No, the Judge Didn’t Give Me a Raw Deal

I’ve mentioned in this space that long ago, I divorced myself from the debate of whether I got too much or too little jail time for engaging a teenager in a chatroom in 2013 that led to that life caving in and my new life starting. The judge deemed it appropriate I serve 9 months and the system whittled that time down to 6 months and a few days. It was what it was.

I was able to tune out the people who wanted me to rot in jail for the rest of my life – or worse – because they’re coming from an illogical place and don’t understand the facts of the situation. These are the people who make Facebook the loving, nurturing community that it has become in my absence.

I actually find it more difficult when somebody hears my story and then tells me, “That’s a bunch of bull crap. You shouldn’t have got any time” and then proceed to lay out a case for me not doing jail time based on what I did. I appreciate the defense, but it’s really uncomfortable. In many ways, I feel like they minimize, rationalize and even justify what I did. I always have to step in and remind them that I broke the law.

When this conversation happens in the context of an interview, I feel painted into a corner. From a selfish, individual point of view, did I want to go jail? Hell, no. Did I understand the rationale of giving me some jail time? On a very objective level, yes. As the judge in my case said, “Despite a set of extenuating circumstances, I can’t give you no jail time. People can’t do what you did and not serve some time.”

I never had it out for the police, the lawyers, the judge, CPS, the guards at jail or anybody else on “the other side” of my legal ordeal. I got myself into that situation by doing the wrong thing to such a level the government has to step in and get involved. I’m OK with that. Some of the guards were assholes. The CPS person who interviewed the kids scared the hell out of them. I understand they all have jobs though, and those jobs are to protect people and I’m glad they’re there.

It gets especially uncomfortable for me when the person starts attacking the teenage girl who was my victim. I don’t know a lot about her. I know she exposed herself in chat rooms with other men, and I do know that she had the kind of body type that one could mistake her for being older than she was. Despite these two pieces of information, it doesn’t let me off the hook for what I did. She still had a teenager’s brain and I showed no discretion.

Ideally, I never would be in a chatroom like that, but I should have been able to say to myself, “Like many females out there, this is one who looks older than she might be and I shouldn’t talk to her.” By that point, I had pulled myself off my mental health medication and my understanding of consequences, logic, etc. were fuzzy, especially with the alcohol. I made the incorrect decision to engage her in the devious activities I conducted with women of age.

There is no defending that. Don’t tell me I got a bad deal and that she was asking for it. Don’t tell me that she played me as much as I played her. Don’t tell me that despite my horrible manipulation of her, it was all in her control. This was a teenage girl and I did a heinous thing to her. Can I name 100 things that would have been more heinous? Sure, but that doesn’t let me off the hook for what I did. Victim blaming makes things worse, not better.

I appreciate those who try to come to my defense for me. I understand your heart is probably in the right place, but it doesn’t make me feel like the cheated victim of the system you may feel that I am. I got what I deserved. She didn’t get what she deserved.

Reflecting on the Third Anniversary of My Time in Jail

It feels a little strange to recognize the anniversary of something that was so life-altering, but tomorrow, January 22, 2019, marks the three-year anniversary of the day I went to jail. I ended up serving 27 weeks which were among the most definitive of my life.

I ended up there because in late 2013, I made the heinous, reprehensible mistake of engaging a teenage girl online in a chat room. It doesn’t matter that I was an alcoholic, off my bipolar meds and generally watching my professional and personal worlds crumble. I made an error in judgment that I would never have made for 99.8% of my life.

The irony is that by the time I was sentenced, I’d spent the better part of two years in intense rehabilitation including two inpatient rehab stints, participation in 12-step groups and frequent one-on-one therapy sessions. The version of me that was sentenced by that judge in 2016 was the healthiest version I’d ever been.

I’m glad that I was healthy when I went to jail. If I had gone before my recovery truly had time to take root, I’m not sure I could have been so reflective with my time there. For me, jail was not hard time because I learned how to keep myself continually occupied. It was however, long time…and I think that’s the point. You get plenty of time to think.

In jail, nobody expects much out of you. You follow a few basic rules and that’s it. For some people, it drives them crazy. They literally pace the pod, taking 25 steps in one direction, turning around, taking 25 more and doing this for hours at a time. Others play cards, wagering their dinnertime desserts just to make things interesting. Meanwhile, others will veg out in front of the television, ironically watching marathons of Cops.

I did a lot of reading and wrote several books, including the one that a publisher picked up last year. I probably averaged 10 hours a day of reading or writing. While it was nice to have the time to get done two things I’d been neglecting for years, I felt a little like Burgess Meredith on that one episode of The Twilight Zone where all he ever wanted to do was be left alone to read, and when his end-of-the-world wish came true, he accidentally stepped on his glasses.

There were many occasions where I would just stop and look around at the other nine or ten men sharing this small space with me and say the words to myself, “I am currently in jail.” It remains as surreal now as it was then. The script my parents wrote for my life and tried to have me internalize at a young age did not include incarceration.

