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Human cattle call and a roll of toilet paper in John Waters country

Feb 09, 2009 Human cattle call and a roll of toilet paper in John Waters country

Too many people are unjustly caged in American prisons. (Image from Bureau of Prisons’ website).

Why does John Waters make so many of his films in Baltimore? Because nobody could create in a studio setting as strange a place so full of urban decay and quirks as Baltimore. I love Baltimore, and not the mall-ified Inner Harbor, but the Bromo Seltzer tower; the ugly blocks after blocks of identical inexpensive rowhouses; the Baltimore accent punctuated by many with "Howyadoin’, hon?"; a walk in Hampden; and even some of the gritty aspects of the infamous Block, whose businesses’ First Amendment rights I strongly support. Poe was at home here, as was John Waters, and Frank Zappa lived there for a short spell before his family relocated to the decidedly non-Baltimore Lancaster, California, for his asthma.

Even the jail and prison area of Baltimore is fascinating, until one factors in the countless human beings warehoused inside. In other words, I have a love/discomfort relationship with Baltimore. Then again, no matter what part of the world I enjoy, it is offset by the unjust criminal justice system that pervades the entire world. Some parts of the world have less unjust criminal justice systems than others, but in the end they all are unjust overall for being overgrown with laws that over-arrest, over-convict, and over-imprison; for having no jury trial right and no presumption of innocence in the vast majority of places; for overcriminalizing through drug laws rather than decriminalizing drugs; for failing to be more just by shrinking the size of the criminal justice system (and thus increasing the quality of those hired to work in the system and hopefully increasing the other resources for the system); and the list goes on.

My most recent professional visit to Baltimore was today, to visit a potential client at Central Booking only about a mile or two from the polished Inner Harbor, which looks more like New York’s South Street Seaport (apparently both were developed by the same company) than like Baltimore, and to stop at the Eastside District Courthouse on the way to see the man’s court file. I first stopped my car a half mile away from the courthouse before arriving there, to stow my briefcase in my trunk, just in case. As I got out of my car to do so, a woman walking nearby down the sidewalk kept pointing her index finger — palm down — towards my car, and then towards passing cars. At first, I took this as the woman’s being odd, but then noticed she was with another woman doing the same thing, and then that a car stopped soon after. Was this a new hand signal to hitchhike? Was it a signal of willingness to pay for a ride (but the buses were out in force on North Avenue, a major thoroughfare)? Was something illegal being sold in the car?

I walked into the courthouse, converted in the early Eighties from a former Sears, and was re-reminded how inhuman is the design, architecture and mood of the whole building and most courthouses, most of which have windowless courtrooms, at least where I practice law. The people working at the court clerk’s window could not have been nicer, and automatically handed me a copy of the charging document before I even requested it.

Then I hopped into my car to drive to the Central Booking Facility, which is within four blocks of the Baltimore jail, the Maryland Penitentiary, the supermaximum prison, and the intake prison through which new inmates of the prison system pass to find out which prison they will be sent to. I have spent many hours visiting clients in the last three places. They all are bizarre and boring places in their own ways, surrounded by blocks that can best be described as very gray in mood. The Maryland Penitentiary’s visiting areas are about as gray and depressing as they get, and it would seem that the housing areas are grayer. At least I get to leave before the day is out.

During the half-hour wait to bring me to my client and my client to me, a closed circuit television in the waiting room piped in incessant droning upstairs of a District Court session for reviews of inmates’ bonds that were set by the court commissioner within twenty-four hours of arrest, or that were set by a judge even longer ago than the then-current court session. The judge talked very quickly about each defendants’ rights to a jury trial or not, and to obtain the services of a public defender lawyer if qualified, or a private lawyer no matter what. Each bond review lasted one to two minutes at most, it seemed, with the judge’s initial spiel leading to a pretrial services employee’s droning out the defendant’s criminal record — many had numerous arrests, but not all led to convictions — and sometimes separate pending criminal cases, followed by the prosecutor’s usually nonchalant few words about her stand about bond (sometimes just deferring to the judge who did not seem to be reducing the bonds set by the court commissioner, anyway). Fortunately, the public defender’s office makes lawyers available at these hearings; not all Maryland county public defender offices provide lawyers for the initial bond hearing. As the public defender lawyers next spoke to the judge, their clients were not even standing next to them, but were sitting next to other inmates on a nearby bench, perhaps at the behest of the judge to make things "move along," since having the inmates next to their lawyers involved extra security measures, and thus extra time.  

The bond hearings moved along and moved along and moved along and moved along, with the judge’s repeated refusal to ameliorate the bonds set by the court commissioners — who generally are not lawyers and who can be expected often to set high bonds, because their job security is less at risk to set bonds too high than too low — and revoking some of the commissioners’ bonds. No matter how much the public defender lawyers tried to humanize their clients, talking about such factors as the jobs and families they needed to return to, their ties to the community, their educations, and the pettiness of some of the charges (some were charged with just possessing some marijuana or another drug, and others were charged — and at this point they are charges only, with the defendants presumed innocent — with violent assault and other felonies beyond just drugs), the courtroom seemed to have an overarching centrifugal force generally to throw the defendants back to their jail cells with the same bonds with which they walked into the courtroom, or worse. The whole situation seemed not much better nor much different than a cattle call.

Finally, I was saved from the closed circuit video monitor when told it was time for me to go see my potential client. This is the first Maryland detention facility where I ever have been frisked (frisking seems to be common for the contact visits made by lawyers to the District of Columbia jail, too), even though there was a scanner of sorts to walk through. I took heart that everybody got frisked, even the guards that entered. Fortunately, the frisking did not touch my genitals or butt; therefore, I suppose that if anybody wanted to bring some contraband, those might be the ideal places to hide them. Fortunately, the frisker was a likable person, but I still felt I was going through a frisking cattle call.

Going up the elevator, I saw the jail chief and warden, whose pictures were among the 1984-ish display of framed pictures of the governor, lieutenant governor, state public safety chief, and two others I could not make out, looking down at those in the reception area of the jail. You will see the same thing in federal buildings, except this time with framed pictures of Obama, Biden, and the agency’s chief. The chief got out of the elevator too soon for me to inquire why he did not try to get a better pose than the very unsmiling one in the picture frame.

Shortly after I got off the elevator, my potential client was brought out. We barely had a chance to say hello before the guard in the large area off the elevator pointed to a corner in that open area for us to speak. The area was totally in the open, without any privacy, with people moving in and out all over the place. I asked for a private area to speak, and the guard showed us to an adjacent medical examination room, complete with a scale and examination table. That worked just fine, until officers opened the door three times without knocking, perhaps not knowing the room was occupied. When I finally asked for a knock before an entrance to our private meeting, the officer said "That will be fine" and then placed an object around one foot by one foot between the door and the doorframe, and kept it open even more than that. I said I wanted to close the door, and the guard said I could close it against the one foot by one foot object. I said I wanted to close the door all the way, and the guard said that was not allowed. Intervening, I was heartened by the one or two nearby inmates who said "They have a right to a private meeting."

I said I wanted to speak with someone in charge to make my request for a meeting area without an open door, and the guard again said it is not allowed, and I said I would take it up with someone in charge. Within five minutes, a guard showed us to another room next door, and said I could close the door, which I was able to do after removing the toilet paper roll that kept it open.

And the toilet paper roll symbolizes how sh*tty and unjust the criminal justice system still remains, and how far it still needs to go to wipe away the stench.  Jon Katz

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