Everything I Ever Wanted to Know about Jail

You never know who you're going to meet when you're traveling. A couple days ago, I mentioned that I was getting ready to take the bus back to Portland, hoping to find a good story. Here’s what happened.

The first leg of the trip, from Walla Walla to Pasco, was uneventful. We stopped in a couple small towns along the way—sometimes picking people up, sometimes not. That’s the biggest drawback to riding the bus—it can be pretty inefficient because you stop so often.

At Pasco, I had a layover of about 45 minutes. I wanted to get something to eat, but unfortunately, the Pasco station is not close to any restaurants.  With a backpack, a guitar and a heavy duffle bag, walking the mile back to the taco stands we had passed on the way to the station did not sound like fun, so I opted to just sit down on a bench to wait for my next bus to leave.

About five minutes later, a young guy came and sat down on the opposite end of the bench. He was in his early twenties and wore a black t-shirt, baggy jeans and a pair of well-worn black Air Jordan basketball shoes. He was about average height and had a medium build. It looked like at some point in his life he had lifted weights, but had not done so for quite a while. He wore his hair cropped very short and had not shaved in three or four days. He had someone’s name tattooed on his right wrist, and on the inside of his left forearm, a large raptor spread its wings. When he sat down, I got the sense that he wanted to talk. I made eye contact with him, which was all the encouragement he needed.

“Where you going?” he asked me.

“Portland. How about you?”

“I’m going to Spokane,” he replied. “I just got out of jail, and I’m getting the hell out of here!”

I knew right then that I had found my story.

“Yeah,” he continued, “I just spent ten days in the Franklin County jail. Can you believe they extradited me all the way down here from Ione [Washington] for fishing without a license?”

Hmm…Not really….Not yet, at least…

“That goddamn cop in Ione, he came into my house at night. He knows my name—tells me he runs it once a week to see if I have any warrants out. He comes into my house at night—I’m sleeping, and he handcuffs me while I’m sleeping. Then he wakes me up and I’m already cuffed! Doesn’t care if I’m in there naked, or if my wife’s in there naked. He just doesn’t give a damn. I’m going to get a restraining order on him when I get back to keep him the hell away from me. Turn the system back on itself.”

Hmm…interesting idea…

“You know the cops and the law are just like a gang themselves. They do all of this stuff just to extort money from you. I mean, they throw people in jail for tossing a cigarette on the ground or for crossing the street, not in the crosswalk. The system is f—ed man, just f—ed up.”

In some ways, yes, I see your point. . .

“I been in jail four times in the last three months, and I haven’t even done anything. They got a $10,000 warrant on me in Grant County, but it’s not extraditable, so I’m okay as long as I don’t go there. And nobody wants to go to Moses Lake.”

I could tell that the conversation was going to last for a while. It was clear that he hadn’t talked to many people recently and was looking to get some things off his chest. I must have looked ready to listen, because he started telling me all about his recent misadventures. My biggest regret was not taping the conversation for future reference, because this kid would make a great character for a book someday.

“This morning, I didn’t even know if I was going to get out or not. My attorney told me I was, and I told him ‘Don’t f— with me’ and he said ‘I’m not. You’re getting out today.’ And I said okay, but then I went to court and the judge started to tell me that I wasn’t getting out, and I said ‘No! You’ve got to be f—ing kidding me!’ And the judge said ‘You didn’t pay your fine.’  and I said ‘Yes I did! I’m all clear!’ and this went back and forth until my attorney finally convinced him that I could go, and so he finally said ‘Okay, you can go’ and I thought to myself ‘Oh sh—, now what do I do?’

As he told the story, his steely blue eyes flashed with excitement. His eyes were open just a little wider than most people’s, and I could picture him pacing back and forth in his cell, feeling trapped like a wild animal. I looked around the waiting area to see if anyone else was following the conversation. I don’t know if people weren’t paying attention or if they were too scared to look over at us, as if stories about drugs, fights, and jail were more than they could take.  I mean, the kid did look like a convict, but he was pretty entertaining. I was having a great time. It’s not every day I get to meet people who are so open about their past misdeeds.

“So when I get out, I call my wife and she tells me to go to MoneyGram. She says ‘go pick up your money and get your ass over to the bus station.’ And I ask her ‘You sent money? How?’ because there ain’t no MoneyGram in our town—you have to drive 45 minutes to find one and she says ‘No, your mom sent it and I’m sending her money in the mail. She says you can stay with her tonight too.’ And I said ‘My mom sent money?’ My mom doesn’t even like me!”

“Is she in Spokane?” I asked.

“Yeah. And let me tell you, I hate Spokane. They’ve got the worst f—ing jail in the system. I was in there one time and they stick you in a cell by yourself with nothing, no books, no radio, no nothing. And you don’ t get anything in there until after you been there for five days. I told them without anything to do and no one to talk to I’d go crazy. I can’t stand to be alone like that. I got mad and started yelling and screaming and beating my hand against the door and the guards told me to shut up or they’ll throw me in the hole, so I asked them ‘Is there someone in there to talk to?’ F—ers. It’s the worst f—ing place. At least in Franklin County they give you a pencil. Not a big one, but it’s still something. I can at least tag the walls and sh—. You can have books too. In Newport, you get a TV and a VCR in your cell—something to keep your mind occupied. You know which jail’s the best? Grant County. The food there is the bomb. Hamburgers, French fries. . . .It’s easy to sneak stuff in there too. You have to be careful, but I was smoking bud while I was in there. They didn’t know I had it. You gotta be real careful when you do that, ‘cause if they catch you, that’s felony contraband. I could get five years for that. If they catch you with tobacco it’s not too bad, but they put it to you if they catch you with weed.”

As he told all of his stories, I found myself remembering a lecture that one of my English professors at WSU had given discussing the fallibility of the narrator of a story. This guy was fascinating, but I wasn’t always sure if he was talking about things that really happened or things that happened only in his mind. He had some interesting superstitions too.

“My dad told me, he said “When you’re in jail, don’t ever write your name on the cell wall, because if you do, you’ll end up back in there. You know what? He was right. The last time I was in Franklin, I wrote my name on the wall and sure enough, I came back. Happened in Spokane too. In Newport, I went back three times!”

Sounded to me like he ought to listen to his father. “So what are you going to do now?” I asked, genuinely curious about his future plans.

“I don’t know. I’ve tried to get a job, but the DV conviction keeps stopping me.”


“Domestic violence. I plead guilty to fourth-degree DV because when the cops came to the house, I forgot that I had a couple of marijuana pipes in my pocket. They had me for possession of drug paraphernalia, but said they’d drop those charges if I’d plead guilty to the DV. Now I wish I hadn’t”

“When was that?”

“January. No one will hire me now. But I also can’t work because I’m taking care of my grandma. I think she’s about to die, and no one else in the family will talk to her. I don’t know why. I don’t want her last times here to be bad. She was trying to find a way for me to get paid to take care of her, but with the DV on my record, I can’t get hired. I can’t just leave her by herself, but it makes it hard to get a job.”

I smiled and nodded in agreement. Even with all of the crap that this guy has gone through, family was still very important to him. In fact, he told me that he’s the happiest guy in the world because his wife is about to have a baby. Wow. I hope that his son is able to learn from his father’s mistakes and grows up without the same intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system.

My waiting time flew by, as he told me several more stories before our conversation was abruptly ended by the last call for the bus to Spokane. He jumped up quickly, excited to be heading home. We never did introduce ourselves. I wished him good luck as he walked out the door to the bus. I don’t know his name, but I hope things work out for him. He gave me a great story to tell, so I owe him one.