Death Row

Freedom, hope and despair
Freedom, hope and despair | Source

How Are You Today, Your Honor?

I have previously alluded to the fact that I’d spent time in jail. Many members of my hometown law enforcement community- police officers, sheriff’s, sheriff’s deputies, magistrates, attorneys, judges, and others take issue with my explanation of having spent time in jail, but I beg to differ. These professionals of the legal community assert that I was merely in a holding cell. This was the first time I had caught a case so in my mind I was in jail. Call it a holding cell, jail, prison, the rock, the big house, the slammer, death row; it was all the same to me.

I was locked up behind a heavy steel door with a small window near the top of the door, in a small room with a shiny stainless steel lavatory and toilet sitting in the room exposed with no privacy. Three other women, like me, were all waiting to be transported to Fountain Correctional Center. If I’d had to use the bathroom, I would have been forced to use it in front of three other women. Worse yet, what if one of them had to use the bathroom? Even worse, what if I or one of them had to do more than just urinate? I’m just saying. Thank God none of us had to use the bathroom during my incarceration.

An armed police officer stood guard outside of the door. Before entering this “holding cell”, I was patted down; searched for weapons. I had to hold my arms above my head and spread my legs. A female officer patted me down. No, this was not pleasant. I don’t even believe having a handsome male security guard pat me down would have felt pleasant in this situation. No cavity search was performed; no shower or de-lousing, but I was searched for weapons and contraband. I’d watched enough Law and Order, CSI, Barnaby Jones, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak and Barney Miller. This is what happens when people go to jail. I was in jail!

My charge was driving dirty. By driving dirty I mean that I was driving my vehicle without registration, insurance and my license tag had been revoked. How did this happen? My insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and ,well not, expecting different results, but doing the same thing that I’d done before. I had two outstanding seat belt tickets.

It seems that on several occasions when leaving my apartment complex, I was stopped by the same Jethro Bodine looking sheriff’s deputy who would ticket me for not wearing a seatbelt. I began to suspect that this officer was sitting in wait watching for me to leave my apartment. I also suspected that he was interested in me. I harbor no delusions that I’m some fine young thing that every man desires and finds irresistible, but I found it odd that he stopped me on more than one occasion and questioned me about my relationship status.

Years later after this incident had been filed in the archives of my memory and I was working at the public library, I saw this officer come into the library and peruse the stacks for books. Like he was going to read a book. Yeah, right! There are plenty of stories of men in law enforcement who abuse their authority in an attempt to gain an introduction to women. These officers hide behind their uniforms, badge and gun hoping these accoutrements will attract women. How difficult would it have been for him to dress in civilian clothing and approach me? “Hi. My name is Jethro. How are you? You’re looking especially lovely today. Perhaps I could take you out to dinner.” Sounds nice, huh? Sounds good to me. I still wouldn’t have gone out with Jethro, however, I would have respected his effort and an honest approach. This continued harassment and abuse of his authority just infuriated me.

My court date eventually came around and I went to court with no money, no attorney and no defense. I wasn’t so audacious as to drive myself to court on this day. I do know other people who’ve had to go to court after their license had been revoked and they would drive themselves to court. I wasn’t taking any chances. Jethro may have been at the Judicial Center on this day so I enlisted my friend Sheron to transport me to the Rocky Mount Judicial Center. Sheron dropped me off at 8:30 that morning, giving me plenty of time to pass through the metal-detector equipped entrance which always seems to detect some metal on my person. Earrings, clasp on my bra, rings, bracelets, necklaces, ankle bracelet, toe ring, keys… I gave myself plenty of time for all of this to be detected and removed from my person (if necessary).

I sat in the courtroom and listened during the roll call. An assistant district attorney announced that he would be calling the names of defendants and we were to answer guilty, not guilty, lawyer or attorney if we were requesting an attorney or continuance if we were not ready to have a judge hear our case. Eventually, my name or some variation of my name was called (Vanessa, Vernesha, Verna, Venezium, Lisa, Denise, Lemon Jello or perhaps the endless lists of mispronunciations that I’ve endured over the years). I answered “guilty”. Hell, I couldn’t deny that I was driving with dead tags and no insurance because of unpaid seat belt tickets. Very few other defendants had answered “guilty” when their case was called and when I answered “guilty” every head in the court room turned my way. Apparently, one is to never outright admit to wrongdoing.

My case was eventually called and I could do nothing except admit guilt. Perhaps I could have invented some type of excuse. “Well, uh…Mr. Your Honor, sir,uh your judgeship, well…uh…how you doing today? See what had happened was, your judgeship was that I uh… I just didn’t have the money to pay them tickets! Would the judge have bought that excuse? I don’t think so.

I was able to enter a plea “prayer for judgment,” a unique plea in both the states of North and South Carolina which basically means a deferred judgment. A "Prayer for Judgment" is neither an admission of guilt nor a plea of innocence. The charges against me were dismissed and were to be expunged from my record if I managed to “keep my nose clean” for a probationary period of three years.

