Part 1 –
I arrived at Harris County lockup on a Thursday evening in September 2014. I was in the middle of a terrible divorce and my husband arranged to have me arrested on a bench warrant in Louisiana to get rid of me for awhile so he could do some legal maneuvering in the divorce and child custody case. I had failed to register my new address with my probation officer on a charge from 2002. My crime wasn’t violent or drug related, it was a property crime from when I was 22 for which I was given a year of probation. I had broken a technical rule of that probation when we moved for my husband’s job without proper notification which triggered a bench warrant that laid dormant for more than a decade. Since I hadn’t committed a new crime and posed no danger to anyone, I thought I’d be able to return to Louisiana, straighten things out and return home in a few days. That’s not even remotely close to what happened.
The first thing they did was take my phone. I haven’t memorized a phone number since high school so without it I couldn’t even call anyone to let them know where I was. The only numbers I could recall were my husband’s, that was useless, and my parent’s old number that had long since been changed when they moved.
It was freezing in there. I was wearing white drawstring capri sweatpants with a blue striped tank top and Old Navy silver flip flops. My toes and fingers were numb and blue before I even got called up to record my fingerprints and take my mug shot. I sat in the cold room and watched it fill up as the night went on.
Maybe three hours later I was finally placed in a holding cell adjacent to the booking room with a few other women. There was a girl, I’ll call her Tammy, that had been in this particular jail at least 20 times. She smoked crack often so she knew the lay of the land and was happy to fill in a first-timer. She warned me about the gangs and the dangers of mixing races once you make it back to the dorms. There were people that would buddy up to me for my commissary goods, she warned. I was still in shock from the whole ordeal, but tried to remember all the tips she gave me. This cell was even colder than the booking room. The newbies were easy to spot. We were all wearing summer clothes because it was easily 90 degrees that day. The jail regulars were wearing socks, layers of shirts, long pants and hoodies.
Most of the girls in that cell fell asleep on the cold cement floor, but I was too anxious. I was brought to see a magistrate around 2am. While we waited for him to show up, I listened to the guards chatting about one’s vacation and the other’s new house while I sat nearby, shackled to the wooden bench outside the small courtroom. He asked if I agreed to be extradited, of course I did, I was ready to get this over with. When he told me Louisiana had 14 days to come pick me up, my heart sank into the pit of my nauseous stomach. Two weeks of this place?! Surely, it wouldn’t take that long. Would it?
After more waiting in yet another cell I was finally transferred to the jail’s medical intake where someone in scrubs did chest x-rays in small room to the right. I asked one of the other girls, a young looking wide-eyed brunette, what was going on. She told me there’s a TB epidemic in this facility and we all have to be screened before we get assigned to a dorm. It was about 5am at this time and I was freezing cold and exhausted.
A nurse sat in a room to the left. A chair was on the other side of the door for me to sit on while she was on the other side of a glass wall with a small hole to speak through. She asked questions about my medical history. I told the truth. Apparently, more seasoned inmates know that you’re supposed to omit everything resembling the truth about your medical history to avoid having to wait to see a doctor. Based on my answers I was issued a mental health bracelet and a medical bracelet and sent back to the holding cell to wait some more.
The young, pretty brunette was a 17 year old girl living in a hotel room. She was picked up on a meth possession probation violation and she was very upset about her dog. The dog was her only family and she was worried she wouldn’t get back to the hotel before they turned her over to an animal shelter. Her parents kicked her out when she was 15 and she’d been working as a prostitute since then. We both shivered while we chatted.
Sometime Friday morning I was finally put in the holding cell I’d occupy with 30 or so women for more than 4 days waiting to see the medical doctor and mental health professional that had to sign off before I could be assigned a dorm or get a bed. This was a freezing cold, all cement room with enough benches for about 1/3 of the people in it to sit down. The rest of us sat or laid on the icy floor.
