I don’t remember much of my first week at the Washtenaw County Jail. The first four days I was in the detox unit, knocked out on Librium to lessen the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Then I spent three days lying on an upper bunk, getting up only for brief bathroom breaks. People later told me I never said anything to anyone.
I should never have driven my car that night in August searching for more liquor. When the officer pulled me over at State and Stimson, his Breathalyzer put my blood alcohol level at .19–more than twice the legal limit. I showed up for my court date so disheveled and incoherent that the judge had me Breathalyzed again. That time, I blew a .15.
My much-deserved jail time was the best thing that could have happened to me: I sobered up, learned a lot, and met some very interesting people. But I never want to return.
At the end of the first week I’m back in court, wearing leg and arm cuffs. The judge tells me that if I want to get out of jail until my presentencing hearing in two weeks, I’ll need to enter Dawn Farm’s residential treatment program. It costs $4,700 a month.
I’m ready to sell my car, electric piano, computer, anything to get out. But I really can’t afford it. I apply for a scholarship to the Dawn Farm program but don’t get one. So back I go to J Block.
Mine is one of thirty bunk beds in an open area. There are tables and chairs for meals, a place to congregate, a computer with a few video games, a place to watch DVDs, and a “rec room” with a ping-pong table. With close to sixty men milling around and a large television, usually tuned to Fox News, it’s noisy. A lone corrections officer, or CO, sits at a desk monitoring us.
All inmates have tasks to do or we’ll get “written up” and face possible disciplinary action. After every meal, we wash and stack the chairs and mop the floors. But that doesn’t take long, so mostly people play cards or board games, watch movies, or sleep. A few of us older guys read paperbacks from the small library or write letters to folks on the outside.
With nowhere to go, time loses its meaning. Life revolves around meals, cleaning, staff shift changes, bunk checks, and lights out.
A typical day begins with breakfast a 6:40 a.m. Lunch starts at 11:50 a.m. At 3 p.m., the CO shift change, there’s a head count. We stand next to our bunks and recite our names and bunk numbers (mine is 25). It’s the middle of winter. If someone tried to escape, I wonder, how far would they get in plastic black clogs and a green jumpsuit with “Washtenaw County Jail” on the back?
Dinner starts at 4:40 p.m. We do a final cleaning at 10 p.m. before lights-out at 1 a.m.
A white male in his fifties, I’m a double minority: at least half of my fellow prisoners are African American, and 80 percent are under thirty. Few have more than a high school education, stable jobs, or any money. Some are here because they fell behind in child support, and some because they can’t afford the monitoring fees they’d have to pay to get out on probation.
J Block mainly houses people convicted or charged with misdemeanors. Along with drunks, we are users of heroin, crack, and amphetamines, and addicts of prescription medications. Most were originally sentenced to probation and ended up in jail after violating it by “dropping dirty” during a drug test, missing mandatory classes, not showing up for probation meetings, or not completing community service.
Frank, about my age, is here for insurance fraud. He couldn’t afford to pay a premium for a group of students in a summer camp, a kid got injured, and the fraud was exposed. He has an MA in English from the U-M and is a self-styled martial arts �xADexpert–he says he always positions himself so that no one can confront him. I don’t feel any physical danger myself, but Frank reminds me, “They’re criminals, John.”
Charles, another older guy, is willing to talk to anyone about his conversion to Catholicism. Unlike Frank, though, he doesn’t volunteer why he’s here–and if someone doesn’t volunteer, you never ask. He spends his time reading the Bible and writing a children’s book about Moses and giants. He says he was a successful insurance salesperson but his life went downhill after his divorce. He’s remarried, but his new wife is a crack addict; she doesn’t visit him in jail. Charles tries to start a 6 a.m. Bible study group, but stops when no one shows up.
Bob is thirty-three and has been homeless since age sixteen, when his parents threw him out for drug use. Crack has reduced his upper teeth to tiny black fangs. He says he can’t wait to get out, buy liquor and cigarettes, and head for a parking structure to get drunk in a stairwell.
At forty-seven, Bill owes over $100,000 in back child support and will spend a year here as punishment–how he can pay while here is beyond me. He never hears from anyone outside, has no money to buy things in the commissary, and no place to go when he gets out; he figures he’ll end up at the Delonis Center homeless shelter.
He’s fatalistic about this, since he’s had many past violations, including one DUI after he totaled his Corvette ten years ago. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been here; I can do the time,” he says without emotion.
Two weeks after my last encounter with the judge, I’m back in court. Since this was my first offense, I assume I’ll get out on bail, even though I didn’t attend the Dawn Farm program.
No such luck: the judge tells me I should be able to pay for Dawn Farm because I have a “good job.” My attorney reminds him that I am getting my teaching certificate at Washtenaw Community College. Then he places me: “You’re the one that appeared in my court drunk.” He sends me back to jail and orders me to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a free four-week program Dawn Farm runs on the inside.
