[Tranc{E]nd} (seattlesque) wrote,

Experiences at King County Jail

(please read The Aerial View as a companion to this article.)

I was arrested on the street on April 28th, 2004. Much as when I was taken to the hospital, I didn't have a problem with the idea of being arrested. Though I had broken an object on the street (a wine glass), that glass did belong to me after all. And though I had yelled at a lot of people over time, I hadn't threatened anyone and had no history of violence or criminal record.

Similar to my experience with hospitalization, I had been having otherworldly experiences, and didn't know what to expect when I got in the police car. In the worst case scenario, I was ready to face the consequences in court, since I wanted to draw attention to my case and what had been done to me at Harborview. Plus I figured that having been threatened with explicit physical violence by several people gave me a one-up, because if they got called into court they'd have to own up to assault. Once again, the worst-case scenario was much worse than I would have thought.

I was prepared to make a phone call and see a judge, but instead I had to change into prison clothes without any socks or underwear, and was given a plastic cup...which seemed like something of a non-sequitir to be my sole possession. When I asked questions about my charges, they told me that they were taking me to court. We passed by glassed-in areas with dozens of people, many of them sleeping on the floor and looking like zombies. I was told to grab a mat from a pile of ripped up green plastic mattresses, and sent into a reasonably-sized room with a table in it but no bunks. A couple of mexicans were sleeping on the floor, with their heads on rolls of toilet paper. Trash was everywhere, and the toilet was clogged up with garbage. The environment was so surreal, it resembled one of the levels of hell in Dante's Inferno.

There was a Qwest phone on the wall but no directory. When I picked it up, it announced that collect calls would be five dollars and eighty cents for the first minute, and eighty nine cents for each additional minute...with a ten-minute-per-call limit (an amazing display of corporate greed). I protested this situation and said I had not been presented with charges or been allowed to make my free phone call and I needed a white pages. In response to my concerns, the guards ranged from being indifferent ("not my problem, I just work here, when court wants to talk to you they'll call you") to sadistic ("if you don't shut up, we're going to beat the crap out of you").

There was another English-speaking inmate in the room who I could talk to. Our dialogue was quite interesting and he did some curious things that furthered my belief that this was a place where souls were being trapped and needed rescue. What I didn't know...which I should have been told...was that I was on the 7th floor of the King County Jail, which is essentially a "psychiatric" floor. Not only were the other people I was speaking to considered crazy, but the mess and the lack of resources...as well as the very frightening appearance...was all because that area was allowed to atrophy. The guards, similarly, have little patience because everyone they deal with is dismissed as a nut. You wouldn't know this, because they don't bother to explain it to you, because (of course) you are crazy.

In any case, I attempted to use the prison intercom to call for help regarding my situation and was persistent in demanding I be allowed to speak to someone in charge (e.g. the manager of the person who answered the intercom). Each room has an intercom, and it is through this intercom that you are supposed to make your requests or announce emergency situations. The intercom has a single button, and you push it and talk, but you won't necessarily get any feedback. You almost certainly won't if the operator has decided not to like you for some reason, and your message can (and often is) just tossed into the void with no reply. I will say that in this respect, Harborview has the leg up, because they have intercom systems that will keep ringing until someone answers.

a simple intercom unit with no way of knowing whether the person on the other end has received your message, is ignoring you, or if the unit is working at all. This is what they have in King County Prison, and the idea is so outdated you can't even find this design if you look to purchase intercoms on the web.

a more complex intercom, similar to the ones at Harborview Hospital, which can be rigged to "keep ringing" until your call request is received by an operator...and which displays a light indicating whether the person is actively listening on the other end.

Rather than listen to my concerns, the staff decided to deem me a nuisance. So on the first day I was there I was thrown into a a rather horrifying and nearly soundproof cell. When I begged for assistance with my problem of needing to know what was going on, the intercom people openly mocked me for how "stupid" I was. When I tried to defend myself and reason with them about my intelligence, they said (essentially) "if you were smart, you wouldn't be in jail." Because I was unable to reason with the intercom operator or the guards who came to my door regarding the violation of my due process, I yelled for help and banged on the walls. They threatened me with pepper spray and a host of other nasty options...all this while trapping me in a room expecting me to sleep with no mattress, having had no food, and with only access to hot water to drink out of the tap.

