 – Officer Rodriguez would alert the cell block to the new day by banging doors and the portal slips to each room in succession, all the while screaming “wake-up – medications, wake-up medications.” I imagined that what he really liked was waking us up. He had to be up so why should we get to sleep. I began to listen for his entrance and anticipate his arrival at my door. I made sure my bed was made and I was dressed sitting, facing the window, so that when he peered in, I’d be looking at him. Our eyes would meet and he would be forced to swallow his scream – and his banging.
I also decided that I would never allow the guards to get away with grunting orders at me. If they grunted like I was wasting their time, I made them repeat their orders until it was an audible sentence. And if they persisted, I persisted in asking them what. “We are human beings,” I thought, “use the language if you want to communicate.”
Mike caught on to my game and would use that opportunity in the morning to enjoy a laugh. It was a good thing because it was really the only time we talked. His way of dealing with jail-time was to sleep. For the first three days the only time he was awake was during “unlock” and meals. He’d take a shower and then return immediately to the upper bunk first by stepping on the stool – then on to the desk and then his legs would disappear onto his bunk. I was amazed – and envious – how could he sleep so much. I was also interested to know who he was. What inklings of his personality I could grasp with so little data were few. He was easy going, almost passive in his demeanor, but he was articulate too – and probably – much like me –prone to long bouts of silence.
I didn’t really mind the solitude; my existence at Solano County was taking place in my head anyway. That was the advantage I had in being there as compared to the guards. I’m sure they found me frustrating because while they were stuck at a desk babysitting, I was in Paris, Monaco, Greece, Indonesia, Australia, New York and Japan. I had the opportunity to do something I would have never done on the outside – take the time to be with me. And I am sure that my gratitude at the opportunity was confusing to my keepers. I’m sure I seemed to be having a lot more fun than they were sure I deserved.
My fourth morning on E-mod started pretty much as the previous mornings had started: I would awaken at 3:45 a.m., consider my predicament slowly and then focus on the best of it, brush my teeth and await the deliverance of my medications. Breakfast was served shortly thereafter and Mike would descend from his perch to eat. He had no sooner climbed back to his bunk when the shrill, scratchy female voice tore through the speaker. “Cuvson: Court in 15 minutes. Let’s go.” And that seemed to be – at least from my perspective – all the notice Mike got that he was on his way to court that day.
But it wasn’t his going that was of concern, it was his return. As I shared earlier, inmates never discussed the crimes of which anyone was accused; we only discussed the process, the amount of time you had to serve, and the destination where that all would take place.
On this day, Mike returned visibly shaken and agitated and immediately went to his stash of food. He retrieved three of four crackers and began to pace in our small and sparsely furnished “apartment.” “You won’t believe this,” he began. “The DA made a mockery of the court system today and the judge didn’t say a world. Just took it?”
“What happened?” I asked, taking care to be inquisitive but again not too personal.
“They added on 21 more counts,” he said. “21 new counts were added to my charges. I’m looking at life in prison. As it is they got me for 8 years at 85% time. With that I won’t be out until I’m 60.”
“What’d your lawyer say?”
“Nothing. Sat there and took it.”
“What is he, a public defender?”
“Well I see what’s going on here. That’s the system and the DA is saying take the deal.”
“No, I get that” he said. “It’s just a mockery of the system though… 21 new counts… c’mon!” He then retreated to his bunk and the safety of his covers.
While I had no way of knowing what he had done and why, there was a sense of sadness. I lay on the bottom bunk staring out with no particular thought in my mind whatsoever. One thing for sure, I was now on the other side and it was pretty humbling. Some people, perhaps even most people, live there lives from day to day helpless, feeling like they are not being heard. That was part of Mike’s problem: no one was listening to him. I felt bad for Mike; just hearing about it made me mad. I’d probably strangle someone if I felt like they were ignoring me. My life, up to this point, demanded that I be heard.
I was also concerned for the Constitution and individual rights. Jail makes you focus on the rules. Each successive abuse of these guys who were well entrenched in the system seemed to chip away at what America was supposed to stand for – and ultimately at the freedoms of those people who were not in here – you.
His dilemma highlighted what is perhaps the most difficult part about being in jail: dealing with the inn keepers. It is not – repeat not – the threat of the other inmates. It’s the threat of the guards and staff that– somehow feeling you are less than they are- always approach you confrontationally and with belittling disdain. A politeness, so much as a simple hello, arouses a challenge from them. I remembered being in court myself and having the judge carry on a conversation with the attorneys as if I wasn’t there, and never once looking up from his papers to look at me. I felt for Mike. I hated that feeling immediately.
An example of what I mean is best demonstrated by my interaction with the nurse phlebotomist that same day. When I was summoned later by the tower guard to see the nurse, I walked across the day room with a great deal of anticipation. I cherished the idea of a normal, decent human interaction. I had no such luck. She was equally as nasty as any of the guards. I asked how she was doing and innocently – so I thought – what tests are we running today? She ignored me at first, and continued to re-arrange the chairs in the foyer. After finishing the rearrangement, she asked that I sit down, cordially enough but without ever looking up to acknowledge my presence. When I attempted to sit, she decided that the location of the chair was in fact not optimal, and asked me to put the chair essentially back the way it was when I arrived. I was okay with it, but it seemed a bit strange. Anyway, the object was to put my left arm in a direction that would make access easy for her to draw blood, so I didn’t press the issue. I got the impression she was mad at somebody, or perhaps just not having the best of days.
“So what test are we drawing?” I asked.
“A PT, INR,” she said.
“OK,” I said. She continued to gather her equipment for the blood draw and I continued, “By the way, I saw the doctor yesterday and he said…”
She cut me off. “Look, if you don’t want to do it, just say so.”
“What?…I’m not saying I don’t want to do it, I’m just sharing with you the nurse, what the doc…”
“Look” she interrupted again, “I don’t care what the doctor said to you; I wasn’t there. I’m going by what’s written on my sheet, you either want it or you don’t.”
To be frank, I was flabbergasted. I’d never encountered a nurse this rude to a patient. My mistake: I wasn’t a patient, I was an inmate. I was less than a patient; I was nothing. The guard witnessed the entire process but said nothing. He put a great deal of effort into ignoring us, at least me. He avoided any eye contact as I desperately sought help to understand what was really going on. “Well, I guess I don’t want it” I said. “I want to speak with the doctor.”
As I got up to leave she asked, “Well, are you going to sign a release or not?”
“A release?… Why would I need to sign a release?… No. I think I’ll just speak with the doctor.”
Now this is a woman, who, a few days earlier, was demanding to be seen as a “healthcare professional” – her words, not mine. I had witnessed her assault on another inmate. I had dismissed it as her having a bad day then, but the fact of the matter is: this was her, this is who she was. The real answer, however, was exactly what she had said before – she just didn’t care. She was just there to draw the blood. But surely a healthcare professional isn’t there just to draw the blood. A healthcare professional is also there to offer advice and guidance. So no matter how you slice it; the answer to what test are we going to draw today, is not, do you want the test or not?
In any medical office she would have been fired by now. She wasn’t and in itself, it spoke volumes about the posture of the staff at Solano County. This is the level of antagonism that you deal with on a daily basis when you are an inmate. You are in a state of constant psychological warfare. You spend approximately 22 hours a day in the cell. The temperature is kept at about 55º. The guards take the opportunity to turn the TV up so loud that any idea of concentration is gone. It’s a tactic that you see the FBI use in hostage situations and make no doubt about it, as an inmate you are in a hostage situation. I just question the rationality of this level of meanness. Nontheless, I did not sign her waiver or release and returned triumphantly to my cell.