The Slammer

 

Kile Ozier tells his tale of being incarcerated for one very long weekend in the Los Angeles County Jail.

On the morning I was to go to the courthouse and report for jail, I got up, showered, dressed in my baggiest chinos and sweatshirt, and did not put in my contact lenses. I wanted to be as self-contained and independent as possible. Bob, my lawyer, had said that I would be placed with the other white-collar guys who were in for the same reasons and not to worry.

My cast had been removed just days prior, and I was able to get around on crutches.  The pain was incredible, still; and the weakness in my legs profound. It was going to be an extremely protracted recovery process; this was clear. Bob had told me that this was the best time for me to “do my time,” as I was clearly an invalid, and would be placed in a “hospital ward” and treated better. In retrospect, I don’t know why I believed him; nothing he told me would happen had actually transpired.

Miss Lacey arrived to bring me downtown. Thank god for her and that wonderful, friendly face. She sat next to me in the courtroom until my name was called and I was seated in the jury box while the rest of the men due for processing that afternoon were called-through. Then, she left; and that was the last civilized thing I saw for a long time. It was 1:30 in the afternoon as those doors closed behind her.

They herded us into an elevator and took us to the basement, where we lined-up along the wall, facing the wall, with our hands on the wall as we were searched by the last semi-friendly officers we were to encounter. When my turn came and I was asked to empty my pockets, the officer took a look at the miniature pocket knife given me by the Director of Photography on my last film, and informed me that I could be re-arrested for having brought a weapon into the courthouse. Actually, he was pretty nice about it, and told me he would put it with my other personal effects that I could collect as I left the jailhouse on Monday.

Then, he took my pain pills. This was not a good sign. He said it was against regulations for me “to take narcotics into jail.”  Notwithstanding the fact that these were all that made it possible for me to move about at all, they had to be confiscated. “Not to worry,” though; there was a doctor at the jail and, as a part of the induction process, I could see him for replacement medication. It eased my mind, even though it was a myth.

 ♦◊♦

So. We were all (about 25 of us) put into a holding cell at the end of that hallway in the basement to await transportation to jail. I was definitely the only “white collar” guy in that group. We waited, until, finally, we were herded into a much larger holding room along with similar groups from the several other courtrooms. By now, the group was about 100 men, most of whom seemed pretty familiar with the process.

Still, the only “white collar” guy.

I had seen no clocks or windows since exiting the courtroom at 1:30, and had no idea what time it was as the officers began to call out our names, form us into groups of four, and chain us together. Yes, this is true. They would cuff each man’s hands together and then chain him into a foursome for transportation to the jail.

Upon seeing that I was on crutches, the officer in charge decided I would be chained to just one other guy and by only one hand so that I could actually use the crutches and move. He called-forward a prisoner whom he apparently knew (this was not unique among this group, a group that was, at once, both hardened and blasé), and chained us together.

The huge metal door at the end of the room opened into a huge garage with a rollback wall…and it was dark outside! Dark! I had entered the building at 1:00, and now it was dark. A sinister black bus with barred windows pulled-into the room and stopped. It looked just like the one that Harrison Ford barely escaped from in “The Fugitive.”  BECAUSE IT WAS ONE OF THOSE BUSES!

With us all finally aboard and seated, the vehicle began to vibrate forward. The windows were blacked-out, and I couldn’t see out to determine where we were going. It didn’t really matter. I had no idea.

After much twisting and turning and continuous vibration, the bus pulled to a stop and the doors were unlocked. We stepped-out into a halogen-lit, barbed wire topped, walled parking lot and were herded into L.A. County Jail alongside groups from several other similar buses. Today’s crop of convicts had arrived at the terminus. I was one of them.  The reality of the depth to which I had sunk was immediately pounded into my consciousness.

It was organized pandemonium inside. Uniformed officers were shouting at us and at one another. It was clear we were lower than dirt to the officers processing us because they told us we were lower than dirt. Often. Loudly.

As the groups were herded into the building, a couple of officers were looking us over, unlocking the manacles, separating and pulling-out the wounded, crippled and damaged.  We were in a honeycomb of rooms with walls that were cinder block to about four feet off the ground, then glass to the ceiling. Lines had been drawn in the floor, about two feet from the wall and we were made to stand on that line, facing the wall as the officers frisked us, again.

Now, it was time to turn-in our civilian clothes and put on the prison blues.

At this point, we who were to be put in the “hospital ward” were separated from the growling pack, given our prison clothes and led to a changing room. There were five of us, and we were put into a small bathroom, the size of a regular bathroom stall unit with toilet included and told to change our clothes.