I said earlier I don’t make excuses and try not to minimize nor rationalize my crime. The one caveat I do make is that I know if I had been aware of pornography addiction or had someone called my growing use of pornography in those final years to my attention, I may not have ended up where I did. My addiction – one I never tried to control – led to my going to jail.

For those reading this who think to themselves, “There’s nothing wrong with looking at pornography a couple times a week or a few times a month,” just please recognize, I once held that belief as well. I couldn’t see the evolution from an ongoing addiction to a critical-phase addiction.

I got a lot of time to think about my poor choices and poor health management while I was in jail. You may think it’s impossible that you’ll ever end up there, but I am proof anything is possible when it comes to an insidious addiction. You’ve been warned.

Another Jail Story: Visiting Days

Having visitors is a weird thing in jail. It’s awesome to see your loved ones, but they are seeing you at your absolute worst and the picture in their head of you in a jail uniform talking through glass isn’t something that I think will ever leave their mind. I can understand why some inmates choose not to see anybody if they’re doing a short stint.

In my world, traditional visiting days for minimum and medium security inmates were Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Saturday nights. If you’d been there for more than 30 days, every other Sunday afternoon were “contact visits.”

I was extremely lucky that my parents visited every Thursday, sometimes bringing my son, while my wife came alone on Tuesdays. My wife and one of the kids came on Saturday nights. If I had a contact visit, she brought both.

I’m so grateful that nearly three hours of my week was spent with loved ones. I mentioned many choose not to, but the sad fact is for many of my fellow inmates, even those who were there for a long time, they didn’t have anybody who wanted to come visit or it was extremely rare.

The regular visiting room was actually two smaller rooms, with a long window in each room that was double paned plexiglass all scratched-up to shit. On the bottom 20% of the plexiglass, abutting a metal table was a large grate. It looked like a long cheese grater and that was what you talked through. There were no phones like in the movies and the place echoed like crazy.

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This is the visiting room where “contact visits” were allowed. Families would sit in the inner section, with inmates on the outer. Want to hear a terrific irony? That’s Sheriff Eric Samson. He’s the man who I replaced on the Auburn City Council when I won my race in 2011. Funny how things work out sometimes.

There were a limited number of spots for each visiting time based on the layout of the room, but we were never denied a spot. On a few days, we were the only people in the room. It’s sad, especially when someone in my pod would posture like they didn’t care, but you could tell otherwise.

Anything out of the ordinary in jail is good. I often told people I didn’t feel like I was doing hard time, I was just doing long time. Breaking up the monotony was important and seeing my wife or someone else was good. It kept me connected to the outside world. It was the same reason I called home every single day while I did my time.

If you ended up in the same room with someone who talked loud, it could be a bitch to try and communicate with the person visiting you on the other side of the glass. It was a challenge when the other inmate and their visitor started arguing, which happened a lot of the time with the younger inmates and their girlfriends. I’d see the female often carrying a baby in her arm and just know that kid already had a strike against him in the ballgame of life. I often felt more sad seeing the real-life characters from the stories people told back in the pod than seeing my own family. We were doing OK, everything considered.

The contact visit room had a couple long table running the length of the room. Visitors sat on the inside and inmates were against each wall. In both rooms, visitors were seated before inmates were allowed in. As far as contact went, it was only a hug at the end, but it was a sliver of normalcy every few weeks that made waiting until release data a little easier, and a little harder.

Ironically, it’s not until you’re put in a position to sit and talk to someone for an hour that you realize how rarely you actually do that. After a few weeks in jail, I commented to my wife that I had to think about what I was saying so I wouldn’t repeat myself because there was always two hours of visits, at least a 15-minute phone call every day and I probably wrote a dozen multi-page letters to her while I was in jail as well. There’s just so much you can say when nothing is happening in your life.

I kept having to remind my mother that fact when she’d ask how things were going. Nothing ever changed, so I didn’t have much to say. There wasn’t a lot of negative or positive to talk about. It’s hard enough to come up with an hour of material on the outside, where my life was busy, much less to try and generate talking points in a place that is all about boring routine.

I was always happy to see my visitors and several other friends offered to visit, but I was allowed just so many on my list. The best visits were when I was sitting in the contact room on one side and my kids and wife were on the other and we were near a window where we could look out and see a spot that we’d drive by multiple times a day when things were normal. We could tease each other a little, laugh and it was a brief respite from the actuality of the situation. That was like finding gold in a coal mine.

Remember, this all happened because I let my alcohol and pornography addictions get out of control. I never thought they would. I managed to hide them for 20 years, but you can’t hide things forever. If you don’t take care of your problem, jail is where you could end up. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. Get help.

So How Was the Food in Jail?

