The (in)Justice System

Part I

Saturday May 20th, 4:22am

Awake, and alert.

This ungodly hour would’ve been unreasonable for a Saturday workday, but not today. After a Friday straddling Broward and Dade County, between running errands, grocery-shopping, editing at the library, and a race against time to get a blog post up while the boys met their fit-bit goals; Frank, Jordan, and I were pooped. So we all turned in early, and woke up with hours to spare before I left them for work.

This hadn’t happened in months. Usually, the boys are upto shenanigans until all hours of the night, and they start to awaken as I make my way out the door, but not today. Today, we had four hours.

I inhaled the scent of my Oaf, settled into the taste and touch of the burly delicious man I’ve woken up next to for the last three years. Tomorrow was his 35th birthday, and we swallowed up all that was left of the night in each others arms.

Today would be a very good day.

Later, he joined Jordan in the living room as I quietly prepared myself for the day ahead. Through the walls I heard Jordan tell his dad about a dream he had, where I loved a beautiful frog. This frog was made up of many brilliant colors and was very special to me. One day, the frog died. Jordan and his dad couldn’t bear to break the news to me, so they tried to slip it out of the house before I found out to spare my heart.

I laughed as I put an outfit together. You see, we were joining my family for our weekly meal, celebrating Frank’s birthday early, and we even intended to shoot. So I needed something appropriate for the entire spectrum of events, and with some feedback from the boys, I settled on the perfect outfit. I even threw on some makeup, a rarity, especially for 6 a.m. on a Saturday.

Invigorated by the sunrise and excited at an early start, Frank and Jordan were determined to have toast with their eggs. The streets were ours as we drove over to Publix for some Cuban bread. The parking lot was all but deserted except for a handicapped woman who beckoned us over. “Could you please ask an employee to bring a motorized cart out for me?”

We went inside, obliged, and as we grabbed our bread and paid, noticed an employee heading in the direction of the parking lot. “They’re coming out now!” I said to the woman as we walked out and toward our car. “One last request” said the woman, speaking to Frank now “Could you help me get in the cart? I need to get surgery on this leg, my arm is sore, and I don’t think I can do it on my own.”

For the next ten minutes I watched as Frank and Jordan helped this frail woman get into her cart. We realized she was homeless, or at least, that she lived in that car. Her last shower couldn’t have been anytime in the recent past, but you never would have known it by the way my boys held her. “You did your good deed for the day” said the woman as she headed toward Publix in her cart.

Back at home, the boys washed up and started making breakfast while I burned some incense in the bedroom and thought about the rich morning. A prayer of la Virgen de Fatima sits on a floating bookshelf on my bedside. My grandmother carried it in her wallet until she passed away 12 years ago and it came into my possession. I read it for the first time in years, possibly for the first time ever, and thought how useless I was at reading Castilian Spanish.

I joined my boys at the dining table with their heaps of eggs and sausages, as I munched on the lion’s share of the toast and drank tea out of the same mug I always use. It was a Christmas gift from a former English student, and reads “HOPE… those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles… Isaiah 40:31”. I read it aloud at the table, for the first time since I received it.

With a full belly Jordan exclaimed “Today’s gonna be a good day!”

Our morning together was almost over, and since a home without the internet is an almost unthinkable burden to a human in 2017, let alone an 11 year old, I knew Jordan was anxious to play XBOX with his dad. I went off to work with a group hug from my boys.

“I’ll be back at 3!”

I couldn’t have dreamt up a better morning.

Part II

Forty minutes deep into my six hour work day. I run the center alone every other Saturday and am in the middle of setting up a student with an interim test when Frank enters the lobby. My mood goes from surprised to perplexed to distraught in as many seconds as it takes to say the words. Wide-eyed “I went to your parents house but they weren’t home. Jordan needs to stay with you.” I see Jordan sitting in the lobby, crying. With a sense of urgency “they’re taking me to TGK”. Reading the confusion on my face “Jail.” I nodded knowingly. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry” he said reassuringly, but I noted the subdued panic in his eyes. “Wait! Where?” I couldn’t remember what he’d said. “TGK”. I nod. He runs out.

We knew this was a possibility.

Frank was put on child support when Jordan turned 3. Anytime he’s been out of work or unable to pay the amount owed he’ll lose his license, or passport, or have a warrant out for his arrest. He and Jordan’s mom handle things on their own accord and so the issue had been swept under the rug for years. On numerous occasions he’s contacted the courts and enforcement agencies handling his case to try and reduce the amounts to something manageable with no success.

