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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An Excerpt

How to Stay Out of Jail After 25
Chapter 1

The heavy clank of the cell door awoke me. I almost jumped up, aware that today was the day. After five months I was going free.

I survived.

One of my cellmates, a three inch mouse, sitting up on his haunches, looked at me with indifference while dutifully eating a chocolate chip. It was the third day in a row the mouse had the nerve to stare me down. He had obviously seen worse characters.

Shorty Mouthshot, my human cellmate, reminded me, practically yelling “today is the day, Dread”. He paused, smiling, watching me, then repeated louder ‘TODAY IS THE DAY’
The drab cell came to life with his booming voice. The sound of his proclamation ricocheted off the pockmarked walls. The mouse? He had heard enough and decided to dart, leaving a small remnant of his sweet snack.

The whole jail experience was new to me, when I first got there I was scared. I heard so many horror stories, watched so many prison flicks, my imagination ran wild. I envisioned the unsavory wrath of ‘booty bandits’ looking at life terms forcing their way into my life, stealing my highly coveted virginity. Images of the classic macho- rural rape flick, Deliverance, played through my mind like a grainy VHS tape. Except these guys were not apt to say squeal.

There was also very real possibility of someone testing their latest shank on me. A deranged sociopath; one of those guys they build jails for, attacking me in a bloodthirsty frenzy for some petty indiscretion.

I also feared the ever present gangs extorting what meager possessions I could call my own while the guards, barely earning their pay, stood idly by.All these fears lived and breathed inside my head. They had conversations, my fears told me I was going to die. As it turned out, Cook County Jail was a mans world and so far, I proved I was a man.

The First Day

I was scared, tired, angry and embarrassed. No one got caught jumping a turnstile, at least no one with a felony warrant and two hundred dollars in their pocket.

‘You coulda’ paid…… all that money you got’ the Chicago transit cop reminded me. I spied a healthy green booger starting to ,make its way down his left nostril. With each breath he took it retreated back in. The stubble on his chin was slightly speckled with the dry, greenish remnants of a previous ‘snotfall’. I always found it difficult to respect people like this.

He was not aware -nor did he care- that I was late to work and the best sections in the club I worked at where awarded to those who showed up on time. I was used to taking shortcuts and this was no different. Besides who wanted to get ready for work in a ‘smiling’ business with a boss bitching about late comers.

“Can’t you guys just let me pay”? I asked while tracking the progress of his booger.
The clear slime was blended with a sickening emerald goo that surely carried some deadly affliction, at least that’s what it looked like.
‘Nope, but we’ll get you out as soon as possible’ he cheerfully replied. He sounded like he looked; a polite customer service rep with questionable hygiene and a nose full of snot..

“But I’ll be late for work man…just cut me a break” I pleaded.

His tone changed back to the role he played best, arresting officer “Buddy…… it’ll only be a couple of hours” he looked back at me from the front seat of the squad car. I had been tracking his booger’s progress through the rearview mirror. I could see it clearly dangling, it was not going to make it back this time. “Besides, you can call your boss when we get to the station”

The laborious thought that I may possibly go free was stillborn, dead on arrival. I had a bench warrant and I knew beyond any doubt that I was going to sit for a minute……..months.

I was fucked.

I listened to the guttural slurp of breath that was impeded by his upper respiratory infection and liberal amount of snot as he stifled a cough.

As I descended into a state of depressed shock, I watched one last time as the transit cop thankfully wiped his sleeve across his nose.

Chapter 2

I was already on home confinement, a sweet deal awarded to a few, mostly connected, people. I had a class X felony, armed violence, which was basically possession of a firearm and narcotics.

According to the law, there was no probation. You either won the case or you owed the state a six year minimum. It was definitely designed to squeeze a plea bargain from the legions of drug dealers and criminals that kick back in court everyday. Home confinement, in special cases, counted as incarceration.
The overcrowded jails made home confinement a fitting alternative for a working man who may have stumbled onto the wrong side of the law. In Cook County 1992 there were a lot of working men stumbling around.

