How about I tell you a story. I’m good at telling stories. I do it well. It’s my gift. So here, let me tell you a story – a true story. This story, like all of my stories, has a moral. Often, it is difficult to fully divine the moral of a tall tale, true or not; sometimes I don’t even know the moral until I’ve finished writing. But this one is true, and I happen to know it: “Never tell life that it can’t get any worse; it will gladly accept your challenge.”
I’ve been told by a very close friend that I should write less about my crime. As she put it, “I read your writing because I love your writing, not because of what you did.”
So this isn’t a story about my crime. I promise. Well, perhaps it’s peripherally related, but the nature of my crime matters not.
This is the story of my first weekend in jail.
Did you know that when you go to prison, you have to go to jail first? True story. They literally book you back into the county jail.
I spent twenty-five months and three days in prison. That’s 763 days. That’s 18,322 hours. That’s 1,098,720 minutes. And I felt every – single – one. But the most painful of those 18,322 hours happened in the first 72.
The judge, after handing down my sentence in court, graciously allowed me the chance to hug my wife and family goodbye before I was uneventfully escorted through a door in the courtroom behind the jury box; a door that led into a long ominous back hallway – a door that led out of my free world.
The hallway was long and tortuous – or at least, it seemed that way, like the back hallways of the Bellagio in Ocean’s Eleven. And when I was finally guided by the wordless jail deputy onto an elevator, I knew instinctively we would be going down.
Because according to lore, that’s the figurative decent into Hell; according to the layout of the Sedgwick County Courthouse, that’s the literal decent to jail.
The elevator doors closed with an uncomfortable clank, and the elevator itself sounded labored as it did its best to lower my temporary and momentarily-automated casket toward Dante’s Inferno without dropping us into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.
When the doors opened, I was escorted to a heavy thick automatic sliding door, and when I walked through, it closed behind me as I stood before an identical door. There was a span of several torturously long moments between the closing of the door behind me and the opening of the door before me, like being in the airlock of a spaceship, knowing that the comfort and safety of the interior was behind me and the chaotic unknown void awaited.
The jail deputy escorting me stood silently, like a moving statue. In fact, he didn’t say a single word for the entirety of our journey downward. He was my escort to the Underworld, like Charon, the mythical “Boat Man” from Greek Mythology who carried newly-deceased souls across the River Styx. The deputy’s facial expression never changed – an unmoved expression that was either boredom or apathy. Here I was, being led away from freedom and this man had absolutely no fucks to give that I was heading to prison. I was nobody to him and his level of give-a-shit was nonexistent. It was my first and most profound lesson about prison: “You do not matter.”
I could see through a thick window opening in the door in front of me as I awaited its inevitable opening: The booking area of the Sedgwick County Jail. I’d been here before. Once. The night of my initial arrest, seven months prior. I spent seventeen hours here before being bailed-out by my family, who chose to show me an irrational amount of love and support. And as the ominous heavy door opened, breaking the uncomfortable silence between me and Deputy Boat Man, an invisible and uncomfortable mist filled the airlock.
They say smells and scents are the biggest triggers of memories. As the brain processes scents and memories, smells get routed through your olfactory bulb, which is the smell-analyzing region in your brain. It’s closely connected to your amygdala and hippocampus, brain regions that handle memory and emotion. And trust me, being in jail the first time created quite an emotional memory. So when that familiar smell – that odor – wafted into my nostrils again, I knew – and remembered – exactly where I was.
There’s an episode in season 7 of “House M.D.” where Dr. House sends his doctors to break into someone’s house to look for clues about a patient’s illness, and they are busted and arrested. After finally being released, Dr. Taub, one of House’s doctors, remarked in a depressingly-comedic tone, “I smell like jail.” But as comical and whimsical as that line sounded on television, I happen to know for a (very serious) fact that such a smell does exist. And it’s putrid.
I was walked to a chest-high desk and essentially dropped off by Deputy Boat Man and he promptly retreated through the airlock without a word. The desk deputy gave me a look, seeing that I was standing there in a tie and glasses and looking all sophisticated and dressed up and shit, and motioned me toward an awaiting deputy behind me who would walk me to my holding cell – he motioned with his chin and head, apparently not willing to put forth the effort of raising an arm or extending his index finger, let alone using actual words. And before this third deputy put me into the holding cell, he took my tie and my belt, asked if I had a watch, wallet, or wedding band (which I didn’t, having given them to my wife in the courtroom before being removed from the Free World), and then escorted me to a corner cell with ten or twelve other people waiting on benches to be either transferred to the housing units of the jail or bailed-out.
