THE VIRGIN INCARCERATION, A Jail Memoir
Updated: Apr 7, 2019
Late in 2014, in a stunning collision of stupidity and bad luck, I was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance. As a result I was placed in the custody of the Criminal Justice System in Monroe County in the state of New York, and housed in the county jail located in downtown Rochester for the five and a half months it took to arrange for my rather substantial bail, my trial, sentencing and release.
I was lucky in that:
I, a first-time offender, had an excellent attorney who also turned out to be a wonderful person. After a rocky beginning, he was able to persuade both prosecutor and judge (both reasonable, fair men as far as I could tell) that the intel they had been fed about me was woefully inaccurate. They had been led to believe by a local source (eager to get out from under legal troubles of his own) that I was a major drug kingpin. (I know, hilarious.) It is true that I shared a last name with one and, unbeknownst to me, that I lived in an apartment he had once occupied. We even shared some physical characteristics. But my attorney was able to persuade the county, state and federal drug authorities that their hunger for a conviction would not turn coincidence into evidence. The real drug kingpin, aided and abetted by a stroke of good luck at my expense, was still very much at large.
I was not entirely off the hook, however. It is true that I was no longer suspected of drug kingpinship, but if there had been no illegal possession in the first place, I could never have been arrested. Since the charge brought against me was not entirely without justification, my wonderful attorney made it clear that my contrition was as sincere as it was expansive, and that there was zero chance of my ever providing the slightest provocation for any additional or future incarceration. They took him at his word, and they had grown to like me. Just a few years ago, a life sentence would have been a possibility. At the time of my arrest in 2014, I faced a maximum prison sentence of ten years. As it came to pass, my sentence was the jail time I had already served plus five years of probation. (Whew!)
I had friends who were willing and able to look after my apartment, my finances and my dog for however long I might be away.
On the flip side:
My excellent, wonderful attorney had cancer about which I was not informed, and a lazy associate about whom I was not warned.
My friends, in overseeing my financial situation, failed to notice all the way up until the day my car was repossessed that there was, among my monthly payables, a line item for the loan that had financed its purchase.
A week later, an electrical fire in my unattended apartment resulted in extensive damage and loss of property I would be unable to assess until I could manage a release from jail.
Three months later, homeless, carless and poorer by about seventy-five thousand dollars, I was out. I felt ashamed and terrified. I had no interest in returning to the life I had led immediately before going to jail, but no clue as to the steps I should take to restore my life to anything like the state it had been in before that.
But the state of cluelessness that dominated my post-jail reality was not exactly new to me. It was, in fact, a sickening holdover from my recent life behind bars where it had been the prevailing, unceasing condition since the moments leading up to my arrest. That same, basic cluelessness continued until the day when, standing outside the walls of the Monroe County Jail, I breathed my first fresh air in nearly six months.
I was a future convicted felon, out on bail, released on his own recognizance, awaiting trial and trying to maintain some control of an emotional state that could go off the rails in any direction at any time. But I was so thrilled to have returned to a world with which I had some familiarity, that I was hardly aware of the grimness of my situation. Back inside the facility I had just exited, where it had all been new and terrifying, cluelessness, steadfast as a pet Labrador, had been my constant, maddeningly consistent companion. It colored absolutely everything in my new life behind bars as well as the immediate background that got me there: the timeline and details leading to my arrest, my knowledge and experience of the law, the criminal justice system and my pre-trial rights.
Newly released and on the outside, I had returned to an environment I recognized. I felt I could deal with whatever came my way as I proceeded to trial and, further, that I could deal with the consequences that came after. Six months previous to that, however, when I was newly on the inside, I had no idea how to connect with the world I had just left. I would need an attorney, but wait, wouldn’t one be provided? Did I have a choice? But to Hell with the outside, I was on the inside going nowhere soon. How would I survive, for one thing, a diet of jail food? Oh, my God, what about the bathroom? For a private person with a strong tendency toward pee-shyness, how would I cope in a living situation in which the facilities, at least as I imagined them, consisted of an open pit situated in the floor of whatever common area I would be sharing with the however many other guys my life was about to intersect. Would I survive bathroom shame? Would I manage (even with all of those eyes on me) to pee? Subsequent to that, would I avoid being tossed unceremoniously into that open pit by the couple of grinning, loutish inmates who, no doubt, would be loitering in the vicinity, looking to pick up a quick laugh at the expense of the easy target I would easily be? What should I expect about the day-to-day business of jail survival? What did I know of the ways and means of jail personnel or, much more to the point, the strange and certainly hostile world of my fellow inmates, or, frankly, anything involving rules, policies, lore, customs or manners regarding the as yet undetermined time span of my future behind bars?
My massive ignorance of the situation was frustrating enough, but additionally irritating were two assumptions made simultaneously by deputies, medical staff, attorneys, fellow inmates, everyone, in fact, upon giving me an initial once-over:
Based on (and I’m guessing here) my straight-laced look, my generally polite manner and/or my perpetual expression of dazed confusion (or whatever it was about my demeanor that made me stand out from the crowd), I was considered a jail anomaly. Clearly, I did not belong there. My presence, therefore, was, obviously, an error (the correction of which inspired interest in not a single person).