3 times a day we were tossed a baloney sandwich with some sort of awful fake cheese on wet bread, sealed in cellophane, with an oatmeal cream pie. There were 3 toilets on the back wall with water spigots to drink from. The fluorescent lights never went off or dimmed. My head throbbed. Eventually I passed out from pure exhaustion, but I was in pain on the hard floor in all positions that I tried. We had no clothes, blankets or cots. By the second day in that cell the smell started to overwhelm the small space. We were not allowed access to showers or clean clothes for 5 days. The only two paper gowns they produced went to the two prostitutes wearing the least clothing.
I was so jealous of Tammy’s long white socks and big red hoodie. I huddled with her and a few others on the floor for warmth, despite the awful stench. The only time we left that cell was to line up in the hall at shift change to be counted, while trustees mop the cell and pour bleach in toilets. I’ll never forget the smell of that harsh bleach mixed with the worst body odor and vomit. Then the drug addicts start detoxing, vomiting and diarrhea were the prevalent sounds and smells.
There were no cords on the phones after too many suicides by hanging on them. By day 3 in there I started to understand why that was necessary. I lost track of the days there, I tried to count the sandwiches I couldn’t bring myself to eat just to determine how long we’d been in there. The constant pain of being on that cold hard floor was overwhelming. I could only block out the pain and the noise and the smells long enough to take small naps occasionally. Then I awoke to one of the mentally ill women standing over me poised to beat me with her shower shoe.
I was more shocked than scared but managed to squeak out a warning for her not to touch me as I crawled to the other side of the room. She had been banging on the door for hours trying to get the guard’s attention. They yelled back through the door that she would be sorry if she did it one more time. She did and they yanked her out by her feet and drag her into the hall where they struggle to restrain her. One kicks her while the other struggles to cuff her hands. The next time I saw her was when I finally saw the doctor Tuesday night. She was shackled to a wheelchair facing the wall wearing a straight jacket and face mask, dead-eyed. I was too tired, cold and miserable to care.
When I was finally assigned a bunk in a dorm it was sometime early Wednesday morning. I have gone nearly 6 days without changing my clothes or showering. 6 days with no toothbrush, bed or blanket. I was so grateful for the blanket and the thin busted mat that I didn’t even get mad when they told me I would have to wait to shower until after morning count. My hair is greasy and I’m so filthy that I itch. I climb up onto a top bunk and cover my duct taped mat with the small white sheet tied at the corners and cover myself with the rough wool blanket. The relief that mat offered to my muscles and joints was so heavenly I fell asleep almost immediately.
My whole body was covered in blue, purple and red bruises caused by so many days on the cold concrete floor. I never slept longer than an hour or so at a time, the pain waking me, try to stretch and change positions. I disassociated to cope, the trauma so overwhelming that any moment of real recognition of my situation would lead to me praying for the mercy of death. I refused to allow myself to think about my son and how much I missed him. Crying would make me look weak so I focused on the unemotional and convinced myself that I wasn’t actually living this, I was watching it happen to someone else. The hunger and the physical pain gave me enough of a distraction to make it work. I had been missing for a week, no way to call anyone or write since I didn’t have any addresses or phone numbers. I was eventually told to fill out a request form to have someone get a friend’s phone number off my cell, but my request was never answered.
It would be a few more days until my friend showed up on visiting day. She’d been searching everywhere for me. My friends and family were all convinced that my husband had killed me when he wouldn’t tell them where I was. We only had 10 minutes to shout at each other through the thick plexiglass, competing with at least 20 other voices trying to do the same thing. I had borrowed a pen from my bunkmate and smuggled it in to the jam packed visiting room in my sock. I used it to write her phone number on my arm and promised to call her.
On day 13 I was called out. A private for-profit extradition van had come to pick up a male inmate wanted for attempted murder. Everyone headed to Louisiana packed into the van sent for him. It would be another 10 days before I made it to Baton Rouge.
That’s going to have to wait for now…stay tuned for Part 2.