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Dispatches

D.C. jail: Bureaucracy rules

My name is Xavier Lee. At 42, I find myself awaiting sentencing for my first (and last) criminal charge. By the design of people who do not know me, I will spend the rest of my life working hard to erase a stain from my record that can never be erased. To make it worse, I signed statements of facts written by the prosecutors, pleading guilty to a crime I didn’t commit. You’d be amazed at what you will do when the government coerces you.

What is more important to know about me is that I am a father of three boys who I love dearly. Secondly, I don’t like goodbyes, I never burn bridges and I forgive even when I shouldn’t. And third, the personal rules I live by are to never intentionally hurt people, physically or otherwise, and never get ahead by stepping on someone else.

Now that you know a little about me, I’d like to share one story from my experience in the D.C. jail:

Xavier Lee
Xavier Lee

I was awakened by a knock at my door. Then someone yelled something my brain wasn’t able to easily understand at 4 a.m. It was another inmate, delivering a message from the night duty officer. He seemed to be telling me to get myself ready because they were coming to get me at 6 a.m. for an outside medical appointment.

That didn’t make much since to me, since you only go to an outside hospital from jail if you have a medical condition that is beyond the capabilities of the in-house infirmary. I wasn’t sick and hadn’t put in a medical request, so this left me really confused. I hurried to put my clothes on and went to the officer to get a better understanding. He said yes, I had outside medical. I explained why that didn’t make since. He was still half asleep and groggy and not very happy that I was interrupting his sleep by asking questions. Maybe it’s outside court then, he responded. Either way they are coming to get you at 6 a.m.

I laid back down in the dark of the cell, unable to go back to sleep, my mind doing an unbelievably good job at generating the most horrible possibilities as for why I would have an unexpected court appearance. After all, I had just spoken with my lawyer a couple of days ago. Even more, we had a video visit planned for 11 a.m. that same day. Things just were not adding up. My stomach kept me from sleeping as it knotted and flipped while I worried.

The movement officer [in charge of transferring people from part of the complex to another] arrived right at 6 a.m. He confirmed that they were sending me to Baltimore for court, a drive that would take just over an hour. At that moment, I realized what was happening. It was a mistake. You see, a court appearance was originally scheduled for that day, but it had been postponed by the judge until September. That’s why my lawyer had scheduled a video visit with me at the jail for the same time slot.

Normally, I really dislike legal visits. Lawyers never come with good news. They do a lot of talking, telling me what the prosecutors think I did. But never, and I mean not even once, have they asked me what happened. This time was different though; this time, I was looking forward to the visit. Two of my aunts had passed away, a tragic loss that shattered my heart. Both the funerals were recorded and my lawyer had promised to obtain the videos so I could grieve and get some sense of closure. But that was four months ago. I’d reminded him repeatedly, and all he’d say was, “I promised you I’d get it done, but I didn’t promise speed.” Anyway, that morning my lawyer was finally bringing the video. And yet, I was about to be whisked away to court to make an appearance for a proceeding that had been postponed.

After explaining all this to the officer, he merely shrugged and told me I could explain my story to R&D (receiving and discharge), the unit where I’d have to wait before they sent me to Baltimore with the transport officers.

So, I explained again when I got to R&D. The officer there responded that my name was on the list to leave, so I’d have to go. And when I came back, I’d have to go into quarantine for 14 days because I had left the building! I made a desperate plea to her humanity: Couldn’t she call the court to check the docket? Or at least allow me to call my lawyer so he could get it straightened out? A five-minute call would save me 14 days of being in solitary confinement, which is what quarantine is like. What would you want done for you in the same situation? I asked.

Reluctantly, she agreed to help. But then the movement officer looked at her, saying something I couldn’t hear that made her change her mind. The answer was now an unwavering NO.

When the transport officer arrived, I made my final plea, explaining everything for the third time. He asked, “What court are you going to?” I responded, “Baltimore.” His reply: “If it was Greenbelt maybe, but Baltimore doesn’t make mistakes.” That was the end of the conversation. Off I went to Baltimore.

For 10 hours, I waited in a cold cell in the basement of the courthouse, wearing ankle shackles and with literally nothing to do. Then they sent me back to the jail. The court appearance, as I had known all along, had been postponed. The same female officer who refused to make the call to save me all that hassle greeted me with, “Thought you didn’t have court.” When I told her what had happened, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, you have to go quarantine now for 14 days.” My frustration boiled over, and I asked her to call a supervisor about making an exception. The only people I had been in contact with were the transportation officers! Why should I have to quarantine, while the transport officers didn’t? They had been with me every step of the way. And what about the officers who came in and out of the jail? Surely, if the jail administration considered my phantom court date “risky behavior,” then hundreds of staff members going in and out all day was just as risky.

The officer refused to call a supervisor. I was taken to quarantine.

The cell to which I was transferred was dark; the floor was bare, unfinished concrete; and the lone piece of furniture was a metal bench coated with layers of dust and dirt, with a spot that looked like the last inmate had imprinted it with his butt. A stainless-steel toilet doubled as a water fountain, with a spout covered by with a film of moss-like calcium deposits. I protested the conditions through the steel door, hearing my echo around me. Apparently, there was an emergency response team officer within ear shot. These officers are “hired muscle.” Their primary job is to get unruly inmates under control and they love action. In a combative tone, he told me that if I didn’t like conditions of the cell, I should stand up instead of sitting down. In fact, he shouted to the officer who had brought me down, I should be sent to the hole for complaining so much. I shouted back, “Why can’t you treat people like people?!” But realizing that I was about to be burned with the mini fire-hydrant-sized, industrial-strength mace strapped to his leg, I shut up and faded into the darkness of the dirty cell.

At that moment, I felt powerless. I reminded myself that the phrase “property of the state” doesn’t refer to the clothing on which it’s stamped, but to the man within them. As I paced around the tiny cell with my hands gripping fistfuls of hair and tears wetting my cheeks, all I could think was, “My life hurts!”

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