So, the judge imposed fines and told me to pay the clerk of court. I explained to the judge that I had no money, but if I was allowed to go to the bank, I could return with the money. (I actually thought this may work. I really did. I really thought the judge might allow me to leave court and return. Live and learn!)

“No, young lady," the judge admonished. "You’ll have to be detained until such time as you can pay the fines. You are welcome to call someone who can bring you the money and then you will be released. In the meantime, you’ll have to sit in the criminal corner with the others who will be transported to jail.”

Alrighty then! I very daintily sashayed over to the criminal corner of the courtroom in my leopard-print skirt set and high-heeled pumps and sat next to a former neighbor, Nub, as we called him growing up, who was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and shackled by his wrists and his ankles. I have no idea what Nub’s charges were, however I do know that Nub had been in and out of jail for some time. Nub was shackled like a run-away slave. I don’t know if Nub had been caught driving dirty and was unable to pay his court costs like me. Would this eventually become my fate as well? Would I eventually need to trade my leopard-print skirt set and high heels for an orange jumpsuit and shackles?

I sat to the right of the judge’s bench next to Nub along with several other convicts and had an excellent view of the subsequent court cases. I was riveted by the proceedings and the unbelievable tales that were being told in this courtroom. Several other people, like me, owed court fines, were unable to pay at that time and were remanded to what would have been the “amen corner” for the all-white-clad mothers and deaconesses of the church if this had been a Sunday morning church service.

As the morning wore on, several people made calls to friends who brought them money to pay their court fines and they were allowed to leave. I searched my mind for whom I could call. Call mama? No. She’d be too upset. Call family? Oh my God, what would they think? All the friends I had were as financially strapped as me. At that moment, I saw no way out. “Well, I’ll just go on to Fountain Correctional Center,” I told myself. “How bad can it be?”

Court was adjourned for lunch and all of us convicts were escorted to the back hallways of the Rocky Mount Judicial Center. I braced myself for my initiation into prison. I’d seen Cool Hand Luke. I’d seen Shawshank Redemption. The other convicts were going to taunt and tease me and I would have to become someone’s girlfriend. These hardened criminals could smell the fear of fresh meat. I’d seen the “Angels in Chains” episode of Charlie’s Angels. I knew what to expect. There would be a cruel warden who would bully me and sneer at my naivete. I’d catch a beat down unless I stood up for myself. I had to look tough. I couldn’t show any fear. I couldn’t walk into that cell looking timid. I had to be hard. I recalled the scene in the movie Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. I stood straight, squared my shoulders, mean-mugged, stared straight ahead and adapted a bravado and attitude that said, “Yeah, I’m bad. Don’t mess with me. This ain’t my first time in the slammer, see. I’ve been here before, see. I know what’s up.”

After I was searched and placed in the holding cell with three other young ladies, we all sat in the holding cell and they began introducing themselves as casually as coeds sitting around in a college dorm room. I’m Keisha. I’m Janice. I’m Bertha. They all look at me and in my strong, firm, “I ain’t taking no stuff from nobody” tone of voice, I say “I’m Nesi.” Knew the universal ghetto girl nickname would eventually come in handy. I mean the name “Nesi” meant I was from the hood. I was down. My name wasn’t Buffy, Heather, Amy Vanderbilt, or Sidney Biddle Barrows. I was Nesi from da hood. Okay, I got through this, I told myself.

Next was “what you in here for?” Keisha explained that she had pulled a “Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez on her boyfriend and burned down the porch of his house. Janice’s charge was disorderly conduct, assault and battery for fighting. Bertha had cut some chick. They discussed their charges as easily as co-eds discuss their majors. They explained the circumstances of the incidents. “Girl, he had some chick up in his house and I just lost it. I tried to burn the piece down!”

“Yeah, I had beat that b*tch before but she kept on messing with me and I told her to leave me alone. I had been drinking, right. We was all sitting around drinking forties and playing cards and she kept right on running her damned mouth and I told her to shut the hell up and she jumped at me and I went to her ass. Somebody called the police…”

Bertha’s story was similar. The women debated how much time they would get for their respective charges. Apparently this was not the first time any of these women had spent in jail. They pondered the number of months they’d get for a certain number of counts on their charges, having priors, etc. and the relative expertise of their court-appointed defense attorneys. I sat listening to them with much interest. I looked from one woman to the next woman with a look on my face like I also knew the ropes. I’d nod my head in affirmation at the appropriate moments to convey to them that I knew what they were all talking about. I’d laugh when they laughed. I didn’t want to appear to be a fish out of water. I wanted to convey the sense that I was one of them. I belonged there with them…for the time being at least.