I stood in the doorway of the holding cell as the heavy door slammed behind me and locked with a ringing thud. No one appeared to look up from their conversations or snoring to see that a new contestant had entered this dejected contest of life-failures. It only took a fraction of a second to realize that I looked like a fucking idiot standing there, and I saw that there was an open corner, and I quickly but casually made my way toward it and staked my claim. I sat down on the floor, pulled my knees to my chest, and hid my face from my inevitable future – my only thought being, “Life can’t possibly get any worse.”
There is no feeling of failure that equates to that of sitting in jail, knowing you’re on your way to prison. It far exceeds the feeling of failure at a specific task. When you’re sitting in jail, on your way to prison, you haven’t failed at a mere task – you’ve failed at life. I’d failed at life.
After sitting in my self-constructed ball of solitude for a few hours, a deputy opened the door and said my name. “Brundage,” he called in an apathetic monotone, holding a small index card. I stood up and walked with him, not asking why or where or how or what or anything. He motioned me toward a very overweight and hairy man sitting behind a curtain in what looked like a cheaper version of a high school nurse’s office. And as I went in and sat down, I knew precisely what it was, having been through the same drill when I was initially arrested. This was the health screening, as part of the booking process. He asked me about my basic medical history, drug use, tobacco use, alcohol use, etc. My answers were mindless and unremarkable. Then he asked about mental health. And I should have lied.
“Are you feeling depressed right now?” he asked.
“I’m heading to prison, so I’m not exactly thrilled,” I replied with as much sarcasm as I could muster-up (which, admittedly, wasn’t much – I sounded more like an asshole).
“Have you ever attempted suicide?” he asked. I was a little bothered by the manner in which he asked this question. This particular inquiry had a lot of weight to it, especially in light of what was about to happen to me, not to mention the severity of the act itself, but when he asked, he might as well have been asking me if I was allergic to peanuts or cats.
“In March,” I said matter-of-factly, “I swallowed a bottle of pills.” I paused. “But clearly I’m still here.”
[I did, in fact, attempt suicide seven months prior, after my initial arrest. It’s not something I am at all proud of, but nor is it something I try to hide.]
The gargantuan hairy guy in scrubs, who looked like he’d just finished his janitorial shift, didn’t even look up when I sardonically indicated that my life had reached such a depth that I’d tried to end it. He simply moved on to his next innocuous and inane question before indicating that I could go back to my holding cell. There, I would await transfer to the residential section of the jail.
I sat back in my corner of the holding cell, but was only there for a half-hour or so before another deputy, one I had not yet seen, came to the door and called my name. “Brundage,” he said in a nearly identical monotone voice as the last deputy. I again stood and followed him, no questions asked.
We walked through the open area and out a door that led to another hallway that led to a hallway that led to a room that led to a room. The room where we eventually ended up looked like an abandoned locker room, and certainly smelled the part.
“Strip search,” the deputy said. I expected this and began to reluctantly and uncomfortably disrobe. He took each article of clothing, checking them for contraband and personal items, and subsequently bagged them to be sent home. And when I was fully disrobed, standing before him completely naked and utterly humiliated, I waited for him to complete his paperwork and put his clipboard down so that I could be given the cliche County Jail jumpsuit.
But that’s not what happened.
“Here,” the deputy said as he put down his clipboard. He extended to me a large piece of heavy material with sleeve holes and Velcro. I had no clue what the fuck this thing was, and the look of confusion on my face prompted an explanation from the deputy.
“You’re being put on Suicide Watch,” he said.
I was speechless. And I think he picked up on my bewilderment because he somewhat immediately explained.
“Policy is, if you’ve had a suicide attempt within the last year, you’re automatically put on Suicide Watch.” He spoke as though he was telling me how to change my windshield wipers. To him, no big deal.
I took the odd green heavy Velcro smock from him and held it in front of me, naked, trying to figure out how the hell I was supposed to put this fucking thing on. I was contemporaneously growing more and more agitated the more I thought about the fact that I was being put on Suicide Watch, even though I wasn’t suicidal.
“So who determines that I’m not suicidal?” I asked as I uncomfortably examined this one-piece heavy smock.
“The mental health nurse on duty,” he replied.
“Can I talk to her?” I asked with staccato in my voice. “It will take like 30 seconds for her to realize I’m not suicidal, at all.”
“They don’t work weekends,” he replied with seemingly no fucks to give.
“So, she’ll be back Monday?” I asked. I could feel how wide my eyes were.
It was 9:00 on Friday night.