It’s been about a month since I wrote about jail, and following the response I got about the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Experiment, I figured I’d talk about the food situation. There are a lot of guys who gain weight in jail, but I actually lost it. I ended up serving six months and six days, and came out about 20 pounds lighter than I went in.

The food was terrible. Breakfast was raisin bran with a side of toast and peanut butter most mornings. Twice a week the toast was replaced with nasty scrambled eggs and twice a week the raisin bran was replaced with nasty oatmeal. Once a month we’d get a coffee cake or something exotic, usually the result of a bakery donating food instead of tossing it out, I was told. A small carton of juice – usually orange or apple – rounded out breakfast.

Lunch was most often a sandwich with some form of mystery meat. Dinner was just the mystery meat in stew form. Despite having many myths about jail dispelled early on the quality of food was one of the more stereotypical things I anticipated correctly.

We had trays brought to us in the pod, so there was no cafeteria time. Unless you had a visitor, needed to see the nurse, or chose to go outside for recreation time – which only happened June through October – you never left that room. I never once stepped outside that building during my entire sentence. It was a nice break from some of my fellow inmates when they went outside to pour their testosterone on the basketball court, so I stayed indoors.

I rarely ate any meat in jail and never the red meat. For side dishes, I could always count on a lot of rice, vegetable soup, cole slaw, salad and oranges and that was what I mainly ate. I’m certainly no vegetarian, but I am a bit of a snob when it comes to quality…I demand some.

While we were never given menus, those who came before me figured out we were on a rotating four-weeks schedule and what was on it, so it was never a surprise when the guards arrived at the door. I do have to admit, the once-a-month cheese lasagna was pretty good.

Despite the quality of the food, I was surprised that in my six months there, I never saw a single person get sick, or even show any digestive issues. It would have been rough if more than one person was running to the bathroom because they had some bad salami since it was only a one-person bathroom. You can read more about that situation here.

Some like me, at light while others gorged. You were either someone who gave food away or you were someone who took the food. While food was used as betting material in card games or to bribe someone to do something, it wasn’t as serious a commodity as some TV shows and movies led me to believe it would be. I never saw any intimidation tactics.

I gave my food away to my core group of long-timers, or any of the older guys who would come into the pod. If they didn’t want it, I’d offer it up to the young guys. A lot of decisions in jail are about pecking order – who sleeps or eats where, who picks what to watch on television, who is allowed extra phone time without complaint – and both my age and duration of stay played to my favor.

If I were in state prison, I’d be a short-timer, but in county jail, a six-month stay is seen as a lifetime. There were several people who arrived after I got there, left, came back and left again during my stay. Usually they had drug or domestic violence issues.

I could still be friendly with the tolerable younger guys because I wasn’t that much older than they were, but the older men saw me as one of them. It was a good position, although turning 40 years old in jail was not how I envisioned that milestone being achieved.

Along with the side dishes, I supplemented what I ate with the commissary. I’d always heard of this “jail store” where you could buy snacks, playing cards, stamps, etc. but was surprised to find for us, it was just a sheet of paper and we had to call our orders in on the one phone in the pod twice a week. That process took 20-to-30 minutes for an average order, so I made sure to do mine when most guys were sleeping. A few days later our orders arrived in plastic bags.

I loaded up on peanut butter for protein. I was also liberal with the candy bars and potato chips. Everything cost 25-40% than it did on the outside, but if I wanted a sleeve of Ritz Crackers, I was paying $4 and there wasn’t much I can do about it.

The guys who didn’t have a lot of money would often get together and chip in to make “Jail Burritos”. One would buy a bag of Doritos. Those would be crushed, along with a cup of water, to make the dough. Once rolled out, somebody contributed a sausage or two from the commissary order form. There was also cheese sauce on the commissary list and jalapeno peppers. It was all very much like the Hickory Farms stand at the mall during Christmas. Sometimes, if guys knew they were making a burrito that night, they’d save their salad from dinner and put that in there.

The giant burrito would be folded over, cut up into section and served to the four or five guys who contributed. I participated once, but found the thing so vile, I never touched it again. It was gross, but it was clever and that was one of the things I discovered about my fellow inmates. They were broken people, but many were smart and made-do with limited resources. Hearing stories of how to get high with an orange rind and stapler, or how to build a tattooing gun was fascinating.

I never saw these things in action, but I did see guys who claimed to know how to pass notes and small objects through the toilet to other pods try their skills. I don’t know that they were ever successful, but enough swore they’d seen it work. Even if it didn’t, they did know how to talk to inmates the other pods through the sink and toilet. It was kind of impressive, to be honest.

There were some true dolts in jail to be sure, but I think most simple people follow the law. Jail was full of people who gave their capacity for criminal behavior too much credit. If you ever meet somebody who has been to jail and they want you to follow their plan for bad behavior, don’t, and not just because it’s illegal. They have proven they aren’t good at being a criminal since they have a history of being caught. You’d think they’d learn…especially when they know what the food is like if they go back.