Doing Time

Tuesday, September 30 2003

When I was eighteen I suffered from something that a lot of eighteen year old young men suffer from: utter stupidity. I’m going to tell a long story about a very rich experience I had as a result of my extreme stupidity. I regret that I have to leave stuff out to make it less than a novel, but hopefully I’ll leave in just enough.

I had a sweet gasoline scented 1972 Pea Green Datsun 510 when I was eighteen, and because it was falling apart most of the time, I’d get fix-it tickets. Police would pull me over because the registration was expired, or because I had no front bumper, or because of a broken tail light. In any case, one of the things eighteen year old young men do when they suffer from utter stupidity is neglect things. In my case, I neglected to fix something to the point where an arrest warrant was issued. I became a wanted man.

On a Thursday night, before driving home from Carrie’s house, she said “Mike, you be careful, don’t get pulled over.” I was literally 200 feet away from my driveway when I got pulled over. I was arrested, my car was impounded, and I was on my way to the Huntington Beach City Jail. On the way to jail, the police officer decided to go on a car chase. We were doing 120 mph on straight-aways, and sliding around corners at over 50 mph. I couldn’t be more thrilled. He was polite, and asked “Would you mind hanging out for a bit, we can still get some work done with you in the back?”. I couldn’t be more agreeable.

At HBCJ, I was put in a cell with a white dude that looked like a full on criminal. Neck tattoos, gang tattoos on his hands and arms, the baggy clothing, bald head, scars, missing teeth, gold teeth, the complete uniform. He was pretty imposing. He was there for possesion of marijuana, and liked to call me “Dawg”. Almost every other word out of his mouth was something like “You know Dawg?” or “Dawg, I ain’t going down like dis” or “Dawg, why you in here?”. He turned out to not be so bad. We spent the night in a cell where, on the twenty foot tall ceiling was the name of a guy I went to highschool with etched in the concrete. I spent most of the night not sleeping, but trying to figure out how Mark was able to etch “Mark Lee” on the ceiling in letters two feet tall. I decided he had to either do it with a zipper, or pulled out one of his teeth to do it, then convinced other cell mates to hoist him up while they stood on the upper bunk.

The next morning, I was strip searched. I had to prove I wasn’t hiding anything in any orifices, which meant getting naked and presenting my backside to an officer with gloves. Not pleasant. Few things in my life have been more unpleasant, although I’ll get to several of those as I continue. I was allowed to get back in my street clothes, and then was hand cuffed to my cell mate. My right arm to his left. We shuffled onto a bus, and shipped up to the Westminster Courthouse where we would see a judge and make a plea.

Being cuffed to another man was interesting. It was a lot like that I Love Lucy episode where Ricky and Lucy were handcuffed for reasons I’ve forgot. They have to do all sorts of creative things in order to do the most mundane tasks, like scratch thier face. I had to relax my arm when my cell mate had an itch, and he had to do the same for me. We shared some interesting time with eachother, and in total, spent about fours hours cuffed together. In those four hours we learned alot about eachother, and once in the bigger jail system, I considered him an ally and a friend.

When we got to Westminster, we were put in a gigantic holding cell with about thirty other inmates. Everyone in there was waiting to see a judge to make a plea. There were murderers in that room. Huge career criminals who would do pushups to pass the time. Some would preach, some would rap, some would proclaim their innocence, some were coming down off of heroin. In the middle of the room was a single steel toilet. No walls, no privacy, no toilet paper (it had been stolen by the earliest arrivals to be used as a pillow). If you used this toilet, you were the focal point of the room. In my twelve hours in that cell, a single person used the toilet. He was about 6’ 10", could probably rip the toilet of it’s concrete mount and reposition it in your head. He was a scary individual. More imposing was the fact that he spent about thirty minutes doing his deed, and didn’t seem to care in the slightest that he was the focal point. He also produced an equally imposing odor. When finished, he yelled “Hey you little Chinese [f’er], give me that [f’ing] roll of toilet paper before I crush your skull in”. He had a roll of toilet paper in exactly 0.02 nanoseconds.

I met a smiling guy in this holding cell named T-Bone. He was about 4’ 9", and had shot a man while robbing a liquour store. We talked in the morning for a bit, and he was saying he was glad to be going back to prison. He didn’t seem like a bad guy, he was pretty friendly and was very social. He felt he couldn’t get by in real life without messing up and that he knew the rules of prison. After our conversation he said “When they bring by our lunch, you’re going to give me yours because I’m hungry.” Well, I was too, and when lunch came, I gobbled mine up. When he came back around he said “Where’s my lunch?” and I said “I ate it.”, knowing full well he might go nuts on me. Instead, he smiled and said “You’re a crazy [f’er] you know that?” and gave me a fake punch to the arm, leaving to harass others.

T-Bone got called to make his plea, and ended up making a plea bargain of guilty in exchange for ten years in state prison. He was not so happy when he came back. He ended up sulking in a corner, head in his hands until he was moved into another cell.

I was called to make a plea. The guard came to the edge of the cell, called my name, and handcuffed me through a hole in the barred wall. He then lead me, along with about four other prisoners who were chained to me, up some dark, long and narrow hallways. We were led right into a courtroom, chained as we were, and there were tons of people in there. Some of the people cried when they saw my chainmates. I didn’t see anyone I knew. I wasn’t in the room for more than a few seconds when the judge boomed “Michael Buffington, how do you plea” over a microphone. From our cage, I couldn’t even see where he was sitting. I wasn’t sure how to respond and my mind began racing, “guilty of what?” I thought. I wasn’t even certain of the charges, I was that stupid. I said “Uhh” after a long pause, and the judge boomed back “We’ll see you Monday morning Mr. Buffington when you’ve made up your mind.” My chain mates entered their pleas – all guilty. We were led back to our cell, where it all really began to hit me.

