Here’s what it’s like having a friend in jail …
First he drops off the face of the earth for five days. This is because yours is the only telephone number he knows by heart, but it’s long-distance and prisoners can’t make long-distance calls. Five days is how long it takes you to decide to start hunting for him.
You try to bring him some books. Softcover, because hardbacks aren’t allowed. The lady behind the bullet-proof glass says that only books sent by bookstores or publishers will be accepted, so you go to the used book store and the lady there tells you how it’s done. The receipt has to be on top of the topmost book in the box and it has to be made out to the prisoner. The return address on the box has to be the bookstore’s, not yours. Screw any of this up and you’ve thrown your money away. “It’s crazy,” she says. You agree.
He gets to have only three names on his visitors’ list and yours is one of them. He gets to have only two 30-minute visits a week. You go.
The Detention Center is a complex of buildings and you pick the wrong one. The rule is that you have to arrive at the correct building half an hour before time and you don’t know when the next time will be. You find the building you’re looking for six minutes late, but the lady there cuts you some slack. You’re new at this. She understands. “You’ll have to put your cell phone in one of those lockers,” she says, pointing to the waiting room behind you.
It smells like disinfectant. You wait.
A disembodied voice announces that visitors should get ready to go in. You stand. A steel door slides open. You enter. The door slides closed. You’re in a yellow cage.
The two ladies in the cage with you pump the hand sanitizers. Another door slides open. Beyond it is a room with plexiglass windows along one wall. A phone at each window.
Your friend is on the other side of one of the windows. He signals not to touch the phone on your side. He picks up the handset on his side, looks at his arm band and punches in a number. He listens, then signals you to pick up. You do.
A recording tells you that your conversation will being recorded. Then silence. “Hello?” you say. “Hello,” he says. His voice sounds far away and he tells you that yours does, too. He tells you that he lives in a cell with nine other men accused of sex crimes. One of them weighs 300 pounds and has a full-body tattoo. A Clemson grad. He tells you that he’s read 15 books from the Detention Center library since the cuffs came off. All they have is trash, but he’s trying to keep his mind occupied. He sleeps on a bottom bunk. The lights are on continuously. The toilet is in the middle of his cell.
Your friend’s sense of humor is frayed, but intact. Maybe he’s trying to be a good host. He looks tired. Does he want anything? Books. Maybe he’ll buy one of the radios that inmates can buy from the jail for $20. You tell him you’re going to move his car from County Square where he parked it last week thinking he’d been called in to deal with a wayward cousin. You’re moving it to a gated lot where it will be safe, you say. He’s much relieved. He’s been worried about the car.
He says they told him nothing for the first five days. No indication of what might happen next or when. “The wheels of justice are turning very slowly,” he says. But today, it happens, things are starting to move. They’ve offered him a public defender and he’s accepted, at least for the bond hearing. No word yet from the the attorney. No word on who the attorney is.
When the half hour is up, the phone goes dead without warning. Your friend mouths
“Thank you” from behind the glass.
Steel door, cage, steel door, waiting room.
You get your phone from the locker. You forget your driver’s license. You’ll come back for that the next day.
Outside the building, a bail bondsman approaches you. He says he knows your friend. He says he’s seen your friend in plays and thinks he’s very good. Small world. The bondsman tells you that if the paperwork is filed right away, your friend can be out by Friday. You tell him that bail hasn’t been set yet on one charge and besides, your friend has no assets, no money. The bondsman’s attention seems to wander. No customers here. You take his card anyway.