I paused and stared at him, hoping my facial expression and silence would convey; a) how pissed off I was about this; b) how irritated I was that he didn’t seem to give a shit; and c) how utterly fucking stupid it was for a correctional facility to not employ any mental health staff on the weekends.
“Fine,” I said, having never made eye-contact with him. I fastened the heavy green smock over my shivering and humiliated naked body, and stood motionless – barefoot and furious – awaiting my next instruction.
He led me down another hall to an open jail pod and into a cell specifically for Suicide Watch. I entered the cell, feeling simultaneously enraged and defeated. The door closed behind me and sounded as though the thud rang for an eternity.
Shit just got real.
So, I stood there in the middle of this one-man cell and evaluated my surroundings. There was a metal toilet attached to a metal sink, the floor was stone and cold, the walls were brick and stone, the bed was metal and cold – and had no mattress. Suicide Watch precautionary measures remove anything that a person could use to cause harm to himself, including clothing, all personal effects, and anything in the cell that is not bolted-down. There wasn’t even toilet paper. And to add to it, they took my glasses. I’d worn my glasses to court in a shallow attempt to look smarter, so when they took my clothing from me, they also took my glasses. I couldn’t see a single thing.
So when I sat down on the cold metal slab that would serve as my bed, I thought to myself . . . nothing. I could think nothing and I could see nothing. But I could hear other inmates congregating in the commons area of the pod; I was not allowed out of my cell. There was only one light in my cell, and it flickered like a dull indecisive and inconsistent strobe light. But I literally couldn’t form a fully-functional cohesive thought.
But I could still feel. And at that moment, I felt the metaphorical thud of my entire life finally hitting rock bottom, sinking to the deepest valley of the Abyss.
I looked around, let out a sigh, and laid my head down on the metal slab that would serve as my bed. And after trying several positions without any comfortable success, I stood up and walked to the door of the cell, pressing the button that paged the desk deputy.
“What,” the deputy said without inflection.
“Can I have a roll of toilet paper?” I asked.
No reply. I pressed the button again. Nothing.
Then, the door unlatched and swung open. An apathetic hand thrust a cheap roll of toilet paper into the cell. “Let me know when you’re done,” he said in a clear I-don’t-give-a-damn tone of voice.
“I can’t keep it?” I asked.
He paused and looked at me like I was high-maintenance. “Fine,” he said, shutting the door briskly.
But the truth is, I didn’t need to use the toilet. I needed a pillow.
When I returned to the metal slab bed, I unfastened the Velcro on my heavy green smock and used it (as best I could) as a blanket to cover my body. I turned onto my side, placing the roll of toilet paper under my head, and curled up into as much of a ball as I could and tried not to move. I had to grit my teeth until the cold metal against my naked skin was warmed enough by my body heat to keep my body from shivering uncontrollably. If I moved, the cold uncovered metal jolted me like an icy shock.
After several hours, I finally drifted off to sleep. But it didn’t last long. I woke up repeatedly, each time thinking it was all a nightmare from which I would soon be pulled. Not the case. The nightmare was my reality. And each time I happened to find a shallow bit of slumber, my body would shift and the cold metal on my leg or my hip or my arm or my shoulder would jolt me awake again.
I had no way of knowing what time it was; there was a clock across the pod from my cell, but as I looked out the cell door, I squinted as hard as I could and still couldn’t read it. They took my glasses. I was trapped, helpless, sightless, sleepless, and frigidly cold. I could only curl myself into a ball and do my best to cocoon myself between the heavy fabric of my green smock and the depressingly cold metal slab bed.
I have no idea what time it was when they brought me breakfast. According to my window, it was still dark outside when I was served my morning meal. I got up and looked at it, and I literally could not identify it. Seriously, I have no fucking clue what the hell was on that tray. It wasn’t moving, thankfully; so, there’s that. It may have been grits, perhaps, but it looked and smelled more like the liquefied corpse that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman dissolved in acid on “Breaking Bad.” This was breakfast. No thanks. I didn’t eat. I dumped it in the toilet and left the tray by the door, returning to the safety of my cocoon.
When the sun finally came up, the noise of the jail pod awoke me from whatever brief bout of sleep I’d managed to find. And it wasn’t long before my mind began to race. The depression turned to stress and the stress had me pacing the tiny cell in my heavy green smock and bare feet.
The more I paced, the quicker my steps became and the room kept getting smaller and smaller and colder and colder and louder and quieter and the ringing in my ears and the fleeting thoughts in my mind never stopped and I kept getting exhaustively energized and frustrated and depressed and angry and I paced and paced and paced until the bottoms of my bare feet became sore and my naked shoulders became chafed from the Velcro that rubbed and scratched my bare skin which was only made worse by the cold sweat that covered my entire body and made me even more cold which made me shiver more and my face became sore from clenching my cheeks and grinding my teeth and all I could do to alleviate the stress and the pain and the despair and the depression was pace the room until I had no energy left in my body.