I was going to be in jail at least all weekend. I had absolutely no freedom, and I was becoming accutely aware of it. And I had to piss. I hadn’t gone since I’d been arrested, and it was now mid afternoon. It was getting really painful, and I was too chicken to do it in the middle of the room. As the day went on, the mood in the room changed. People all around me were beginning to realize their fates too. The chatter among us stopped nearly entirely. There was a lot introspection going on.

I was cuffed to my original cuff mate again, either by design or by luck. He had the left side this time. We were put on a bus going to Orange County Jail. Getting on the bus, we passed a section of seats that were barred off from the rest of the seats. The men in these seats were whistling and making lewd comments as we got on. Stuff I don’t like to repeat, let alone remember. I found out later on as these guys broke out singing along to an oldies song, “Sugar Shack”, that these were rapists, sex offenders, mass murderers, child molestors, pedophiles. They weren’t barred for our safety, they were barred for their own safety. I can’t hear that song again now without getting some serious creepy feelings.

Orange County Jail is a blur, with only some key memories. They moved you from concrete and glass cell to cell every few hours for reasons I never have determined. In one cell, I was alone with an LSD dealer. He’d run from police with his sheets of paper, and had stuffed them in his sock so he could run faster. He absorbed a ton of LSD, and I spent three or four hours alone in cell with him while he tripped out. He screamed at all the snails in the cell, and claimed that they were forming a bigger snail, and that I should help him smash it. In less paranoid states, he’d pull his sock down, and point at where the papers had been, and say things like “Look, it’s a window, can you see how wonderful it is? Can you see the children?”. He laughed as more and more “tentacles” grew from me, and got scared when some of them “went for him” and he had to grab them and fight them off. I worried most of the time that he’d incorporate me into one of his more paranoid hallucenations, and harm me.

In another cell, a bigger one, there was a free local calls pay phone with about ten guys waiting for it. No one knew I was in jail yet, so I too started waiting for it. The same guy who wasn’t afraid of pooping in front of everyone was right in front of me, and spent a good hour preaching to me while doing pushups, waiting for the phone. When he finally did get to the phone, he ended up in a shouting match with what I assume was his wife or girlfriend. In a fit of rage, he smashed the handset of the phone against the box, then proceeded to tear that box off the wall. After over an hour of waiting, I made no fuss whatsoever, and sat down as if nothing had happened. He managed to get it off the wall, and threw it against the ground a few times. Gaurds came in pretty quickly, and escorted him out without incident.

I ended up in a cell by myself, and after nearly three days without pissing, I stood above a toilet to do the job, but nothing happened. Tried as I might, I couldn’t go. I stood for twenty minutes before even a trickle, and then it probably took an hour before I was done. I’ve learned since that the bladder doesn’t work if it’s too stretched out. It loses it’s ability to squeeze out the liquid if it’s stretched beyond it’s limits.

We were forced to take a shower. I showered in a stall that was watched over by prisoners working as guards. They stood behind a glass wall as I took a cold, completely naked, shower in a room with twenty other showering men. They whistled as each new guy got into the shower, and yelled out things like “He’s got a woman’s ass” or “Bend over cutie”. It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life.

It felt good though, afterwards to be in a clean jumpsuit and slippers. I slept for the first time in a few days on a flat concrete floor with no pillow. At one point, my throat was really itchy from a cold I was fighting, and as I’d start to fall asleep it would itch, and I’d make a little noise, like an “uhh” noise. And it would wake me up, and I’d realize how insane it was to do that, and try to cover it with a cough. No one else seemed to care, almost everyone was asleep.

It was rumoured that the next cell had beds, which I was looking forward to. But before I got there, I was called out by a guard. He took me into the hall and said “What the hell are you doing here?” I told him why I was there, officially, but he asked again and said “Don’t tell me the charge, what the hell are you doing here?”

“I messed up. I let something slide that I should have taken care of.”

“That’s right, now get the hell out of here, don’t come back, you don’t belong.” He opened a door to another cell. There was a window into the cell and a counter top, a little old lady behind it without smiling, staring at me. I walked up to her, and she said “Strip. Here are your clothes, you’re being discharged.” Behind her, through another window, I could see my dad, his hands in his pockets, waiting patiently, not knowing that I could see him. I was relieved. After four days, I was allowed to leave, and I knew my dad enough to know that he wouldn’t have to say a word. We drove home in silence.

Jail is a horrible, horrible place, and I was in it for only four days, in one of the nicest jails in this country. I will never go there again, and after my experience there, I’ve been far more responsible. But when I tell this story, the guys I tell it to will almost always agree that they did something equally stupid when they were my age, and the girls agree that they knew people, men mostly, who did equally stupid things. Perhaps as youth we don’t realize the possible real world consequences of something unless they hit us right in the face, and maybe sometimes we need to be hit hard enough to have it sting forever, so we never make the mistake again.

Despite the horrible experience, I learned alot about myself, and about people in general, and about being responsible, and about making sure you don’t let other people down. For me, jail was beneficial – I got a hard and fast lesson about life, and I behave differently because of it today.