Last year my life was forever changed. I was arrested for DUI as I was driving home from a beer festival. As a long-time beer blogger and advocate of knowing when to say when, this was devastating. Over the next few weeks, I will be telling my story in hopes that my experience will resonate with my readers and deter them from taking any chances when their ability to drive after having a few beers may be impaired.
Read Part I of this series here , Part II here, Part III here and Part IV here.
In the cold concrete and steel walls of the Duval County jail, every sound reverberates and is amplified. In the middle of the night, curled into a ball on my bunk those sounds were terrifying; a muffled moan, snoring from multiple sources, crying and the sound of another new inmate begging to be let out of his cell. In the semi-lit – it is never fully dark in jail – confines of my cell these sounds echoed in my ears and amplified my feeling of hopelessness.
For several hours, huddled there, trying to block out the sounds, ease my mind and relax my body. But, the events of the night and reality of my situation prevented any sort of relief. Scenarios ran through my mind. Clichés from prison movies and television programs insinuated themselves into my consciousness and insisted that I would be abused at best and violated at worst during my stay. But, in what seemed a complete contradiction to everything I thought I knew, none of the fears were founded.
Daily life begins early in jail. At 5:30 a.m. the lights transition from a low, twilight-like intensity to full brightness. The doors to each cell unlock and prisoners are expected to get up and begin moving around. On the outside a huge two-story, floor-to-ceiling window at the front of the common area, guards can be seen moving around an elevated observation and control room. The raised vantage gives the guards views into each of the several cell blocks on the floor.
A door at the side of the cell block opened and the speaker mounted on the ceiling above the picture windows came to life.
“Lineup!” the voice on the speaker commanded.
At this all the inmates stood outside their cells as a two guards appeared from the opened door each using a mechanical clicker in their hand to count the inmates present. When all were counted the guards compared numbers announced their results and moved to a door opposite the one they had come in and moved to the next cell block.
Inmates who have earned the ability to work in the jail outside their cells – known as trustees – pushed large cabinets to the doors of each cell block and the prisoners inside line up on the inside. A guard stands with them and opens the door. The trustees open the cabinets and begin distributing the morning meal to those inside the door. As each prisoner takes a thick plastic tray, the guard uses a laser scanner to scan the bracelet and barcode issued to every “guest of the county” at booking and intake.
The meal consisted of a slice of white bread, grey and runny oatmeal, a piece of bruised and beaten fruit and a fruit drink. As my block mates carried their trays over to the stainless steel tables in the center of the common area, the bartering began. One inmate offered his oatmeal to the group in trade for fruit while another was collecting uneaten bread. Another was offering an item from his commissary allotment for fruit drinks. Life inside, it seems, is all about what you have and what you can trade.
After breakfast the daily routine of life inside the fortified walls of the Duval County Jail settled into a routine. Some inmates exercised, others went to one of the three telephones on the wall and made calls, still others sat around and talked. I sat at one of the tables trying not to draw the attention of anyone, but another inmate sat at the table with me and started a conversation.
Inside, other inmates are referred to by their last name or nickname. Within a few moments I learned that my conversation partner’s name was Squeak – I did not want to know why that was his name – and that he was in the middle of a four month stint for domestic battery. He told the story of how he hates the mistake he made and how he just wants to get back to his children. In fact, he said, it was his daughters fourth birthday that day and he could not wait to talk to her on the phone later in the day.
He looked rough, his arms heavily tattooed, his hair straggly and matted, his eyes just a bit wild. But, as I learned, you cannot judge a book by its cover. He was surprisingly verbose and sincere. He seemed genuinely sorry for what he did and was atoning by taking his punishment and learning from the experience.
Squeak was the person collecting uneaten bread that morning as well as packets of hot chocolate. He explained that he was going to make a prison-style birthday cake from the ingredients and anything he could salvage from lunch as dinner. The ‘cake’ consisted of the bread soaked in water and sprinkled with the hot chocolate mix then pressed tightly together between sheets of paper.
Over the course of the day I met many more of my fellow inmates through introductions by Squeak and others coming up to me out of curiosity. I did not look like them, whether for better or worse, I was more cleanly cut than most of the twenty or so others housed in my block. But, it did not seem to matter. I was treated with respect and even invited to join in a card game that is apparently universally played in jail.
Gradually, I learned the stories of many of the inmates in my block. Some were tragic others merely examples of being in the wrong place at the wrong time doing something that well, was wrong. One very large African-American man seemed to take delight in taunting and teasing the other inmate that had come in with me in the middle of the night before. The other new arrival was deep in the agony of alcohol withdrawal and was obviously an alcoholic. He was sweating profusely, shacking uncontrollably and moaning in pain. But, even his antagonizer did not go so far as to cause worry of physical abuse. It was more a sport for him.
As the day dragged on, I went to the phone and called home. My wife had already set up an account that billed my calls to our home. She had also already spoken with a bondsman who had agreed to post my bail as soon as I appeared before the judge later that afternoon. She assured me that the bondsman would get me out just a few hours after my court appearance.
Just after lunch – two slices of white bread, a grey-hued slice of bologna, a reasonably edible chocolate chip cookie and fruit cocktail – I was notified via the loud speaker that I should come to the block door to be taken to court. I was met at the door by a guard who took me to a hallway just outside of the cell block area. I was told to sit on a metal bench and not to talk to anyone else.
In a moment, several trustees arrived with two bins of chains attached to manacles. One by one, the other inmates in the hall with me were fitted with cuffs on their ankles and wrists. A chain was also placed around our waists and another connected to the waist chain was run between or wrists and ankles. The metal was cold and uncomfortable. The chains between or ankles were short and made it difficult to walk. I felt like an animal being herded to slaughter as the guards instructed us to walk to the in-jail court room.
The court room was as one would expect; paneled in dark wood with dark wooden pews for seating. In the front of the room the judge sat on a raised platform behind a large desk and an assortment of court reporters, lawyers and officials were seated in front of the judge. Instructions were given about plea choices and each prisoner was given an opportunity to speak directly to the judge.
There were at least a dozen there for the same reason as I was – DUI. The judge informed each that they could plead guilty and he would impose the minimum penalty of six-month’s license suspension, probation, community service and approximately $650 in fines. If a defendant wished to plead not guilty or not enter a plea he would set bail and a court date.
As each chained suspect took their turn before the judge, all of the DUI defendants plead guilty. When finally it was my turn the bailiff read my name and I stood to move before the judge.
“With your rights in mind and the plea offer I have provided,” the judge asked from his perch. “How do you plea?”
I considered what I had already seen and asked, “If I ask to speak to a lawyer before I make a plea what will happen?”
The judge seemed taken aback a moment then replied, “I’ll set bail for $2,500 and you will be released when bond is made.”
“Then,” I said. “I want to speak to a lawyer.”
After being returned to my cell block, I made a call to my wife and explained what needed to happen. She, in turn, called my bondsman and he promised to have me out that day.
Nearly six hours later at 9:30 p.m., after lockdown, my name was finally called over the loud-speaker along with the proclamation that I had made bail. My cell door unlocked and I walked to the cell block door. As I walked, my fellow inmates whistled and called out to me in congratulations.
One voice rose above all the others, though. It was Squeak.
“Don’t forget us,” he said.
To read the next part of this series click here.
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