What’s it like in prison? An extra glass of orange juice

I’ve been reading news reports about the irritations of January 6 assaulters who have been spending their pre-trial time in prison. They don’t like the food. They are frustrated and annoyed about being locked up. Because, hey, why should they be? They didn’t do anything deserving of such treatment. Following the brownshirts’ playbook? No. Big. Deal.

One woman, who I believe was released into home detention, wants to be freed from home detention because she has things to do outside her home, like get a job and (if I picked this up correctly) buy a new cell phone. Things to do.

But so far the judges are holding firm and the prisons are firmly holding the insurrectionists. I do not expect the judges to alter their erudite perspectives about criminal actions and terrorism.

I’ve been thinking about these people and their braggadocio over being, you know, patriots and whatevers. What a lark their attack was, wasn’t it? Brave and courageous. A revolution about which they feel proud! And they should be awarded for their feat of derring-do!

Thing is, there’s no one in the White House now who is going to pardon them, and none of the judges they’ve faced so far has emitted an odor of appreciation for their courageous efforts at violent thuggery.

Seems to me these raging fun-loving people don’t have a rational idea of what prison is like beyond what they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. Although a number of people I’ve talked to express a great desire to see these violent criminals — and the people who instigated the riot — facing the kind of theatrical prison brutality we all see in movies, in some ways the reality of prison is usually pettier than that and far more soul-killing.

I know this because, in the course of my career as a legal amanuensis, I came to know a number of men who’d been in prison — most of them wrongfully convicted. Once they’d been released, we filed lawsuits on their behalf against the state or city for wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

In discovery we obtained each prison’s records of our clients’ time inside. Whatever happened to them there was necessarily part of the damage inflicted upon them — on top of the overweening damage of being imprisoned although innocent.

I read through a number of those records. So I know what can happen to innocent people in prison. The rioters who will go to prison for the January 6 attack are not innocent.

A few realities I remember about some clients; I’ve changed the names.

Roy was in Rikers for a non-violent crime when he was beaten so badly by a prison guard, he nearly lost one of his eyes. That is, not just the vision; the bones around his eye were so shattered, the eye itself was in danger.

No TV show or horror film’s special make-up effects can come anywhere close to how mangled and bloody Roy’s face was.

Nobody’s a perfect person; that fact applies to clients. Roy was a pain in the ass, mostly because he yammered incessantly, due to psychiatric problems. But he was not a violent guy and he was small. Seems the guard who almost killed Roy had been irritated by Roy’s yammering.

Arnie wound up in prison because of a big mistake a judge made. Arnie had come to court for a routine hearing; the judge misunderstood the situation and had him removed to prison. It was a death sentence.

Arnie, a recovering addict, was scrupulous about taking his methadone. He was devoted to his son, a Down’s syndrome child, who was equally devoted to Arnie. But since Arnie hadn’t expected the hearing to be more than a quick appearance, he had no methadone with him when he was removed to prison.

For hours, Arnie begged and yelled about needing his methadone. He was ignored. Until a couple of guards decided to shut him up. They entered his cell and one of them beat him senseless. He lay on the floor for quite a while. Eventually, somebody thought he should be taken to the hospital. The ambulance came and sat around outside the prison for some time while the paramedics chatted with prison authorities. Then they picked up Arnie, took him to the hospital, put him on a table in a examination room and left him.

Nobody was around when he rolled off the table onto the floor, where he died from internal bleeding. The guards had pulverized his spleen.

I’m still a friend of Charles, who spent six years in prison for a rape that didn’t even happen. The woman who named him in an unorthodox ID said she recognized…his shoes.

Charles has never talked about his time in prison and I would never ask him about it. I would think nothing dreadful happened to him; he’s a peaceful kind of guy. Really calming to be around. And he’s as large as an offensive lineman and is black.

None of the brave January 6 attack force is black. The only things large about them are their bellies and their mouths.

Michael, too, was innocent of a rape that put him in prison. He had a compelling alibi: he’d been at a Bible reading, a regular group, and twelve people testified he was there when the crime took place. Didn’t matter. Michael, who had a fragile psyche and intellect, went to prison.

His prison records were the first I read through and they ripped right into me. Michael spent two years in loud despair over being in prison for nothing. He could not understand why he was there. He had physical problems which were not taken care of. Every protest he made was tersely noted in his prison records, along with the punitive responses.

If you get a severe toothache in prison, well, there’s aspirin.

Jimmy spent more than six years in prison, convicted of shooting up a drug dealer with an Uzi. In fact, he was miles away at his job stacking shelves in a religious supply store. His conviction hung on the false testimony of a pathological liar — who himself wasn’t even in the neighborhood during the shooting; he was in one of the Carolinas at the time.  However, the homicide cops in that Brooklyn precinct had quite a history of using false witnesses to make their cases. (Afterward, when I reviewed their cases, I sat at my desk shivering. No TV show about bad cops has ever come close to this bunch.)

One day while I was reading Jimmy’s prison records, Jimmy came to the office. He was a soft-spoken, slim, gentle guy. I liked him a lot. “I’ve been reading your prison records,” I said and shook my head.

“Did you see the thing about the second glass of orange juice?” he asked me. I had.

Jimmy had gotten the usual small cup of orange juice for breakfast. I don’t recall how it happened that another small cup of orange juice was available to Jimmy. Maybe another prisoner had left it on the table, I think that was it. It was not a nefarious action; Jimmy might even have asked the other prisoner if he wasn’t going to drink it, could he have it? And Jimmy had taken it and drunk it.

His punishment had been severe although I’ve blacked it out in my head what specifically was done to Jimmy for drinking a spare cup of orange juice. But Jimmy remembered. “You saw what they did to me because of that second cup of orange juice?” Yes, I had.

When I envision the January 6 mob in prison, I think about Jimmy and his second cup of orange juice. A small cup of orange juice.

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