Five grown men in a bathroom stall would be tight. Five damaged men trying to change clothes and dodge falling crutches at the same time is even tighter. When the “kid” among us began to vomit, it became even tighter. At that point, the officers removed the vomiting kid, and the rest of us finished changing, gathered-up our civvies and joined the mob outside.

We waited as they began to call names. The lucky ones found seats on the thin metal benches that lined the walls of the waiting area; the rest of the men stood and leaned.  The ones who attempted to lie underneath the benches were immediately rousted by the Boys in Uniform.

These were, virtually, boys in the officer’s uniforms. My guess is that the Friday night shift at the jailhouse is not the one for the most senior of officers.  My further guess is this shift is probably the lowest priority for those with the least seniority. These guys were young, studly jock-guys who probably went right into the Police Academy after graduating from High School in central Orange County and turning-in their Young Republican and Hitler Youth membership cards.

They were having a great time, though. Strutting around, puffed-up and steroid-inflated in their tight uniforms and tossing paraphernalia and epithets around like a volleyball team. At some point in this Kafka-esque continuum, my name was called. By now, there were six of us in the “hospital” group. We were wedged into another, larger group; put into single file and led to have our fingerprints made and pictures taken (front, side, number around your neck, the whole bit). This took about a month, and we were then left in another metal bench-encircled hallway to wait some more.

Finally, the six of us were called-out and led along a series of hallways to the “doctor.” When my turn came, I went into a small room with two ancient wooden desks crammed into it. There was a big guy and a small guy. The big guy did nothing, and the small guy had me fill-out a form and tell him why I was on crutches and needed painkillers.

When I had finished that charming little process and asked for my replacement Vicodin, this guy told me that I would have to get that from the doctor. I said OK, where is he.

“Oh, he leaves at 6.”

Okay, when can I see him tomorrow?

“He’s not back until Monday. You can get Tylenol from the nurse. Next!”

MONDAY!? TYLENOL!? NURSE!? I began to think about Rod Serling. I considered looking around for Rod Serling.

So, we were led to the medical station to see the nurse. (I never quite figured-out who those guys in that room were, or what was their function. I’m confident they get paid, though.)

After waiting a while (!), the nurse opened-up the top of her double-door and called names. My name. Stated my case. Was told to tell the doctor’s assistant, tomorrow morning at Sick Call.

Fine.

We were led through another maze of hallways to our ward. Along the way, I happened to catch a glimpse of a wall-clock through the glass in a door we passed. 12:30. It was TWELVE-THIRTY at night! I had been in the hands of the State of California for nearly twelve hours and had still not arrived at my final destination.

But here it was. The guard opened the door to the “hospital ward.” The PITCH-DARK hospital ward. Lights-out was hours ago. The light, spilling through the open doorway, dimly revealed rows of bunk beds, disappearing into the darkness away from me, all filled with sleeping men. The walls were effectively invisible and there was no telling how large the room was.

The door was shut and we were left to find our beds for the night. In the dark. In jail.

I was feeling my way around this room in the darkness (and on my crutches) when a hand gripped my shoulder and a voice whispered, “There’s a mattress underneath the lower bunk. Pull it between the beds and lie on that; all the beds are full.”

This guy, Ted, was to become my guide through the LA County Jail experience. I found the mattress, pulled it between the units, placed the anemic “pillow” and threadbare blanket against the wall and put my head there for the next few hours. My crutches beside me, I slept some.

The lights came on the next morning and I learned where I was. This was a large room with four rows of bunk beds lining the walls and filling the space between them. There were sixty beds. There were ninety men. Six of the men, including me, were Caucasian.  The rest were Latino and Black.

Very few of the guys looked sick or damaged. In fact, they were all pretty healthy-looking. Pretty healthy and angry looking, if you wanna know the truth of it.

We were sent to breakfast. I have never seen stuff like the stuff they put into the sections of this tray. I have never seen men so eager take anything someone else might not want to eat. My tray was a wealth of treasure for those around me. I was sick anyway, and the pain in my leg only exacerbated the nausea. I gave everything away, except the milk. This became standard procedure over the coming days; other than milk, there was an apple once, and I think a piece of white bread and some apple sauce also made it to my mouth and stayed down during my visit.

On the return from breakfast, I passed that clock again.  It was 6:00am as we returned.

Lovely.

Sick Call. Just before the door opened and the guard stepped-in to announce this, crutches, neck braces, leg braces, limps and slings appeared from nowhere.  Wow, where had all the sick guys been hiding? They had looked so good, before.

The doctor would only give me four, tiny Tylenol; which gave me relief from pain for about fifteen minutes. Fortunately, with nothing in my stomach, the medicine could take effect more rapidly. Sleep was a very attractive activity.

Time passed. The mood inside that room was heavy with tension. I came to learn there were three gangs in the room, two Black and one Latino. None of them really liked the other, though the Blacks were a little friendlier to each other than the Latinos, who kept to themselves. It was palpably tense in there.