Ironically and by sharp contrast, assumption number two was truly maddening:
This was not my first incarceration. How could it be my first incarceration? In the State of New York, at any rate, anyone who has been in jail (I was to read after getting out) has a 52% chance of returning within one year. Though I was living with a significant collection of drunk drivers, rapists, arsonists, thieves and murderers, it was the chronic probation and parole violators that really swelled the ranks of the jail population. Nobody, but nobody (with the exception, apparently, of myself) was in jail for the first time. Within the ranks of those claiming multiple visits, in fact, it was not at all unusual for those multiple visits to number in the double digits. Further, it was not unusual for an inmate’s total number of years behind bars to be equal to or greater than half the years in his next birthday. The really maddening part: whenever I made a mistake of policy or procedure, there was a deputy yelling at me for not knowing better. Sheesh!
None of that, of course, changed the fact that my pre-arrest life had in no way prepared me for what would happen post-handcuffs (and, no--books and movies, aside from providing the most rudimentary and often incorrect information regarding life in jail, do not count). Shouldn’t there be an orientation session, I remember thinking during those first couple of hours; an informal gathering of those of us most recently through intake, separated into groups of newbies and veterans, further divided by our assigned level of security, and who would, from there, be placed into small, manageable groups, as needed?
When that didn’t happen, it occurred to me that maybe the numbers simply didn’t support a regular, group orientation. I imagined, instead, a brief, one-on-one with a jail administrator or deputy during which I could expect the low-down on the basics. I waited. The minutes passed like hours. My thirst for knowledge remained unquenched, and no one came by for a personal briefing. I recall the rising panic as my uninformed perception of the time remaining before someone moved me from my solo perch in the holding area to the general, criminal population ran out. Surely that wasn’t allowed. I required preparation, if only a moment’s contact with an orientation leader or the brief glimpse, perhaps, of . . . a welcome video?
Had I been able to manage my panic, I might have mustered enough clarity to glean an essential and absolute truth about jail life. Though it would never appear on the syllabus of any jail orientation (ha, like such a thing existed), this Truth stared me in the face that first night, the giant gift from a benevolent Universe. And that Truth, which, panicked or not, I didn’t take too much longer to figure out, was: Time, in comparison to the pace with which it had always passed, would, henceforth, be a completely different entity. The dreary march of leaden days by which a child measures that endless period between Thanksgiving and Christmas would seem, by comparison, like a catnap. The sluggishness with which molasses had forever flowed in January would be as a raging torrent.
I was newly landed in a place where not to practice patience would be to risk permanent insanity. Welcome to jail, where ‘ponderous,’ judged by outside standards, would be the new peppy. Jail, where the movement of the wheels of justice is not slow. It is imperceptible.
Having received this freebie from the benevolent Universe, however, I remained convinced that someone actually gave a shit whether or not I moved into the general criminal population with some basic education as to how to deal with it. My next thought, naturally, idiotically was: HANDBOOK! Of course, that’s it. Any minute now, someone will come around with my personal copy of the standard, new prisoner’s handbook, and that will solve everything. (About four and a half months later, at about the time it occurred to me that I would never see anything like a handbook for the recently incarcerated, I received a handbook for the recently incarcerated. It solved nothing.)
If only the directive not to panic was as simple to put into action as it is to order. Why couldn’t prescience be as available to us in the present as hindsight will be in the future? Still in Intake, and (having left my crystal ball behind with the federal agents combing my apartment for drugs) I was unable to lower my shoulders below the level of my earlobes or breathe in any manner that would not be described as shallow. I failed to note that so much of what I would come to consider invaluable information was actually pretty obvious to anyone who could sublimate panic long enough to absorb it. That, at the moment, did not include me. If it had, I would have learned, in addition to the Time Truth:
Time Truth Exception: yes, Time in jail passes very, very slowly, and even more slowly when it involves something that looms in any way positive in your future. For any bad news, anything unwelcome, however, Time will move at warp speed.
To be in jail can be described as living in a Police State, but do not extrapolate from that that the uniformed ladies and gentlemen who guide you through the day-to-day are to be referred to as policemen or policewomen; nor are they officers. They are, at least in Monroe County, deputies of the Sherriff’s Department. To refer to them as anything other than deputy is to risk irritation in the extreme, which is a very bad idea under any circumstance, especially when the bigger Truth is that deputies really, really do not, on principle, like inmates.
Incarceration is hellish, but it is not Hell. The abandonment of hope for all who enter therein is not necessary. The suspension of logic and of rational thought, however, can make for an easier go of things in the long run.
Listen well and speak little is a Truth of great importance, the understanding of which came relatively easily to me. Trust no one and nothing is an equally vital bit of truth it took me a little longer to grasp.
The pages that follow are a kind of random chronicle of my time down a rabbit hole into which I never expected to tumble. It is the story of the unexpected ways I was educated into a world that, up until the moment I inhabited it, had been totally unknown to me. It is a work of creative nonfiction, a memoir. Its truth, colored here and there by point of view, the prism of memory, the heat of the moment, detachment or denial is never untrue. The events reported here, whether horrifying or hilarious, shocking or inane were all born of a reality totally consistent with the conditions and situations out of which I remember them.
As regards names, I have completely changed them in any instance in which it would be unfair not to. Where deserved, or in cases where it will not matter, they are only thinly disguised. As will be obvious to anyone who was there, very little care has been taken to protect either the cruel or the idiotic.
Next installment: Chapter One,
The Virgin Incarceration