Then they all looked at me. What was I in for? I swallowed hard and attempted to call up that bravado and attitude that I’d had been able to summon moments earlier that allowed me to walk into that cell like I’d done this before. “Seat belt tickets,” I wailed as I burst into tears.

These women looked at each other, amused and in disbelief, then looked at me and asked, “Seat belt tickets? You in here for seat belt tickets? Girl all you gotta do is pay the fines. You ain’t got to be in here.”

“I don’t have the money,” I explained through my tears.

“Girl, just call your man. Can’t he pay for you to get out? You ain’t got to stay in here.”

“I don’t have a man,” I explained.

“You ain’t got no man?” one of them asked astonished. Apparently they all had boyfriends and they had all spent time in jail for assorted, sundry charges. I’d never before spent a minute of my life in jail and I didn’t have a boyfriend. Imagine that.

“No, I don’t have a man,” I explained feeling rather sheepish at that moment.

“Well you work don’t you? You got the money to pay to get out don’t you? Why didn’t you just pay the fines for the seat belt tickets?”

“I explained about being fired from my job, the sporadic child support that I was receiving that went towards rent, gas, utilities, etc. I had two children and I needed what little money I had to support the kids. Seat belt ticket fines were not a priority in the budget.”

“Girl I know what you talking ‘bout”, they sympathized. They told stories of their own baby daddies, irregular child support payments and being fired from jobs. I felt like I was a part of a segment of The Jerry Springer Show. They seemed to understand my dilemma about not having money. I was now part of the club - but not wholly. I was an unemployed, unmarried woman (divorced, but still unmarried) with children who was facing some legal charges and I was supposed to have a man to help get me out of this mess. Not having a man, they didn’t understand. They determined that if I didn’t have the money to pay the fines that I would indeed be sent to Fountain Correctional Center or perhaps some other place. They also debated on how much time I may serve. I sat bravely and listened and tried to join in on the camaraderie.

Prison lunch was served. A bologna sandwich, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, a banana and a carton of milk like you get at snack time in kindergarten. These women all felt sorry for me and gave me their lunches because, as they explained, once they got to Fountain, they were going to have good hot meals. I may not be sent to Fountain. They had no idea what my fate may be. However, should I get sent to Fountain, I should hope to be in dormitory “X”, “Y” or ”Z” where the food was better than in dormitory “A”, “B” or “C”. They explained the daily routine, prison jobs that I should hope to get. The residents of each dormitory wore a different color, they explained. There was even a library and I could get books at Fountain if I liked to read. Books! Suddenly prison didn’t sound so bad. I would get three hots and a cot, do chores and read. They knew all the ends and outs of life at Fountain and continued to school me on what to expect should I be sent there.

Court reconvened around 1:30 pm. It occurred to me that I did indeed need to call someone to pick up my children who would be getting out of school at 2:30. I steeled myself, took a deep breath and asked the warden if I could use the telephone to call someone to pick my kids up from school.

The armed officer allowed me to use the telephone and I was escorted to a telephone in the hallway just a ways from the holding cell. Another deep breath. I dialed my mother’s number. She answered. Another deep breath. In as cheery voice as I could possibly muster, I asked, “Mama, can you pick the children up from school for me today?” as casually as if I were out at the mall shopping and was running a little late.

“Yes. I guess so,” she answered. Where are you?” she asked.

Again, I burst out into tears and began to wail, “In jail!”

Johnny on the spot, my mother arrived at the Rocky Mount Judicial Center to bail me out of jail. Okay, she didn’t bail me out of jail, but she paid my fines and I was released from the holding cell. My understanding is that this is the same thing that happens when one is bailed out of jail. Money is paid to a clerk of the court and the incarcerated person is then released. In my mind, I was bailed out of jail. The armed guard came over to me in the amen corner and told me that I was free to leave. Once again, I daintily sauntered through the courtroom exit doors in my leopard print skirt set, high heels clicking rhythmically on the floor, and then proceeded to burst into tears, yet again, and shake uncontrollably. At that point, the mind of the properly raised young woman acknowledged the fact that she had just been released from jail.

I also find it necessary to explain that this incident took place more than ten years ago and my driving priveleges have since been fully restored (unfortunately as I intensely dislike driving).

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One day, when this life is over and I’m sent home to my glory, I will have to stand before St. Peter, at the Pearly Gates and answer for all the wrong I’ve done in my life. St. Peter will probably have been forewarned well in advance of my arrival so that he can block out a sufficient portion of his day (or it may take a few days or a few weeks depending on how old I live to be) to hear my sins. He will be well advised to assume that it may take a while to deal with me and all of my transgressions. I imagine that St. Peter will ask me for an explanation. He will read my considerable list of sins and then ask, “Vanesia Jean Joyner, what say you to these charges?”

“Well, Mr. St. Peter, your angelship sir…well… uh….how you doing today? See what had happened was…


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SOBF 4 years ago from New York, NY

You have a true gift, continue to cultivate it.

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