A most satisfying bad day

Having children shapes our lives in many ways that come to be surprises.

Beyond the immersion into waste management and policing, the shifts in social contacts and priorities changes the criteria for who your adult associations are. You will start to relate to the parents on the sidelines at AYSO, or in the auditorium at the same time, the folks you can car pool with, and trade other related obligations with. Those are routine.

Then there are the families of the people your children become friends with. Adapting to where and how those attachments lead are also outside whatever it was that you used to have serve as criteria or choice. Sometimes those are things are surprising in all sorts of unexpected ways, and enrich you and challenge you, often at the same time.

My eldest, for instance, picked ice hockey as his sport. He didn’t really care that there is no ice rink in our county. Somehow that led to me coaching a team for a season where I knew nothing, and really my only contribution was to stand on the bench and be the adult that referees would talk to. The young men, many of whom had played on regional championship teams, organized themselves, and consistently fed me the right lines and cues. It taught me a lot about coaching.

The same boy also selected the only person of color in his first grade class to bond with. In that school district, it meant that he had bonded with the children of the hired help. It gave him, and us, insight and understanding of the dynamics among people of extraordinary wealth, and those who work for them.

This week that bond drew me into doing something I wouldn’t have ever thought of doing. I drove two counties over and tracked my son’s friend’s father through the criminal justice system. The father was arrested on Sunday, having fallen afoul of the visiting rules at a state prison. His son called me from college- he’s in his first year in a program that will lead him to becoming not only the first college graduate in his family, but also a state license. It’s challenging and the demands include scheduling all his time and resources. His father’s arrest had naturally upset him and concern for both his parent’s had him contemplating suspending or quitting. His call to me was a call for practical help. All I could think was “no way you’re quitting school!”.

The upshot was that I agreed to attend the scheduled arraignment for his father, as his wife is just learning to drive, and she was very upset. I arose earlier than usual to get the miles in before the court opened at 9am. I arrived in the small division courthouse (probably the size of a large MacDonald’s store) to discover that while his online record showed the arraignment, the posted schedule did not have his name. Fortunately the scale of the operation allowed me to find out quickly that the District Attorney did “not have the required information yet” to file charges at the time.

Fortunately I have made friends with people who are up to date on the law and learned that this meant that the court would have to choose to either release him, as in the state of California no one can be held without charges beyond 72 hours. Nothing in the system however indicated this. The DA staff could only say that they weren’t going to file that day. In a distant place, I was left to ask strangers for help. Googling ‘criminal attorney near me’ resulted in a short walk to a brusque but kind attorney who filled me in on the local situation. Like most of California’s jurisdictions, all the relevant departments are understaffed. The missing ‘information’ in all likelihood was the arrest report, without which there could be no evidence presented to support whatever charges might be. Moving documents around the county was also a challenge, and in addition all needed to be coordinated with the single prosecutor assigned to handle all issues that are related to prisons and jails.

So by about noon, it became apparent that the man should be released that day. But the county jail system still showed him being arraigned at 9am that morning. Calls to the county jail involved navigating the usual phone tree to numerous general information recordings.

After cruising the town to survey it, and inventory possible lunch options, I choose to observe the afternoon in the courtroom. The judge processed a steady stream of cases, mostly young people of color and gauging by their court room attire, limited means. The range of crimes in question challenges the education and socialization of the people before the court. The judge was efficient and patient. Compared to others I have observed, he engaged each defendant personally, looking them in the eye, asking them questions to make sure they understood their situation, and taking initiative to pick up the phone and call DMV or another jurisdiction when it appeared that such information could move an issue forward. Everyone in the room, with the exception of the bailiff, was working intently and with full attention as the many details of what we call justice were processed.

Just after the court closed for the day, the online listing for my man in question was changed to show that a release was scheduled for the date, but with a warning that this was subject to change without notice. Calling the jail afterhours, I was able to connect with a human who told me “We really don’t know and even if we did, we wouldn’t want to say, because things change all the time”.
I drove to the facility that locals told me would be where any release would occur. While clearly a jail, none of the faces of the building that were visible from the street were marked. Only once I had parked and walked around, was I able to figure out where the intended parking and entrance were- on the side of the building facing the middle of the block with a parking lot.

Entering the building afterhours, I was able to take notice of the unique architectural details of such a building. Hard surfaces with drains, made easy to clean and difficult to deface, were broken up only by signs with legally mandated warnings and labels. Arrows on the floor led me to a locked door, with directions to press a button and identify myself. No one answered my calls until about the fourth attempt when a man in a uniform, but not an officer, came to the door and asked, somewhat weary and a bit annoyed, how he could help me. I explained that I was from out of the area, and there was a possibility that someone I knew would be released. He directed me up a staircase, told me which way to turn and what to look for ” go till you find a window and ask the girls behind the glass”.

