Content note: Names have been changed to protect the identities of people whose experiences are described in this piece.
My first experience in county jail was in solitary confinement. During my intake with the nurse, I told her that I take medication for depression. This comment earned me a trip to an observation cell with no comforts whatsoever. I was alone with nothing but my racing thoughts. No books, no writing materials, no toilet paper, not even a way to tell time.
Five days later, a doctor told me I was moving to the Garner Correctional Institution, a prison that treats people with mental health issues. While I was there, I saw men with debilitating mental illnesses. Although Garner is a prison, it houses a sizeable pretrial population. Some people were sentenced, and some were unsentenced. Many of them took powerful antipsychotics like Haldol and Thorazine. If they refused to take them, they would be restrained and medicated by force.
Recently, a man in my cell block at the Cheshire Correctional Institution told me he also had a very short stay in county jail. Due to his $1.5 million bail and rumors that he was gang-affiliated, he was shipped out of county jail after just four days. Instead, he faced solitary confinement in a supermax housing unit, with people the state considered high risk.
No discussion of the county jail experience would be complete without describing the court trips. Even though the pretrial phase of incarceration often lasts years, court appearances are scheduled almost monthly. On a court day, I would be roused from my sleep at four in the morning and brought to a holding cell with three or four other men. When the marshals arrived, we would be strip-searched, bound in elaborate shackles that cut off the circulation to our hands, and restrained with leg chains that made it painful to walk. We would be loaded into a transport van with reinforced doors, then make a long drive across the state just to spend hours in a bullpen waiting for the next ride.
The next vehicle I would board is known as “the ice cream truck.” It’s a small white truck with two narrow aisles going up the length of the cargo hold. These aisles are each furnished with long metal benches that seat about seven or eight people. For this trip, we would keep our leg restraints on while each of us had one hand cuffed to a long chain that connected every man on our side of the vehicle.
On one of these trips, I was in the courthouse bullpen—a holding area where we are detained until our court appearance—waiting to get back on the ice cream truck, when two gang members ordered me to hand over my sneakers. I refused. They both punched me in the face, leaving my nose and lip dripping blood. I kept wondering why the marshals would put me in a bullpen with violent gang members if they considered my mental health to be such an issue. After this assault, the first thing the marshals did was move me to a secure holding cell by myself. Then they brought me ice and paper towels for the blood. In lockup, we are incarcerated first and human beings second.
My friend Dred lived down the hall from me in Cheshire. He reminded me that these things happen all the time. Dred came into a county jail dorm in Hartford with a pair of black suede Timberland boots—“Tims,” as he calls them. He befriended a man named Luck, who suggested he keep the boots under the head of his mattress. Even though Dred felt confident that nobody would rob him, Luck warned him that anything could happen while he was asleep. As Dred moved his Tims, Luck asked if he had any money for commissary. Dred said he never heard of commissary. He came in with $200, but he didn’t know what happened to it. Luck told him not to worry; he would help him get right.
Early the next morning, Dred heard paper bags rustling in the front of the dorm area. People were lining up to receive the commissary items they ordered. Luck came by and gave Dred a generous share of ramen noodles, snacks, and soap. Later on, Dred heard some commotion and then saw a kid with a black eye. Dred asked Luck if he had robbed a white boy for his commissary items. Luck replied with one word, hushed and drawn out as long as possible:
“Chill . . .”
Another incarcerated person who I know told me he witnessed a similar incident in which the health of those incarcerated was treated as an afterthought. Someone was having a seizure back when he was in Bridgeport County Jail. The man began convulsing and fell flat on his face. When the officers saw him shaking on the floor in a pool of blood, they rushed over and put him in handcuffs. As my friend told this story, he made a point to mention that he still feels traumatized by having witnessed this. The callous way guards placed security protocol before a medical emergency was dehumanizing to watch.
After 14 months of traveling to one court date after another, my public defender told me the prosecutor had an offer for my sentence if I pled guilty. A year earlier, my lawyer predicted I would get eight or nine years in prison. The evidence had seemed to favor me more and more. So I was shocked when I heard the offer of 12 years in prison followed by 10 years of special parole. As if he could sense my desire to reject with enthusiasm, my lawyer held up his hand and said he didn’t want an answer that day. My next court date would be in another month, and I could give my answer then.
For the endless month in between, I had a constant stomachache. Everyone had advice. Some said to reject the offer, assuring me that prosecutors always come back with a better one. Others warned me they might not, and if I lost at trial, I would likely receive the maximum sentence. In my case, that would have been 60 years.
My friend Ghost told me about his experience of going to trial. He was charged with murder and facing life in prison. During jury selection, a Black woman refused to serve on the jury because the other potential jurors were all white and therefore not a jury of Ghost’s peers. The judge dismissed that woman and asked her to leave the courtroom.
At trial, Ghost was convicted by the hearsay evidence of a person who Ghost believes was bribed into cooperation. He received a lesser conviction of manslaughter and a sentence of 30 years. To this day, 25 years later, Ghost believes that if he had even one Black juror at his trial, the prosecution would have faced a stricter burden of proof.
Most people I talk to in prison say you get a better deal if you bail out. Pre-sentence incarceration is known to people in jail as “bullpen therapy.” It’s an experience designed to break the spirit and make the accused person willing to accept his fate. After 452 days of waiting in cells and riding in ice cream trucks, I just wanted an end in sight, and the prosecution knew it.
DC is seeking to gain perspective from his incarceration. He writes about his reflections to achieve that goal, and he hopes that by sharing these lessons, he will help others. This part of the Human Toll of Jail series, a partnership between the Vera Institute of Justice and PEN America.