Image caption: A small prison cell with a thin cot, sink, and toilet seen through bars.
[Note: Names have been changed.]
Being in jail is almost nothing like being alive in real life. The dead air, the total lack of control or choice, the restricted movements, the strict regimentation of time, the inadequate food and the bureaucratically impossible “medical” treatment (It took a cellmate over 72 hours to get ibuprofen for a headache); the voice over the loudspeaker more implacable than God – feels like the opposite of life itself. But, we are still alive, and one thing remains the same – if we die in jail, then we die in real life.
. . .
He was a 38-year-old man, originally born in Honduras, who was brought to the jail on charges of driving with a suspended license. At that point, I had been incarcerated for a few weeks, long enough to have weathered the shock and began taking an active, if reserved, interest in my 70+ person cell block community. From the get-go, he was a jokester, making fun of the deadly serious, self-directed systems of survival developed by the inmates. Every morning before cell inspection, which ostensibly takes place at 8AM but realistically is anywhere between 8:15 and 8:45, at which time, we are reminded daily, “all inmates must be out of their bunks with beds made, in their jumpsuits, standing by their cell doors for head count, ID check, and cell inspection.” Several folks are self-designated lookouts, shouting, “coming in!” at the tops of their lungs to make sure everyone is up and awake, so people can avoid getting in trouble when the deputies arrive.
I remember him standing on the top tier by his cell every morning, saying in a low, but carrying, conspiratorial tone, “coming in!” when all eyes in the block turned to him, he’d look up in the air, pretending to whistle, eyes twinkling with amusement. The first couple of times it was annoying, but soon enough he’d established himself as a part of the community – a jokester – and we needed a bit of levity to survive this hellhole that is jail.
He was a diabetic. The treatment diabetics receive in jail is, every morning and every night they line up to receive insulin when “medical” comes by the block. This treatment is the only bulwark against the carb-heavy, salt-heavy, vegetable-light, starvation diet of two meals per day, plus two baloney sandwiches, and two cakes (one each, on weekends) imposed on inmates without the means to supplement their food intake with canteen purchases – inmates like him. Not to mention the “sleep starvation” regimen (breakfast at 4AM, medical at 7AM, cell inspection 8AM, lunch 4PM, medical 9-10PM, ID check 11PM) that no doubt also wrecks havoc on already compromised immune and metabolic systems.
I personally did not know him well enough to have had conversation. I know he had a sweetheart on the outside who he would sit in the common area and draw pictures for:I remember one drawing of a unicorn surrounded by hearts alongside statements of affection and declarations of love.
He would often lighten the mood after one of the million little indignities we’d just get used to, like deputies shouting on the loudspeaker where grown-ass people are and aren’t allowed to stand in the tiny overcrowded box that we are expected to make our home. I remember his low voiced, mock-serious mimicry, “get off the tier!”
I never saw him get mad at anybody. His cellmate regaled us with his stories of growing up in Honduras, then moving to America. “He was saying he called back home, telling everyone he was going to all the finest restaurants in America – McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King…” And how when he first got here he thought, “oh no, everyone in America is a big time gangster, I better be careful,” because in Honduras, only gang members have tattoos, and here random-ass people have full sleeves.
This jail is privately owned, meaning that they have a contract with the state whereby they receive a certain amount of money per head per day. Generally, this is accompanied by a contract stipulation, for the benefit of shareholders who want to be assured of reliable profits from their investment, that the jail must remain occupied at a certain amount of capacity, or the state must make additional payments to make up for lost revenue. This profit motive, no doubt, also likely played a part in why he was jailed for such a minor infraction.
However, this per head payment is not the only source of revenue for the jail. Inmates themselves are billed at a rate of $3/day. If your commissary balance doesn’t cover this, you will be presented with the bill upon your release. The cost of phone service is 10-15 cents per minute, and tablets, the newest revenue stream, charge 5 cents per minute, plus additional costs to make video visits. Canteen prices are highly inflated from the cost of items on the street – remember, this is the only way that people with the means can avoid being regulated to a starvation diet. A single serving of ramen noodles costs $1.09-$1.59, for a ballpark inflation number.
Combine this direct revenue with the use of “trustees,” inmates given lifestyle privileges (fewer lockdowns, more access to rec area, longer visits with loved ones, double food trays) in exchange for providing free in-house manual labor like cooking, cleaning, canteen sorting, doing laundry, as well as “workforce” – same deal but inmates contracted out to the state, which pays the jail, for landscaping, painting, office cleaning and maintenance shop work – and it’s fair to say, this jail is making a killing.
Last Monday, around 2, 2:30PM, I awoke from a nap to a tremendous commotion. Loudspeaker screaming to get in our cells, right away, lock down, people shouting outside, my cellmate rushing in, wide-eyed. I asked what was happening and he said, I think someone’s sick, I think it’s bad. We closed the cell door and watched out the window as more and more deputies, corporals, sergeants, and higher-level officers streamed in, bee-lining for a top-tier cell door along with medics. There was a lot of confused bustle – one deputy hurriedly tossed a mattress, blankets, and sheets over a side railing; someone called for a corporal to bring a piece of medical equipment (“that one, no not that one, that one!”) from a rolling cart. About 15 minutes after the commotion starts, another medic rushed up the stairs with a big, official looking bag, and procured a set of defibrillators.
I saw her kneel at the doorway, “clear”, and lean in. “Clear!” Then lean in again. About 10 minutes later, the doctor in the long white coat strode in.
