Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
My first night was spent in the Houston city jail. It is basically a check in point. They process your DNA, fingerprints, photos, etc. The guards are friendly except for the guy in the property section. He says, “These items on the counter is your property. Sign here!” I noticed a pack of cigarettes and stated that they don’t belong to me. “Just sign the paper!” he stated. I replied that I cannot sign for something that is not mine. He then put my property in a bag and walked away.
Another guard tells me to go down the hall and find a cell to sleep in. All the cells were occupied except one. I stepped in and laid down. I found it odd that I walked right in and found a completely empty cell. Later, a guard came over and informed me that I was occupying the HIV cell. I immediately got up and found another cell with two others in it. They told me that we would be there until tomorrow. At around 1:00 p.m. they came and took us to the Harris County Jail. Unlike the city jail, these guards were downright mean. It wasn’t long before our lawyer started the process. She came to jail to meet me and give me process steps. We took a long walk into a courtroom. There I met the judge – a very nice guy. My lawyer told the judge that the $16,000 had already been wired to Detroit, but the office there would not reopen again until Monday. The judge concluded by saying, “Let’s have Mr. Alford return Monday morning and see if we can release him.”
From there my lawyer returned me back to the processing station. This is where you exchange your civilian clothes for the jail issued orange jumpsuit. It wouldn’t take long to figure out that it was going to be a while before I would ever see sunshine again. The very large building was all enclosed – not even a window. However, it was very clean and my new friends were conscious of keeping the place that way. Each cell had a toilet, but no one would use it. You went out in the open area and did your business there in front of everyone. There was something about my appearance that told my fellow inmates that I didn’t belong here. Every one of them was so nice. It didn’t take long to figure out the warm reception. They figured out that I had access to money and when I got out I just might send some of my money to my new incarcerated friends.
Everyone in my section was not violent. The roughnecks that we were teamed with during processing went to certain centers. Every one of the approximately 50 guys in my center was peaceful and over forty in age. I don’t recall seeing any whites in my center. A couple of Asians and maybe five Hispanics. 95 percent of them were there for one of two reasons. Drug offense or verbal abuse of a girlfriend. It is amazing how an irate woman can place a call to 911 and her boyfriend gets locked up. Repeat offenders get 2 – 5 years. Just like that.
The highlight of my brief stay was dominoes. They were shocked that “Old School” (my jail house nickname) knew how to play some serious “bones.” I didn’t lose one game. Many of my new neighbors would tell their life story to me. I showed empathy and that was therapeutic to them. It was just a shame the way the guards would yell at each and every one of them. They would play mind games with them. One night (I guess it was night) they had half of our cell go down a hall and take off all of our clothes. Then they lined us up against a wall and had us just stand there. They would start laughing as they took out some guys from the gay center (aka Punk Tank) and have them stare at us. Another time they put us in a waiting room and had a couple dozen female offenders walk in front of us. Yea, real funny.
The fact is jails in this nation care nothing about rehabilitation. They figure repeat offenders mean job security for them. I knew this when I interned at a girls reform school in Wisconsin as part of my degree requirement. Our nation should do better. We are the richest nation on earth, yet incarcerate more people than anyone else.
Finally, Monday came around and my lawyer came and told me that the Judge is ordering my release. I will be officially released the next morning before him. Happy time – right? Well, Harris County Jail plays a game on the federal government. They get paid by a funny clock. I was “released” from my cell, but not from the jailhouse. I and others being released exchanged our jumpsuits for our civilian clothes that we came in with. Then we went to the checkout room. We were there from 5:00 -11:55 p.m. After cursing at us nonstop we got our property back and a fifty dollar check from them. They let us out just before midnight but the records would show it was after midnight. That way they can bill the federal government another day for “baby sitting and feeding us.”
We walked out into Houston. I had a court date the following morning. Here I was with a total of $100 in my pockets. I hailed a cab and asked to be taken to the cheapest hotel and near the courthouse. After finishing with the judge I took a cab to the airport. There my wife sent me a first class ticket to return to her warm arms. Quite an experience!
Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: [email protected]