Here is what I remember: I was scared. I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I didn’t even know the difference between county jail and prison. I guess it’s good to be ignorant about these things, and even better if you typically learn through experience.
So county jail is for people waiting to go to court, or people with short sentences. I am not sure about specifics but I assume it’s 90 days or less, whereas prison is for people convicted of a crime doing longer sentences. Prison is far more serious than county jail. Thankfully, I have never experienced prison.
Back to the story. I was super naive and basically had no knowledge of what jail was like, other than the stereotypes from movies and rap music, and of course Johnny Cash. I assumed there would be a train track nearby. Since I was so naive about it, I had built it up to a worst-case scenario in my head. I wasn’t planning on meeting new friends. I was planning for the worst. I thought I would have to fight people and prove myself and maybe join a gang or some shit, I don’t know- I was young and drunk, and basically freaked out about it.
Have you ever built something up in your head so big that it terrifies you, only to finally confront it and find out there was never really anything to worry about?
Well, that was the case with the Dallas County Jail.
I was in a cell block. I don’t really remember checking in. Do you call it checking in? Checking in is what you call it at a hotel, but this was not a hotel. It had things in common with a hotel, but maybe more like a motel, with one big difference: the way the doors work.
The cell block consisted of a small, narrow common area with maybe an 18 inch TV mounted to the wall. There was a half picnic-type table also attached to the same wall. So the TV was at a very bad angle and you could only watch comfortably for a few minutes before you had to move around. There wasn’t much room to move around – the room was 4 steps wide and I want to say 8 steps long, but it could have been 12.
It should be burned into my memory, as many times as I paced that room.
Also in the common room was the shower. It was built into the wall behind the TV. It would come on for like 20 minutes a day at a random time. There were no hot or cold controls. No shower curtain. No loofahs.
Off of the common area were 3 rooms. 2 of them had metal bunks and the other had just a single metal bed. Each of the bunks had a thin pad on it- like 2 inches thick at the very most. If the other bunks weren’t occupied, I would stack the pads until I had a decent sized mattress. Nothing could be done to make the sleep comfortable. Sleeping was the easiest way to pass the time, but you’d wake up and have to change positions every 15 minutes or so. Your body would ache to the point that it would wake you, so you’d flip sides to buy another 15 minutes.
The rooms also each had a desk and a toilet. Both were made of hard, cold metal. Nothing was comfortable. Everything was cold and hard and ugly. The TV was always on Springer or Maury. There were no windows, just cream-colored bricks in the wall to stare at. Some graffiti, but nothing great- mostly lines formed in tallies to keep track of people’s stays. There was one decent cartoon on the wall. It was an anhydrous tank that had a couple of stick people dancing around it. The stick people were missing teeth. The caption read “Just Mething Around.”
As for the atmosphere, the culture, the thing that had kept me up at night before going, the thing I was filled with anxiety about…I had built it up to be every bit as bad as the worst examples from TV and movies, but in the end it was the absence of an atmosphere that drove me insane. I spent 11 of my 28 days completely alone in my cell block. There was another block that had 4 rooms and those stayed pretty filled, but the block I ended up in rarely had anyone in it. During my time I probably only met 6 other inmates. It was brutally lonely, with nothing to do but think. Being alone with my thoughts in my head was a nightmare.
The first few days were the worst. It was such a shock to my system in every sense. I was addicted to drugs and alcohol (even if I didn’t know it at the time) so my body was freaking out, and I had no one to talk to. I spent the first 6 days completely isolated in my cell block. An inmate would come around 3 times a day to slide my food tray through the door and I would try to talk to him as much as I could. He was not nearly as interested to listen to me as I was to talk, typically saying he had to get back because he was playing cards or something like that.
After being alone for 6 days, I think I was starting to go crazy. I needed some human interaction. Going in, the idea of being completely alone in my cell block would have really given me some peace of mind. It would have curbed all that anxiety I was feeling. It really would have sounded ideal to me, but after 6 days it was turning into a nightmare. No longer was I afraid to have someone around me. I was comfortable in my new surroundings, but so terribly bored.
Then in the middle of the night someone was added to my cell block. I was in bed when I heard the big metal door opening. I heard someone talking, the CO and the new inmate, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. For the next several hours I laid in bed and my mind spun out of control imagining who my new roommate might be. Once again, I was running through worst possible scenarios in my head. Maybe he was a murderer, or a psychopath. Ironically, I was really worried that the new guy might be drunk and violent. I started to second guess my desire for conversation. When it finally got to morning I was out watching TV and the new guy woke up. He was not scary at all. Once again I had worked myself into a fit of anxiety for no reason. Once again, the real threat of jail was not the other inmates – it was my own head. My thoughts were so much scarier than the people. Harder to ignore as well.
The new inmate was an overweight African guy. He was my age. He had a very thick accent, and I had a lot of trouble understanding what he was saying. From what I understood, he had committed some type of crime in Decorah, Iowa so there was a warrant out for his arrest. He was stopped for having expired tags on his car in Dallas County and subsequently became my new roommate until they transported him to Winneshiek County. I don’t remember exactly what his crime was, but I remember him saying it was basically some type of mistake. It wasn’t his fault. We had that in common. Police were out to get us.
Oddly enough, none of the inmates I met had actually done anything wrong. We were all innocent victims of a biased police force and simple bad luck.
So now I was becoming comfortable. I wasn’t afraid anymore. New guys would come and go, but I was the one who was in charge of the cell block because I had been there the longest and I was staying the longest. Most people just stayed for a night or two until they bonded out or went to court. I was starting to feel confidence in place of anxiety.