With the intercom dead, trapped in isolation so that no one could hear my screaming (or at least no one who could cared enough to respond), I resorted to taking the hot water cupful by cupful and throwing it under the door. This generated a commotion in which they called plumbing down to turn off my water. I was hoping to generate some kind of disturbance to get a manager in there, figuring that even if no one else would listen to my rationale for needing attention I could at least yell to the plumber ("HELP!!! I AM TRAPPED HERE WITH NO DUE PROCESS!!! CALL THE NEWS STATION!!!") Little did I know that this water-tactic on my first night was going to trigger a deadly status flag on my door--"he makes things flood". This was used as an excuse to keep me without running water for the next two weeks of my stay.

For the next several days I received no food. Each shift was told that I had eaten or refused my meal, when no meal had been offered. I had to beg for water and sometimes they would turn it on long enough for me to drink out of the tap or flush the toilet, but then they would turn it immediately off again. By around the turning of day five or so, meals started coming...though they had other peoples names on them and looked like they were spoiled or just leftovers stuck into a styrofoam container. I rejected some of these outright, even though in retrospect I probably turned down a meal or two that was completely up to par for prison food (I had no basis for judging this). By the end of day six or thereabouts, the food problem was turned around and I was willing to eat what I got (although I still got spoiled milk a few times).

Through this I had no shoes, no toothbrush, no soap. Some of the time I had a blanket and sometimes that blanket was confiscated and I had to stay up all night (there was no way for me to sleep on the cold floor). I howled and yelled and begged with the people to care about what was being done to me. Due to the psychologically torturous situation, sleep deprivation, dehydration, and malnutrition...I definitely did some weirdo things around day four, including taking everything in the room and putting it all in the toilet that I could not flush because there was no running water. My hope was to generate some kind of loud-enough emergency alarm that would escalate and I could talk to someone...a prison director, a doctor, anyone who could display some non-hostile human behavior.

I don't know if my slip into delirious and "insane" behavior was a necessary step in the process of getting heard or not. But around day seven or so I was able to see a real doctor who checked me out and asked good questions. So I got a chance to tell my story to someone outside the prison system who could listen, even if they couldn't do anything about it. We found I had lost at least 15 pounds, I was down to 130. It was shortly after this that I was let out of the cell and permitted to take a shower, and shortly after that that bartosz came to visit me for the first time. I was quite overjoyed to know that the outside world had not forgotten about me!!!

Yet the fight wasn't over. In fact, being let out of the cell strengthened my resolve so I felt like taking on the system while I was there was the best use of my time. There is no excuse for locking a guy up in a cold room and making him act insane to get attention. I was prepared to challenge that intelligently instead of just giving up and waiting at their mercy, much as I had stood up to Harborview. So I kept on pushing...staying up through the night and trying to go through the steps that would put pressure on the people who were perpetuating this flawed system.

I took the "no water" issue head-on. You cannot put someone in a room and deny them water when they ask for it...I reasoned that has to be against the law, or Geneva conventions, or something. I repeated that I had a medical emergency--that I was "dying of thirst". (Technically this was probably not true...I wasn't going to die, but I was thirsty...and who are they to decide what it takes to be dying of thirst?) I couldn't get a response from that, despite the fact that I kept giving speeches to the intercom...along the lines of:

Since you're not responding to my emergency call, it seems you are saying that since I can make an intercom call I must not be dying of thirst. If your argument is taken to its logical extreme, only someone who has actually died of thirst can warrant service...because up until that point they were still alive and didn't need water. What you're doing is akin to someone calling 911 and having the operator tell them "what are you complaining about, you have a PHONE. you could call for anything you want, why are you bothering us? we're looking for the real emergencies, the people who don't have phones."

Rather than turn my water on and accomodate me, the guards took this as a challenge and we definitely didn't get along. I was also freezing to death due to being in a cell with two exterior walls and what pretty much amounted to air conditioning coming in a vent in the ceiling, and I had to hop around to stay warm. Bear in mind there are no bars, hence the solid room has its own temperature which is different from the environment the guards are in. I'd try and appeal to their human empathy but they showed nothing but contempt and hatred for the freezing guy in the cell. Our exchanges would go back and forth, with everyone it was different but the tune was the same:

me: "don't you want to improve the criminal justice system so people get treated more fairly?"
guard: "not really."
me: "why not?!?"
guard: "it's impossible. I'm just one person."
me: "well, I'm one person too. together we could be TWO people, and then we could get more..."
(guard walks off, typically they wouldn't spend more than about 15 seconds at the door while doing their rounds)

It was so frustrating. I'd yell at them about divine justice and how since they thought that was an acceptable way to treat people who haven't been convicted of a crime we sure are wasting resources by having them live in houses. I proposed that the prison guards should be given cold cells to live in with no heat, clothes, bed, or water...because that's all they seem to think humans need. Being faced with days of this made me into a manic street preacher.