In three weekly three-hour classes, we write weekly “acceptance letters” outlining our drug use and how it has affected us and our loved ones and take turns reading them aloud. My classmates can’t believe my stupidity in showing up at court drunk. I can’t believe the horrors they’ve seen: losing parental rights, attempted murders and suicides, and finding loved ones dead from overdoses.
Even scarier, I’m told (outside of class) that when someone dies of an overdose, other users try to get their hands on drugs from the same batch–they’ll risk their own lives to get the powerful high. One looks at my arm and comments, “You’ve got a great vein for [injecting] heroin.”
I’ve had a boil on my back for the past year. In early January, after one too many attempts to squeeze it out, it starts to hurt and I request medical help. A nurse decides it might be an antibiotic-resistant infection and sends me to a small one-man cell in B Block, where the guards deliver my meals wearing plastic gloves and face masks. I feel like a leper.
A doctor examines me and lances the boil, and after three days I’m released from quarantine. But instead of rejoining my friends in J Block, I’m sent to K Block, which has just reopened after being closed for painting.
I don’t know anyone there except Hank, who’s also from J Block. Everyone calls him “Shaggy” because has an uncanny resemblance to the cartoon character from Scooby Doo. A self-described “pothead,” he’s here after dropping dirty while on probation for stealing power tools.
In J Block, he was one of five young inmates from Chelsea. But the other four members of the “Chelsea Mafia” didn’t like Shaggy–they said he had stolen money or drugs from them. They threatened to beat him up in the shower area–the one place out of sight of security cameras–and he reported the threat to the CO.
In jail there’s nothing worse than being called a “snitch,” so Shaggy was moved for his own safety. He doesn’t get along here either–he’s constantly complaining and asking to move to another unit.
Two of his Chelsea adversaries are in my Dawn Farm program. Daily they tell me to tell him that they are going to get him when they get out. I don’t bother to tell him–he’s got enough problems.
Jerry arrives two days after me. He has an MA from my alma mater, Eastern Michigan, and is an accountant in Ann Arbor. He’s been sending Facebook notes to his ex-wife threatening to kill her, offering $10,000 to anyone who will do the job. He claims he was drunk when he wrote the posts, but he also made the mistake of yelling at the judge during his arraignment.
“Dad, I don’t deserve to be here, get me out!” we hear him demand in a phone call. “I’m not like these other guys–I’m not a criminal.”
The next arrival is a seemingly angelic cherub. Eddie looks no more than fourteen but is actually seventeen. He tells us he’s been in and out of juvenile detention since age thirteen and is a “celebrity” in Ypsilanti criminal circles.
His home life is less than hopeful: his father is serving twelve years in prison, and he says his mother is “hell-bent” on making things difficult for him. At fifteen, he burgled an elderly couple’s home and took one of their cars for a joyride. He trashed it, took a bus back to the couple’s house, and stole their other car. Driving it through Ypsilanti he cut off another driver, who got so angry he called the police.
When the cops realized he was driving a stolen car they gave chase. Eddie crashed through a fence at the Willow Run airport, hid in some bushes, and was later caught walking down a street. He happily reports that both Channel Four and Channel Seven ran stories on the escapade.
He’s not happy to learn that if he’d pulled that stunt as an adult, he’d be looking at several decades in prison. But because he was a juvenile, he’ll be released in ten months when he turns eighteen. He works at a fast food joint in Ann Arbor and hopes someday to get a driver’s license and become a truck driver.
I like Eddie, so it bothers me that he seems to enjoy being here. Given his home life, no wonder–but I worry that his desire for “excitement” will end in serious prison time. God knows what would happen to him in prison–all 140 pounds of him.
One CO has no doubt about what’s ahead. He points to Eddie and says, “That kid is my future job security.”
On my fifty-second day in jail, I’m loaded in a van with three other prisoners and whisked to the district court downtown. I see my attorney, who tells me I’ll be getting out today. We just need to know on what conditions.
The judge remarks, without elaborating, that my case is one of the most “bizarre” he’s ever seen and asks me if I have anything to say before sentencing. I apologize for my actions, and he says he was just protecting the public by locking me up. I add that this experience truly has been helpful. I have no desire to return to jail and am thankful for my fifty-two days of sobriety.
My probation includes daily Breathalyzer tests for ninety days, probation for a year and a half, an alcohol evaluation, and attendance at a Mothers Against Drunk Driving meeting. I also must attend a minimum of three weekly AA meetings and get a sponsor within two weeks. It’ll be a while before I’m allowed to drive again.
When I get back to the jail, I give a thumbs-up to my fellow inmates. We shake hands solemnly, and I give Eddie all my possessions: three packs of ramen noodles, a bag of nacho cheese Doritos, an apple, an orange, and a plastic bowl to use in the microwave.
In a holding cell near the exit, a CO hands over the clothes I was wearing during my first drunken court appearance more than seven weeks ago. I put them back on, and walk out the door.
* All names have been changed.