As recently as 6 months ago, and tired of the run around, he went in person to the office where the letters he was being sent originated from. Paper in hand, case number printed by their own copy machines, he was told the office had no record of his case. They gave him a direct number to contact someone at the department of justice. Six months later his calls remained unanswered, but they had no problem finding a record of his case when the police showed up at our door not 20 minutes after I left for work that morning.

Frank and Jordan were playing WWE 2K17 when there was a loud knock at the door. Not expecting anyone, they thought it was my brother visiting. Frank went to the peephole and froze, he stood silent for long enough that Jordan knew something was wrong. Immediately, Jordan hid around the corner.

With tears in his eyes Jordan told me the rest of the story as I sat dumbfounded at work. “There were so many of them, they had bullet proof vests on and four guns at their sides. There were even more of them outside. They were everywhere. I thought my daddy killed someone.” Frank would later estimate the figure at about 20 cops and a dozen unmarked police vehicles surrounding our apartment and blocking the gates. “You’d think they were looking for El Chapo,” Frank would say “or Jason Bourne.”

I made light of the situation with Jordan, “What?! You think your daddy is capable of killing someone, that’s messed up man.”

He smiled half-heartedly “I don’t get it, he didn’t do anything, they said the government wanted their money.”

“Who did?”

“One of the cops.”

“What exactly did he say?”

“My daddy was talking to them, they asked him why he didn’t take care of his kid.”

“This kid right here?” asked Frank.

“Oh, is that him?” said the cop.

“Well, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best dad in the world. The government wants their money.”

“Why don’t they think he takes care of me?” asked Jordan. “I don’t get it, he’s a good daddy. Is this my fault?”

I felt myself welling up but kept up appearances as the center got busier and kids and teachers started trickling in for their scheduled classes. “This is not your fault Jordan. ”

Meanwhile, Frank was handcuffed and tossed in the back of a van with other prisoners. Frank had breathed a sigh of relief when he first found out he’d be going to TGK, of all the prisons in Miami, TGK was the best case scenario. Still, the cops, who’d been on their most amiable behavior in front of Jordan, no longer had the prying eyes of a child to hold them back. The rest of the experience was, in a word, demoralizing. Mocking, berating, name-calling, bating, antagonizing. Reveling in the imbalance of power. Frank sat quietly, sinking into a depression as he tuned them out. They hurled one insult after another, from attacking him as a dad, to making fun of his ethnicity. By the time he’d walked into the prison, a quote from Dante’s Inferno would come to mind “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”.

“What are we going to do? How do we get my daddy back?” asked Jordan

“Don’t worry, I’ll get the money, and we’ll bail him out.” I said

“You can?”

“Of course. This is why you should always save up. In case of emergencies.” I winked.

“But why did the cop say he wasn’t taking care of me? He was taking care of me, he does take care of me. This doesn’t make any sense”.

“I have a break later, I’ll explain then, okay? I got this, I promise.”

I worked amidst the chaos in my mind, researched and made phone calls to make sure Frank was where he said he’d be. I’d never bailed anyone out of jail. “TGK”. Thank God I thought to ask twice. Jordan halfheartedly played games and watched videos on a computer I’d taken out for him to use. The next five hours were a purgatory, if only we’d known the wait was only half over. We bought 3 cookies at subway on my break, and saved one for his dad. Then, I explained all that I could.

“Why did they take him to jail?”

“So he has to go to court?”

“What if he can’t?”

“Does my mom have to go?”

“Do I have to go?”

“But why is he in trouble with the government?”

“So this is all just about money?” Jordan asked.

“This is so stupid.

“But he’s a good daddy.”

“And I thought today was gonna be a good day.”

PT III

Jordan paced back and forth in the lobby of my workplace until 3:05pm, when the last student left for the day. I’d already charted a path to the correctional center and we made a mad dash for the car. The drive was organized chaos.

By this time, Frank had been booked, fingerprinted, and his mugshot was up. Then came the welcome package; he changed into his prison-grade orange top and bottoms, been handed a towel, a sheet, and some slices of bread and ham wrapped in saran wrap. Now a walking caricature of an inmate, he was shackled by the wrist; one, in a chain-gang of eight. Through winding corridors and hallways, into an elevator, and deeper into the belly of the beast, the group was led into a room where they sat through a prison orientation video on sexual assault. Surreal to say the least, Frank felt like he’d stepped into a badly written sitcom. “You’ve gotta be kidding.” Beside himself at the ridiculousness of it all, he couldn’t help but notice how prison procedure seemed strangely familiar. Almost like starting a new job.