And that’s how it was for me, in that little cell, all day. I was never even let out to bathe.
Lunch, like breakfast, was delivered on a clunky tray and was barely identifiable. I tried to eat, but couldn’t. I had no appetite, no desire to eat, no desire to even sustain any sort of nutrition at all. I knew I needed to eat; my body was telling me it needed nutrients, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to shovel this mystery sludge into my mouth. It smelled like something that was left-over from dinner . . . six weeks ago. But honestly, I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to eat it. I seriously began to contemplate whether or not death-by-starvation would be a painful way to put myself out of my misery, if death meant being able to leave the cell. Because in all honesty, I was fine (though pissed off) as I sat in the holding cell, waiting to be transferred to the residential area of the jail. I wasn’t suicidal. I wasn’t even contemplating death – I was merely daunted by the two years of prison that awaited me; but I’d spent the previous months preparing myself for the possibility. But staring at that “meal” they gave me, I could only wonder if starving to death was painful, because I couldn’t think of anything more painful than being in that room. So, like breakfast, I dumped it in the toilet and left the tray to be picked up. Ah, the irony: I hadn’t even contemplated death until I was forced into Suicide Watch.
At one point, they wheeled a television out into the open area of the pod, and Training Day was on. I’ve seen the movie numerous times, so although I could not see the screen, I could hear it. And since the only opening between my cell and the open pod was the crack beneath my door, I curled up in my cocoon on the floor and listened to the sound of the movie as it crept into my cell – I watched the movie in my mind. I haven’t seen that movie since.
That movie is the last solid categorical memory I have of being on Suicide Watch. I mean, I have other recollections, but they all seem to mesh together into one huge cacophony of cognitive cluster-fuck. Hours felt like days and time stopped. Well, not literally, but at one point, time literally did go backwards. Because I was in jail during the first weekend in November. Fall-back. It was Daylight Savings Time. And in a place where an hour felt like a long and endless day, adding another hour to my solitary confinement was just a cruel joke.
It was always dark in my cell, except for the flickering light. It always smelled musty with a hint of odor from the toilet that clearly hadn’t been cleaned since Jimmy Carter was president, so I was reluctant to use it. And in a cell of stone and metal, it seemed to somehow radiate with varying degrees of cold. In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, he describes the deepest depths of Hell, not as a fiery burning lake of sulfur, but as a bitter cold wasteland, devoid of God. And those two attributes described my surroundings perfectly: It was bitter cold, and God was not there.
Of all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve experienced, that was the first time I’d ever been anywhere – at any time – and literally felt like God was not there. Because He wasn’t. I honestly believe the time I spent in that cell was the first (and hopefully only) time that God has chosen to turn His back on me.
Time stopped. For days, time stopped. I could only base a general estimation of the time on what meal was being brought to me (though I didn’t eat them); however, at one point I expected lunch and got breakfast, which was my biggest indication that I was beginning to lose the only firm grip on reality I had left.
And then, on Monday morning, it was over. A woman came to the window of my solitary cell and began asking me questions.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said.
“Do you have any thoughts of hurting yourself?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “None.”
“Okay,” she said.
And then, the door opened, I was handed a Sedgwick County Jail jumpsuit, and led to the residential area of the jail.
So, just like that, with a few well-placed lies, I was released from Hell and led out of the Abyss.
I was led to another elevator, then through another maze of hallways, and then told where I would be going for the time-being. “Pod Ten,” the faceless deputy said as he herded me toward the barracks-style pod. I was carrying a standard-issue set of sheets and a blanket. They don’t give out pillows at the Sedgwick County Jail – but you can rent one. And once I got to Pod Ten, I saw that the mattresses were the same disgusting worn bed pads that were in the holding cells. Disgusting? Yes, but at least it was a mattress. I was thankful for a mattress. So I was assigned a bed and told to put my things down and go shower. Yes, shower. I was thankful for a shower.
Finally, my ordeal in that particular circle of Hell was over, and I was thankful to begin my climb out, with or without Dante and Virgil’s assistance.
After getting showered and situated, I was – for the first time – allowed to use the phone.
I called my wife.
And at the very instant I heard the sweet sound of her voice, I wept.
I wept because in the beautiful sound of her voice and the loving embrace of her words, God had returned to me, and I felt Him next to me again.
And still, I wept.