The judge assigned to my case was an observant man he took note of how defendants dressed. He watched how one behaved in his courtroom well before they ever got in front of him.

Lucky for me I paid attention. I watched him grimace and shift in his seat as he detected a lie. I watched him look at the bailiff in silent communication as he lifted his glass of clear liquid. He would take a healthy sip, smack his lips and exhale with gusto. His mood would worsen with each case. As the tension mounted so did the harshness of his final judgment.

I recalled his disgust in anyone approaching his bench from lock-up. He literally and figuratively, looked down on everyone that came before him.

Was it pity? Disgust?

There was something about the Department of Corrections uniforms that he loathed. His visible sneer and generally cold disposition would typically lead to numerous continuations and judgments against the already incarcerated defendant. He mixed in an occasional “I told you so” or “I would cut you a break but…” In his numerous speeches and lamentations. Sometimes, not very often, he would manage to laugh.

He kicked you while you were down, he piled it on and rarely issued a continuance less than a month. If you were trying to prove your innocence from behind bars and could not make bail, you were shit out of luck, it might take a while.

Amongst inmates he was legendary. “You got judge Dune”? The look they gave said it all, even the ‘jailhouse lawyers’, guys who thought they understood the legal process would shrug. “I can’t help you with him”.

His continuances were referred to as “A Buck Rogers”- the fictional hero who woke up five hundred years in the future- the phrase was almost always accompanied with “ther’ll be hovercrafts when you finally get back to court” the complimentary laughter from the captive peanut gallery would follow soon after.

Many guys, mostly in for petty theft or possession cases, simply fought their smalltime cases from behind bars. When the outcome was finally resolved they ended up getting time served and released immediately. That had to be the worst; a county year or more for stealing deodorant or possession of a ten dollar rock.

Many of the newly released would brag, ‘jailhouse lawyer style’, about how they played the judge. The blissfully ignorant world they lived in suited them just fine. Upon release they would be issued a jail card. The card carrying members of the stumbling bumbling crowd. They would be back soon enough.

There were many who approached the bench with two, three, even four open cases pending. When it came to crime these types were ‘all in’, go for broke enemies of decency and order. Every waking hour was spent committing or covering up a crime.

Most of the time it was drugs. Even when it was robbery or some other violent offense , drugs where behind it.

The defendant or, in some instances, defendants would come in off the street posse in tow. Sometimes they would laugh it up, savoring their temporary freedom while guys, already in jail, got incredibly long continuances or pleaded out on shaky cases. They knew how it worked . I overheard the perceived victories all the time.

“They didn’t find my shit” one guy bragged.
“All they got was a gun" said another.
“He stupid to take that deal” another future convict added.

The case would be called and Judge Dune, impatient with the whole process, would roll his eyes waiting for the continuance request. He wore his disgust like a badge. His surly disposition could easily be confused with indigestion or some other type of physical discomfort. He basically looked pissed off.

The Judge knew it would be a moral ‘stare down’; if the defendants were able to remain free while fighting their case and avoid racking up any additional charges, Dune would do all he could to get them out of his courtroom. He would entice them with a great deal and plead them out.

Dune did not waste his time trying to pressure these guys, some of them liked jail, or pretended to, these institutionalized victims of Stockholm Syndrome found a fitting survival tactic to make life bearable.

The lobby outside the court bustled with defendants, their friends, family and a dazzling assortment of Public Defenders.

Fat, short, tall, male, female, they came in all shapes and sizes. A bizarre reflection of the assorted people they represented. Some were experienced others were rookies. Some were stylishly dressed; obviously trust fund kids slumming in the public sector, waiting for something better to come along. Some really wanted to help, putting their time in for legal aid. Idealistic recent grads from law school. They were uncorrupted, not yet jaded by the bitter reality of a biased justice system- a biased system. Most , it seemed, could care less. It was anything but a law career it was thankless job for any guy or gal who simply passed the bar.