Meanwhile Jordan and I rushed toward the doors of the condemned concrete building, and walked in to find that bailing someone out of jail was also strangely familiar. Greeted with a typical airport scenario, a metal detector, plastic trays, an x-ray scanning machine, I began to put my belongings in a tray. Frank and I were due to travel a week from now, as it turned out, his arrest would be heaven-sent. They would’ve gotten him at the airport anyway.

A black woman with a blonde Sisqo haircut snapped “What do you think you’re doing?”

Confused, “What? Putting my stuff in trays.”

Annoyed, “Don’t you understand, you can’t do that.”

I snapped back, “Well clearly I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, so how about you give me some guidance?”

I suppose being on the defensive is apropos for a correctional officer. Maybe she thought I was just trying to fuck with her. She looked at Jordan standing quietly at my side and must’ve then realized this wasn’t our typical Saturday afternoon. Her face softened, and she gave me clear instructions.

I left my bag in the trunk of my car, and brought nothing back but my wallet and keys. Jordan and I walked through the metal detectors and to the release window. The waiting room was completely empty. The palpable hostility came purely from the correctional officers. Cold, rude, indifferent.

Guilty by association I guess.

I was told we would have to wait for about an hour while they processed the paperwork. Only then would we be allowed to pay.

Noticeably disappointed, I explained to Jordan that waiting was the easy part. Somehow, I always end up teaching him patience, and this would be the granddaddy of all lessons. He and I sat quietly in the back corner of the waiting room surrounded by dozens of bright vending machines. Mounted on one of the walls, the reception on an episode of Xena Warrior Princess cut in and out on a flat screen. An antenna hook up no doubt. You weren’t allowed to bring anything inside to pass the time, not even books. A not so subtle ploy to get you to feed money into their machines and eat your feelings no doubt.

“This place sucks.” Jordan said after a while.

I nodded.

“I don’t want to eat until we can all eat” said Jordan, no doubt noticing all the snacks around us.

Thank God, I thought, I’d be damned if I bought some shit in this hell-hole.

Sisqo disingenuously asked from across the room “Are they bringing him out yet?”

“No.”

“They told you to wait?”

“Yeah, they said it would take about an hour.”

Feigning concern, “Did you post bond already?”

“Bond?”

“Bail, bond, same thing”

“No, not yet.”

“Oh.”

I didn’t realize what she was doing until much later, when another person came into post bail and sat with us in the lobby. When I realized this was standard procedure and not an aberration. When I realized inmate release was somewhere else. She was intentionally fucking with me, and it worked.

For the first time all day, after hours of keeping it together for Jordan, handling shit at work so that no one suspected something was wrong, and being the level-headed adult I needed to be given the situation. I finally let myself cry. Jordan noticed and put his arm around me. He was all cried out by now, any fear he felt had been replaced by the childlike anticipation of getting his daddy back.

“It’s okay” he said.

“We’ll get him back soon.” he said.

And so things came full circle.

PT IV

Frank sat somewhere beyond the concrete, deep inside the same building in a cell with Cuban Ben Kingsley, who was beside himself with excitement when he realized Frank spoke Spanish. See, Cuban Ben Kingsley had an ulcer and couldn’t drink, but that hadn’t stopped him from getting wrecked the night before. He couldn’t recall how he ended up in jail, just that he’d had a drink at Flannigans and next thing he knew he woke up in the aforementioned cell. They shot the shit for a while before realizing it was a designated free time and their cell had been unlocked.

Jordan and I went outside for a while. We called my mom to tell her we were running late. My family had been expecting us after all. Over the next few hours we’d push back plans again, and again, and again, until finally settling on “I’ll text you when we’re on our way,” but that was still four hours from now. At this point Jordan and I were still hopeful we’d all be home before anyone could miss us, even though the man who came in after us had already posted bail, while we continued to wait.

Probably assuming we expected an explanation, we were beckoned over to the release window and told that since Frank’s warrant was from Broward County, they needed permission to accept bail in Dade. So we waited some more.

Frank sat with Ben and the Cuban mafia as they coalesced in the recreation area. Ironically, the other inmates were the most pleasant thing about jail. The real dicks were the correctional officers, who made a point of being completely over the top as they interacted with one another. Hooting, hollering, prison was a party if you wore a green uniform.