Eventually, I started getting books. I remember reading a book by Phil Jackson that mentioned a couple other books about Zen Buddhism. I ended up with several books about Zen Buddhism. I was writing out the Eightfold Path, reading Peace Is In Every Step and studying it every day. I was trying to meditate. My head was so busy back then, which it still is now, but it really was then. I took to those books instantly.
Sometimes things appear in your life at the exact moment they need to appear. At any other point in my life I would have never considered reading these books and practicing these techniques but at this very moment I had a mind I couldn’t shut off and way too much time on my hands. The ideas of finding peace, being present, being mindful and doing what is right- I was really open to those ideas when I was in jail. I was completely open to the idea of enlightenment.
“Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”
I also obsessed over a Pearl Jam verse from the song “Indifference.” I wrote it over and over, and I included it in my letters.
Years later I got the verse tattooed on my arm. Looking at it now, I think the meaning has changed for me, but it still applies. Back then I thought I was virtuous, but I was really foolish. It still fit.
I will hold the candle till it burns up my arm
Oh I’ll keep takin’ punches until their will grows tired
Oh I will stare the sun down until my eyes go blind
Hey, I won’t change direction
And I won’t change my mind
I read this now and wish I hadn’t been so bull-headed. I wish I had put on a pair of sunglasses, learned a more reasonable defense, and flipped on a light switch instead of using a candle.
But my sentence was moving right along. I was no longer full of fear and anxiety. In fact the books about Zen, the mental exercises, the lack of any drugs or alcohol, and the powerful feeling of being in charge of my cell block had me feeling pretty great. At night I would read the book Cold Mountain and fall asleep picturing myself as the main character. It was nice to use books and my imagination to escape jail. It was only a couple weeks earlier that my mind was my worst enemy. Now whenever I started to spiral into the darkness inside my head I would stop and think about being present in the moment. I would think about the mindfulness bell. I would use the tools from the books I was reading during the day to calm myself down.
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”
So I was in jail, doing push-ups, reading Zen books, meditating, getting all mindful and peaceful and sober and shit. I was probably getting pretty weird, but it was working.
That transformation from drunk bartender guy to push-up Zen bearded jail weirdo only took three weeks. I can’t imagine what might have happened if I had a 2 year sentence.
Then I met Brian. Brian came in when I had about a week left. Unlike all the other guys I had met, Brian was not claiming bad luck or police bias. Brian was a bad guy and had no problem accepting that role. He was older, early 50’s. He was slim. Looked like he was wiry strong. He had several prison tattoos. You can spot them pretty easily- the homemade ink and shaky lines. He spoke in a deep, soft, gravel voice. He was a part of the biker gang the Outlaws. He said he was picked up for having a loaded gun in his truck. He was on parole from Montana. He was the real deal- a career criminal. He told me stories about his life and his time in different prisons. He told me about his kids that he had disappointed. He told me that he had cancer and that he planned to die in prison this time. He expected to be shipped back to the federal prison in Montana to finish out his life. He was sad and scary, but he liked me. He told me if he was my age again – he would do it all different. There was a lot of remorse in his stories. Occasionally the sadness would pause, and the institutionalized part of him would peek through. There was a vicious anger hiding just beneath the soft-spoken remorse. If he wanted the channel changed or someone to shut up, he would flash this spark of insanity and anyone in the room would quickly bend to his request. He was gentle and kind but had a switch that could flip, and because of that he demanded respect.
I spent that last week listening to all his stories and telling him a few of mine. He said one thing that stuck out above everything else: “the worst part of coming to jail for the first time is that you learn to not be afraid to come to jail.”
It’s true. That fear of jail is what keeps you from doing whatever you want. It’s what gives you a small amount of respect for the law when you are out of control like I was. Losing that fear, that respect, could be an extremely dangerous thing for me.
Brian was wise. Prison wise. That didn’t do him any favors in the real world. To me, it felt like Brian was a good person, but maybe he wasn’t. In jail we were all sober. It was the best versions of us. I can only imagine, based off the differences in my own life at that time, what Brian’s life outside of jail might have been like. I assume he wasn’t eerily calm. Still I liked Brain. He wrote me a couple letters when I got out. I wish I had kept in touch maybe, but at the same time I didn’t really know him and he probably wasn’t the type of person you wanted to have your address. I wonder if he died in prison.
When I got out, I went straight to my favorite restaurant and got a Bloody Mary and a cheeseburger. I hadn’t had a good meal or a drink in a month – it was time to celebrate.
This 28 day “vacation” would have been the turning point for people with a less serious problem. It would have been enough time to reflect on their recent decisions and find that underlying issue.
I might have given some lip service to the idea that I was learning and going to change, but in reality I hadn’t even considered that I was an alcoholic. I was convinced I just had a run of bad luck. I was nothing like Brian, so nothing needed to change for me. I just needed to tighten up a little bit and get through probation. I went right back to bartending and partying. Right back to lying to my probation officer. Right back to lying to everyone, including myself. I was even more arrogant now because I had “done some time.” Another notch in my street life gangster belt. I don’t wear that belt anymore.
Looking back at all of this, I am again amazed at how strong addiction can be. It can completely fool you, in turn making you a fool. That 28 day jail sentence, that year of arrests and convictions, that would have been such a perfect ending point to my partying and getting arrested career. I was 25 years old. If I could have walked away at that point I would have been in decent shape. I wouldn’t have been far behind my peers as far as life progression, and I wouldn’t have had a felony.
I wasn’t done though. I hadn’t hit bottom yet. I had another 7 years in me. My life was going to get many shades darker before I ever saw the light, before I ever considered what else there could be in the world.
Any peace or Enlightenment I may have found in jail, I turned my back on as soon as I got out. I headed back into the dark.
Although, years later I would start to remember some of those teachings. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.