As a white guy, I was walking a very thin line. You don’t want to appear too self-confident, so as to present a challenge to anyone; and you don’t want to appear too weak, and a likely victim for…whatever. I kept my head down and my activity to a minimum; spending most of my time lying on my back on the mattress between the bunks.

Time passed, so slowly. Men would move silently about the room, looking meaningfully at one another and communicating some unheard language. Quiet conversations would take place on lower bunks throughout the room. The television was on all the time, and there was a group of metal tables bolted to the floor just in front of the T.V. where huge black men would play cards and laugh, roughly, throughout the day.

Ted introduced me to one of the other White Guys, whose name I don’t remember.  What was memorable to me is that he had been in court for a divorce hearing, had mouthed-off to the judge and been thrown in jail for the weekend for contempt of court.  This had happened before, Ted said. Sometimes, guys were tossed-in and forgotten for an extra few days. Ted had been in jail for a long time, and was just down here for a few days “medical” from Folsom, his primary residence. Ted was my guide.

I heard some pretty serious stuff.  The “noon Friday to noon Monday” agreement with the court was, apparently, a Big Joke amongst the inmates. Historically, there were several stories of men who had made this “agreement” only to find themselves “misplaced” for as many as six or seven days at a time before being let out of jail.

Needless to say, this worried me. Already, I knew that I didn’t want to stay in there any longer than necessary; but I also had to fly to San Francisco on Tuesday in order to begin work at The NAMES Project on Wednesday. This job was an opportunity that I didn’t want to blow, and certainly didn’t want to get started on the wrong foot by showing up days late for work “…because I was in jail.”

I resolved to call Rob Gutenberg, my lawyer, first thing Monday morning to be certain that I did not slip through the cracks. He’s the only one who knew all the players; he had “brokered” the arrangement.

Only two of us were short-timers. Everyone else was from other prisons or other areas of this one. I came to understand that this hospital ward was often used for an informal “R&R thing” by prisoners whom, I suppose, just wanted to get away from the crowds for awhile.

Men were giving other men haircuts with hand-held razor blades throughout the room.  At the end of the room, next to the dormitory-style bathroom, was a bank of four or five pay phones. Some of these guys would park wheelchairs next to one of the phones and be on it for hours, literally. Some were talking to their girlfriends, some to their dealers, some seemed to be running businesses on the outside. The phones were always busy, other than during lights-out.

A pretty significant black-market traffic-flow was in operation. Hamburgers, chocolate chip cookies, toiletries, cigarettes and the like were steadily appearing in plastic baggies from underneath the shirts of the “trustees” that came through during the day. No wonder these guys seemed so healthy; they were!

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—Photo Bob Jagendorf/Flickr

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About Kile Ozier

Kile Ozier comes from a humble past to an ever-humbler present. Fortunate to have been able to call a number of great cities "Home," he's lived and worked in Europe, Asia, Oz, Dubai and across the US in politics, corporate communications, manufacturing and decades of ceremony, theatrical spectacle and immersive storytelling. Participant and Observer, Athlete, he loves to eat, cook, and can tell a good joke. Why he's single is anyone's guess. For more, go to kileozier.com.

Comments

  1. Tom Matlack says:

    Thanks for this look inside Kile. Shows, again, just how screwed up our prison system is. I am glad you survived!

  2. For Serious? says:

    That was just about the worst writing I’ve ever read and the most sniveling, whiny story I’ve ever seen. Pathetic.

  3. I was afraid to read this Kile, as I’ve feared jail since they hung the threat over my head from age 8 – forward. In Massachusetts, juvenile hall was a real place with a nightmarish reputation. I was always inches away from being a guest of the state as a kid. It still scares me to this day.

    I’ve worked in many New England prisons but only for hours at a time. I’ve seen the conditions, and resolved I would never be taken alive given the option and conditions to have to choose.

    So I read this and was there with you dude. I’m about as worn-out was you may have felt upon release. I feel like digging for some vicodin now. Oh, and…I still have that same resolution.

  4. Jameseq says:

    horrific experience. this is supposed to be a correction facility in a developed country
    very well written, had me gripped

    • Jameseq says:

      makes me wonder if the unseen underbelly of jails here in the uk, is similar
      (jail and prison means the same thing in the uk)

      • Kile Ozier says:

        Thank you for reading, James… I hope never to learn, first hand, how this might manifest in other Western Jails…and the rumours from other parts of the world enforce for me the sense that, when men are caged like animals, men will act as animals.

        Not to say that criminals shouldn’t be caged; but perhaps the concomitant propensity to look the other way from inherent violence might be addressed in such a way that rehabilitation actually becomes a possibility.

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