As inmates saw familiar faces amongst themselves, “What are you in for?” stories passed from person to person; mostly drug-related, lots of DUI’s from the previous night. The homeless and mentally ill were also easy to spot, but God only knew under what circumstances they’d been arrested. Some inmates, weathered by experience, told Frank what he could expect; he’d face a judge, probably spend the night.

“If you have reason to believe an inmate will hurt themselves, please inform a correctional officer immediately.” I read, on a sign in the waiting room as people came in to deposit money for inmates in a machine. Cash. Credit. Charge.

“What are they doing?” asked Jordan.

“Why do you need money in jail?”

As Frank tried to call us collect to let us know that he was fine but would probably have to spend the night, he realized why. Jail’s just like the outside, everything costs money. That’s what it’s all about anyway, isn’t it?

Luckily he wouldn’t reach us to tell us to go home, and even if he had successfully called, I would’ve missed the call anyway.

No cell phones in the waiting room.

Frank would later tell me suicide prevention posters were plastered all over the inside of the jail as well. After a while, bored and dejected, he returned to the top bunk of his cell, relinquishing any hope that he’d be out before his birthday. “So this is where I’ll turn 35” he thought, as he lay in the tiny concrete room, looking out of an even tinier window grate. He could touch both ends of the cell as the length of his body hung over the ends of the metal cot. The ceilings were unusually high. “What a waste of space”, he thought.

Correctional officers fed money into the vending machines as Jordan and I waited. They didn’t acknowledge my presence in the slightest, but smiled at Jordan. Maybe they thought I was a bad mother for bringing my son here, if only they knew his dad had been hauled off to jail while taking care of him for “not taking care of him”.

“You have to pay too, huh?” I asked one of the C.O.’s.

“No one’s exempt.” he said matter of factly.

“From getting fucked.” I thought.

Half an hour later, we were granted permission to post bail.

“Finally!”

Jordan did a little dance in the lobby while singing “we’re gonna get my daddy back, we’re gonna get my daddy back!” Shimmy over here, shimmy over there, as I pulled out my debit card.

The Indian woman who’d been helping us looked incredulously at the card.

“Must be cash.”

I asked for an ATM.

“Yes, but it has to be exact. $577, not $580.”

Jordan stopped dancing.

“You can use the ATM and go buy something at the gas station” said Sisqo as I asked if anyone had change. All their singles had been swallowed up by the vending machines no doubt.

Fuck their ATM fees, and their vending machines, and their bullshit, I thought.

Jordan and I went straight to the bank. What a waste of time.

“Aw man, if they’d told us we could’ve done this while we waited!” said Jordan, clearly thinking the same thing.

I’d looked up forms of payment on the website while I was still at work: cash/debit/visa. “Oh well” I said, “now we know.”

We made it back, posted bail, and were told to wait outside for the inmates release. As we walked out Sisqo called to us “Eight to ten!”.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Eight to ten hours before they let him out.”

“They didn’t say it’d be that long.”

“Really?” she grimaced.

It was a beautiful day, sunny, breezy. I hadn’t really noticed until right then. We waited outside for a while before Jordan, who’d clearly been affected by Sisqo’s words said “now I’m worried”. Knowingly, “you want us to go back inside and ask?”. He nodded.

Back inside Sisqo smirked, we went back up to the release counter to find that the Indian woman who helped us was gone. A white woman glared at me from behind the window, and made a comment to a black man next to her. “What?” said the black man, annoyed.

“We were just here. I posted bail, but that lady told me it’d be 8-10 hours. Is that typical? Should we go and come back?”

His face changed when he noticed Jordan behind me, “It won’t be that long” he answered, clearly stricken by pity or empathy, or something else, “don’t worry, you don’t have to leave.” he said to Jordan and I.

“They said it wouldn’t be that long.” I told Sisqo smugly as we walked outside.

“Francisco?”

Frank jumped off the top bunk.

He was being released.

The booking took 25 minutes flat. The release? Two and a half hours.

Jordan and I sat, talked, paced back and forth, and eagerly looked for Frank as a crowd of inmates was released, then another, then another.

A young woman in a camo jacket and pink mirrored retro sunglasses waited for an inmate as well. As she listened to music in her earbuds, I caught her glance a few times, and wondered what brought her here. For the next couple of hours we would play musical chairs with the benches outside inmate release.

I returned to the car to grab a book of affirmations I carry in my backpack and read to Jordan.

“All I wanted to do today was fill up the circle” he said, motioning to the fit-bit watch his dad had given him the day before.