It took a few minutes for one of the two women behind the heavy glass to notice me at the window. She came over, took the name and a few minutes later came back and said “sometime between 9 and midnight”. Confirmation from a human voice was immensely satisfying and made the day waiting ‘just in case’ much more comfortable. I asked her if she could suggest anyplace to wait. She grinned a tight smile. “Your car is probably cleaner than in here”. I nodded agreement, although the place did not smell foul, and was not littered, it did have a dingy atmosphere. Seating was hard and limited. I responded “I was thinking more like a restaurant.” She waved a hand, “Drive any direction a few blocks.”
And I did.

At 9PM I pulled back up to the jail entrance. I had traded messages with the son and wife of my incarcerated friend. In the dark evening the neon lights of the nearby bail bonds businesses reflected off the civic institutional block building with its beige paint. I settled into a book and hope that my use of the car’s interior light would not lead to a battery issue. People came and went and occasionally a small group of people would arrive, go in and come out a few minutes later. Eventually I nodded off.

A few minute before 11pm, my phone awoke me. It was an unknown number. The voice of the father of my son’s friend was asking if I was still there. I looked up and discovered a taxi van had parked between me and the door. Some one knew when people would be needing rides. I got out and went to greet him.

For having spent three days in a jail in what one attorney told me was the worst county in the state to be in jail, he looked like the man I have always known. Good natured, smiling. He was among a small group of men, all who had been in his ‘group’. The jailers had segregated him with the ‘unattached’ prisoners, keeping the various gangs apart as well as those with no affiliation. We shook hands, hugged, and he introduced me to a younger man who was watching us. “Rafael’ I’ll call him, had also been in jail since Sunday, and needed a ride home, which happened to be along our way out of town.

I said sure, and asked if my friend was hungry. “No, let’s just go.”
“Ready to get out of this county?”
He grunted, and Rafael said “great idea”.

On the drive to his house, I learned that Rafael had drunk so much that he couldn’t remember what he had done Sunday morning (late Saturday night?) to get arrested, but knew that it involved domestic violence. His wife had declined to pursue charges. He said he had told her that when he got home he would pour all the alcohol they owned down the drain.

We headed right to the freeway and as is often the case the drive back seems much shorter. The time was full of the things my passenger had seen, heard and thought about in those 72 hours of detention. While he was grateful for the ‘good ‘ group of men he had shared a cell with, the facts of his situation were still grim. Just because one is released, that does not mean freedom. The authorities have whatever the statute of limitations is for a charge to file, and issue an arrest warrant. They have no obligation in making their intentions known, although it is advised to make sure you give them an accurate mailing address so you will get a notice should they file.

Given the fact that the county in question has over ten murderers on the county sheriff’s wanted web page, and the locals told stories about the limited resources, one could hope that they just won’t bother with a smaller non violent charge. But the possibilities are many. One could move outside the jurisdictional reach, say to another country until the time limit passes. One could make sure never to do anything to be looked up in the database of outstanding arrest warrants.

None of these were on the mind of my passenger. He wanted to get home and take a shower, as he hadn’t had a truly hot shower in jail, where he had to hold a button for ten minutes to get warm water. He wanted a good night’s sleep, as they woke everyone up at 3AM since one of them had to take medication then. He wanted to know what his son had told his bosses, as he worked two full time jobs, supporting his family which includes his mother in law and a nephew, as well as is paying restitution for his convicted son. He wanted to be in his bed, with his wife, and count his blessings, especially those common ones that we all take for granted, but are starkly evident whenever we are in the effect of a system.

We called his son at college, who thanked me for picking up his dad. The relief in his voice was palpable.

Some 14 hours after I had left home, we arrived at the home of my special cargo. He jumped from the car and called for me to follow. I walked into an empty living room. He emerged a few moments later with his wife, whose eyes though read, were smiling.

I woke up the next day and went about my schedule, cramming to make up for a full day spent totally elsewhere in every sense. I was tired. More to the point, things were a bit dull. Nothing seemed all that important or urgent. It has taken a few days to come to terms with the experience.

I don’t know that I have ever had more satisfaction in a day spent chasing unknowns, waiting for time to pass, or sitting behind the wheel. I haven’t ever heard someone speak about the reward that is available for someone who heads off on an unknown journey and with no expectation gets to not only see his friend walk out of jail, but then gets to deliver him to his home and family. I have a much deeper appreciation of one of those civics lessons we often sleep through in high school. Another unexpected gift from my children.

My friend faces an uncertain future in regards to this episode. He has a lot of issues to deal with, even if he never hears from the authorities. But he, with his loved ones and gets to exercise a huge number of choices, choices that can be taken from each of us in the blink of an eye.

Tomorrow never knows. You might want to live right now. Act like it’s the only moment you have.

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