After being broken in most public defenders were simply trying to clear cases. The romantic ideals they came into the job with were replaced by cynicism and frustration. With straining arms and aching backs they were less interested in guilt or innocence than the judge or prosecutor. They were like mailmen- their work was never done- there would always be a backlog.

On the moral and ethical scale many could easily be compared to a car salesman trying to close a deal. When actually they were just trying to lighten their already heavy load.

I would listen intently- earhustle- as they dispensed advice. “Delshaun they’ll drop the gun charge in exchange for a guilty plea on the drugs” The brave façade of the defendant was temporarily replaced with wide eyed anticipation as they ignorantly weighed their limited options.
”Should I take it”

“Of course” was the usual response.

Sometimes they would lay out a doom and gloom scenario “You know if you don’t take it and the charges stick it is going to be additional time during sentencing” The P.D.’s could sense the naiveté of their client and would manipulate a plea to get the case off their roles. I could almost hear them thinking : take the fucking deal you stupid bastard.

Laying it on thick, they would sometimes add “ I’ll get a continuance and go into a 4-12 conference with the judge and district attorney. When you come back we’ll plead out to whatever deal they give us…….O.K.?”

I had overheard that canned suggestion dozens of times. I had also observed their relief when their client accepted.


The on going theme of customer service was apparent in their tone. Cook County Jail “Over a Million served”.

Many people on bail would, at some point, get in trouble doing something else; once again it was a case of making bail. If you came in front of the Judge from lock-up he lost all respect and you were done. Buck Rogers in the twenty fifth century. Most of the braggarts who talked a good game early on, eventually pleaded out after catching additional; charges. They would be led into court defeated, shuffling their feet, head down in front of Judge Dune in ‘county browns’.

The Judge locked up people based on their lifestyle if you were unlucky enough to get in front of him you were doing something wrong. Everyone got a chance; if you continued your ways and caught on another charge you would end up in front of him again.

He remembered names, faces. The A.D.A. always dutifully reminded him of the charges.

“Your honor Nyrelle Carter”

There was one particular assistant district attorney, portly with a white boy afro and Lennon glasses- spectacles. The specs gave him the misleading appearance of a liberal humanitarian. Someone who would be in Greenpeace, Sierra Club or Earthfirst. Someone who would understand, cut you a break.

He would always hold the paper up at arms length looking over the rims of his glasses, pause and clear his throat. He reminded me of The Sherriff of Nottingham orating the King’s proclamation in a Robin Hood movie. All that was missing was the herald horns.
He always had a never ending gargantuan caseload. The list of current charges, including criminal history, was stapled together in chronological order for each defendant he was prosecuting.

The Judge could make a quick assessment of what he was dealing with by the size of the file. Many guys that came in front of him were career criminals. They had charges going back decades, some had open cases in different courtrooms.

Sorting out the mess was sometimes difficult and if the defendant was out on bail any type of incarceration could be postponed by the confusion that can result from separate cases.

“Mr. Carter is currently in front of Judge Parnell on an unrelated gun charge”

Judge Dune would request a conference to discuss consolidating the cases. “ Mr, Carter do you have any charges we don’t know about”?

“No your Honor” Without investing one iota of belief in them he still extended the benefit of the doubt. If they were lying the paper would catch up to them soon enough and the judge would surely give them a special treat. He would look down over the rim of his reading glasses, his smirk firmly in place, to make eye contact; one last chance to tell the truth.

“Do you object to us requesting a transfer and taking care of this in this courtroom.”

“No, but I got to go before Judge Parnell next week”

There is no way to know what he will tell Judge Parnell. No matter what, he just bought three more months. The guilty as sin, defendant would then saunter out of court shedding the humble disposition he temporarily wore so well in front of The Judge

In The Cook County Courthouse and Jail at 26th and California you could get to know people. Despite the large size of the complex, people became familiar. I fought my case for two years and I have a photographic memory. I knew everyone there.

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