“Maybe you still can” I answered.

“Na, I just want to go to your parents house.”

“I know,” I said “me too.”

We hugged and waited for his daddy, as I realized how early we’d woken up, and felt exhaustion starting to weigh me down. We noticed some birds who’d built their nest in the tree next to us, Jordan whistled at them and asked “do you think they know they built their house next to a jail?”.

“Yeah, they’re jailbirds”, I said.

He laughed.

Having the same, tired, parsimonious saunter must be a requirement for becoming a correctional officer. Without a care in the world Sisqo walked past us and smirked “I told you it wouldn’t be that fast”.

“We’ve waited this long” I said unfazed “what’s another few hours?”

As she strolled into the jail, through the gate where inmates were being released I thought how you have to be a special kind of fucked up to garner strength from the suffering of others. When you work as a correctional officer, you go home every night, but you’re still spending most of your life, voluntarily, in jail.

“What an asshole”, I thought.

For the next hour, Jordan and I pointed out shapes to each other in the clouds, and played memory games with the passing cars. As inmates were released and the conversations Frank overheard in the recreation area spilled out onto the pavement, Jordan would ask me about the prison system, and I would tell him all that I knew.

“That’s so messed up” he said.

I felt spiritually, calm. Like the universe had prepared me for all that would happen today, but also like we were missing some crucial piece of the puzzle.

“I only pray we’re out of here before the sunsets.” I said

“Me too.” said Jordan as he prayed silently next to me

“Amen.”

We hugged again. I knew intuitively that everything happens at the right time, but desperation crept in with every group released that Frank wasn’t in. The girl in the camo jacket was apparently, feeling the same way.

She finally looked at me, shook her head and said “Can you believe this?”

Her name was Daniella. Her brother had been incarcerated twice in the last week, last night for a DUI. She’d posted bail five hours earlier and if her brother wasn’t released soon her mom would take her turn at waiting.

Over the last few months his life had taken a 360, he wasn’t acting like the person he’d been for the previous 18 years. Just the night before, her brother, distraught, asked Daniella for help. He was hearing voices, he was scared, and he’d been drinking for the numbness that came with it. She feared he was suffering from a mental illness.

“I think he’s schizophrenic.” she said.

I told her about my background, and own experience with mental illness, “the age is right” I pondered.

“Is there a history of mental illness in your family?”

“My dad’s bi-polar” she answered.

We spoke about medical treatment, I told her about my experiences in a facility, and about AA. She and her mom planned on taking her brother to a psychologist. He’d been on medication previously but recently stopped taking it.

“Is your family religious, or spiritual at all?” I asked

“My mom wants to start going to church” she said.

“It helps” I said.

Just then, not ten minutes after we started speaking to each other, we heard the clamor of the inmate release gate being unlocked.

“I hope your brother’s in this group.” I said

“I hope your boyfriend is too.”

The group walked out holding release papers and the cardboard suctioned in plastic that held their belongings in place.

“There he is!” she exclaimed.

“Daddy!” yelled Jordan.

The time was finally right, the nightmare was over. We exchanged numbers and I learned Daniella was a fellow Nica sister, and the only other car on the lot that hadn’t parked back in. Novices.

Finally, a trio again, we drove home. “Adonde andaban?”/ “Where were you?” asked my mom “En una aventura”/ “On an adventure” answered Frank. We would eat voraciously, and head home soon after, then share the story of our days with one another. Jordan told us what happened when he went in to use the bathroom without me, Sisqo would say “go ahead baby”, and another corrections officer would scold her “why are you calling him baby, he’s a grown-ass man.”

They were both wrong, he was neither a man, nor a baby, he was an angel. His presence would keep us calm in the turmoil, would bring out the humanity in the inhumane.

Jordan would pass out early, Frank would wash the smell of jail off his skin, and I would cry at the injustice of it all. At the fact that as adults we need the gaze of a child to show each other compassion and respect. At the lack of guidance and rehabilitation for prisoners and the mentally ill in this country. At a system that exists for the profit of some through the exploitation of others. At the apathy of it all.

Frank would return, somber, then enraged, then listless, to bed. I would lay in bed hugging him as we spoke about how lucky we had been. As the experience faded into memory and the hard feelings thawed, replaced by overwhelming gratitude that this surreal day had gone as well as it possibly could have. We would end the day, exactly as it started, in an embrace that felt a world away from where we began. He would turn 35, in bed, in my arms, as we’d proclaim, in hindsight, that today was in fact, a very good day.

 

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