There were other manipulations too. Every day a nurse would come by and try and get me to take medication...obviously because I was making too much noise and too "hyper"/"manic". Apparently by refusing to take the medication (I didn't want to be "drugged") there were certain individuals on staff who made up rules like "if you don't take your medication, you're not going to be let out of the cell for a shower today"...and they'd elect to write down that I had "refused" to be let out, when they were supposed to offer it independently of whether I took medication or not. In any case, the rules were not presented to me.

At one point near the end of my stay, possibly the most evil thing of all happened. I was cold and had no water, and I requested a medical "kite" (they call the service request forms "kites"). The officer in charge brought me one with no pencil and told me to "deal". So I pulled the name sticker I had saved off of one of my styrofoam food delivery boxes and put it on the form, then used rips to make the word "HELP!" out of the middle using my fingers. With some toothpaste I had acquired I then wrote "NO H2O" and "COLD" on the form, and laid it in the middle of the room. I then proceeded to bang on the door to try and get someone to respond to my request.

Instead of bringing me water or a blanket, what they decided to do was this: to write on the log outside my door that I had threatened to kill myself by strangling myself with my pants. Then a group of them (about 7 or so, including women) took me out of that room, stomped on me and took my clothes, and left me naked in another room with absolutely nothing--no water, no blanket, not even a toothbrush. I hopped around for the eight or nine hours or so it took for morning to come around. Because there are no bars--just glass and metal and institutional sliding locks--the air conditioning make the rooms frigid, even in summer. Because I have Raynaud's Syndrome and an extreme sensitivity to cold, this was just getting worse and worse for my body...and as I'm writing this I still can't feel my feet or walk straight.

UPDATE: for similar (but somewhat more egregious) behaviors, a guard in Iraq has been convicted and and faces up to 15 years in military prison. By contrast, I think the maximum penalty for breaking a wine glass on the street is some kind of misdemeanor. I think you can get a year or something.

After that incident and when the next shift found me in the morning, it was actually a quick trip forwards...some good officers seemed to catch the drift of my situation and started equipping me with everything I needed, including running hot and cold water in my room. Of course the next day I had to defend myself against the suicide accusation to the doctors. The last couple of days were spent on a mat, under a blanket, with showers and meals and everything going along fine...and not being pushed with medication. I'd like to commend in particular an Officer Ferris, who made the first genuine effort to stop and talk to me about a desire to improve the criminal justice system. He was also the first to make a time-promise ("I'll go see if I can get you a blanket, but whether I can or not I'll be back in 10 minutes to tell you the result"), and to try and make clear what was going on ("you're receiving your food in styrofoam because they're afraid you would throw a tray if you had one"). That guy should get a big raise and teach sensitivity classes to the other guards. Period.

Ultimately I was bailed out on May 14th by bartosz. But unfortunately, I wasn't in a very stable state of mind after going through this, and without being able to get an audience for these concerns. When I finally went to my court date I was absolutely furious that I didn't have a chance to speak to the judge about this, and that the prosecution was trying to declare me incompetent to even stand trial. (I have documented the nature of the mental health court, which actually employs this.) Consequently I threw a fit around my building and ended up being picked up and spent another month in jail. I don't really know what to say about that month other than it was more of the same, though I knew some about the process at that point. Eventually I was let out when I agreed to treatment.

I feel this should frighten and disgust those who believe in the American criminal justice system...just as my experiences with the psychiatric medical establishment were somewhat beyond belief. I know that jails are desensitizing environments, and being a jail guard has to be a tough job in a lot of ways...you deal with a lot of difficult cases and you sort of have to separate yourself from the job in order to make it day to day. But this is a very sensitive piece of our justice system--you can't play fast and loose with no accountability. Especially when the entire premise *is* accountability!
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