All this while, my cellmate was maintaining a steady stream of speech, “he’s dead man, oh my god, that dude is dead…I just saw him this morning, he seemed fine, maybe a little out of it…he was just getting a haircut yesterday, he was fine, man, he’s dead….I need to get the fuck out of here, man, they just let a man die….they didn’t even try and put him on a stretcher, no breathing tubes, nothing, didn’t even try to get him to a hospital….somebody’s getting fired over this, they’ll cover their ass for sure…man, they just let him die…I need to get the fuck out of this jail, oh my god….”
Apparently, there was only one deputy in the booth making rounds when there should have been two. Presumably the practice of making rounds is done to prevent things like inmates dying unexpectedly, though it’s usually done in a cursory fashion due to either understaffing or systematic dehumanization of inmates. His cellmate reported to the deputies that something wasn’t right, which began the whole commotion. Both of his cellmates were taken away for questioning and detention elsewhere, and as of this writing (approx 17 hours later) have not returned.
Soon after the doctor showed up, deputies put opaque screens over our cell door windows so we couldn’t see what was happening. We would remain locked in for the next five or six hours, which were filled with banging on the doors (“stop banging or i’ll lock you in for 48 hours”), requests to know what was going on (silence), or what time it was (“i don’t know”), and eventually requests for lunch trays, which were eventually provided through the slot in our door at approximately 6:30, 7PM. It is tellingly ironic that the day a man dies, most likely due to complications from diabetes exacerbated by inadequate diet, the institutions response to the chaos his death caused was to serve food late.
We were let out of our cells around 8PM, after which the cell block community gathered in small groups to crowdsource details. (“i had a crack in my screen, I saw them zip-up his body.” “It was probably diabetic shock then a heart attack, that can happen in like 45 minutes, an hour, if you’re blood sugar is fucked” “I saw him go in for mid-day lockdown, he probably died then” “He only had two weeks left, can you believe it? What a way to die…”)
The line to use the three working phones, for 70+ inmates wanting to tell their people they loved them and to say they were okay, was long, with spots in line fiercely guarded. In short, it was a scene of a community, mostly cut off from the outside world, coming to grips with a disaster that had taken the life of one of its own. However, this was no natural disaster, but one born of a single man-made institution, the relationship between a morally bankrupt state and a privately owned jail, conspiring to keep people locked up for no legitimate reason while providing woefully inadequate care, all for the sake of the profit motive – shareholder profits above all else. The owners of capital encouraged by our representative government to run roughshod over human lives.
This story is repeated everywhere across the country. People like him, who have families, sweethearts, children, entire lives ahead of them being cut short, are the reason why I fight to make a better world from the roots. The so-called justice system, born of slave-catching and genocide – they truly don’t care if you live or die – is rotten to its core, and we must imagine and create total transformation to a system of accountability that builds and strengthens communities rather than shattering them. There is no other moral option.
. . .
After speaking with some more people around the cell block once I knew my manuscript was secure (and thus, that my mail wouldn’t be seized on suspicion of my ad hoc journalism), I learned additional details about Juan Valos-Rivera’s legal and medical situation.
Rivera was arrested in early February and denied bond upon intake and appeal. He served about 30 days in jail awaiting trial, which took place a little less than a week before he died. I had originally assumed that he couldn’t possibly be sentenced to more than time served. I was wrong. Rivera got 60 days. Court arithmetic subtracts 30 for time served, then divides the remainder in half for misdemeanor time, leaving about two weeks for Rivera to serve.
At his trial, Rivera informed the judge that he had heart surgery scheduled that week for a condition connected to his diabetes, and would he be able to get that surgery? In his retelling to my contact, Rivera paraphrased the judge’s response: ” Nope, buddy! You’ll be in jail!” This punchline, full of horrific absurdity, got a laugh from his audience. “Don’t forget to laugh heartily,” writes poet Nazim Hikmet, imprisoned 15 years for activism in his native Turkey, to keep the inescapable, all-encompassing cruelty of jail at bay. Also getting a laugh was Rivera’s description of when the judge handed him a paper to sign indicating that he was fully cognizant and understood the verdict.
“I’m not signing that,” I was told Rivera recounted saying. Then the public defender cut in: “I’ll sign it for you.” Punchline, laughter, drop curtain.
My contact also informed me that Rivera wasn’t doing well the day he died. He was stumbling down the stairs, pale-faced, eyes unfocused. People were asking him, “you okay man? Are you okay?” Medical saw him, gave him insulin, and despite his history and present condition, sent him on his way without suggesting he be seen in an infirmary or hospital setting.
Hours later, Rivera lay dead in his cell. Several hours after that, while we were on lockdown, his body was zipped into a bag. From behind screened windows and bolted doors, we heard an overeager deputy crow, “Elvis has left the building!”
A couple days after his death, the deputies opened Rivera’s former cell for inmates to be housed again. Have to keep the money flowing, a man’s death is no excuse for unused capacity. As we were being locked into our cells, I heard a scream from the room on the top tier. “His blood is still here, man! The dead dude’s blood is on the bed!” A man’s horrified face at the cell door, a cluster of inmates around the scene, a cop pushing through to contain the situation, but it was too late.
There they were, for all to see: terry cloth rags thrown in the corner of the metal slab where a man spent his final hours alone and suffering, without family or freedom, because he drove with a suspended license and was deemed a flight risk. Nobody – not the judge, medical staff, deputies – gave him access to the care he needed. Instead, the state’s agents tried to roll up and sweep away all evidence of the horror of his passing. But, underpaid, squeezed like every other worker in this toxic economic system of human extraction, they failed to contain it all. In the corner of the cell lay the final vital mark left by the beating heart of Juan Valos-Rivera – a pile of institutional terry cloth rags, stained red.
. . .
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