July 30
I'm a lawyer in my past life, who got the kids through college and decided to try something different and a little more fun. A used book store sounded like a good idea, so that's where I am for now. I just hadn't counted on a recession or E-readers and am a little afraid there's going to be a third act. In the meantime, I have plenty to read and a little time to write. Not a bad way to spend a day.


Jlsathre's Links

Editor’s Pick
MARCH 9, 2012 1:34PM

Hope In a Jail Cell

Rate: 36 Flag


When I walked through the door and sat beside them in a metal chair at the metal table in the room with bars, I became their hope.  I wasn't always what they wanted, but I was what they had.  What they wanted was to be out. Or, sometimes, just a cigarette or something other than the donuts that they got every morning for breakfast. 

They didn't have money and they rarely had family that stood by their side. Even some of the juveniles had families that didn't show up until ordered by a judge to be present. They all shared a common thread of having been charged with a crime, and most shared a tendency to profess innocence and unfairness and claims of being railroaded in the face of hard evidence.  But the common thread that was most noticeable was a loss of hope.  By the time I sat down, their ability to look at what could be had been overshadowed, and then rubbed out, in the face of what was. 

What was was nearly always a past touched or dominated by poverty, or abuse, or neglect, or addiction.  Or all of the above, which might have been the answer on the SAT that they didn't take because no one around them saw the value of education.

In the tight space of that small barred room, hope had already fled.  It is hard to hold onto at 15, when your mother goes into court and asks that her parental rights be terminated.  Or when the kitchen table for family dinners holds the makings of a meth lab instead of a pot roast . When your grandfather is also the father of your child and no one in the family thinks he should be in jail. When police are never seen as friends.

It is not hard to see in that room how the loss of hope can turn into anger, or into a life where repercussions are seldom considered because repurcussions happen in the future and there's little reason to think about the future when it holds no hope. The popular "live for the day" adage takes on an ominous character when it arises from a loss of hope.  Rather than seeking out sunsets, it finds people taking things that aren't theirs, hurting people without thought, and getting involved in a drug culture that feels good right now.   

It's not an excuse, but it is defining, and in all too many cases it's almost inevitable.  It's easy for people on the outside to look at the person next to me and to think that they don't deserve a second chance. But sitting next to them, it's just as easy to see that they didn't have the first one.

I always came into the room too late.  By the time I entered hope had already turned into anger, or a self-hatred hidden by bravado, or an unpenetrable numbness.  

The only hope in the room was usually my own. The hope that I could make  a difference.  The hope that the person next to me might find a way to turn their life around.  The hope that those who went to prison and returned would return reformed. The hope that those who walked out would find something to walk to that was vested in a future rather than the next five minutes or the next high.  The hope that they could rediscover some hope in their own future.

Sometimes my hope was in the big picture--the hope that our justice system works, that all people receive fair and equal treatment. But how it can be fair and equal when we start from such different places was a question I could never answer to my satisfaction.

Even when I was able give the person next to me what they wanted, I couldn't give them what they needed.  In far too many cases I would find myself sitting next to them again.  And as years passed, next to their sons and their daughters. The same room, the same chairs, the same loss of hope.

I think it was the passing of the generations that finally made me get up and walk out--that saw the edges of my own hope start fraying and become too often entangled in the loss of theirs. That made me realize I also wanted out.  While I still had hope.

I sell books now.  I donate some each year to the jail and hope they're read.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
I swear that I am not here cussing - nor am I wondering - if a impartial jury would ever send a Salon editor to jail. I was in jail once after a few crooked lawyers . . .
and a bank CEO from
Waynesboro, PA called cops . . .
But, I always see in Mind a crapper.
Jail poop-pots are stainless aluminum.
The commode was dirty. It was disgusting.
I never used it to defecate or brush teeth.
If a wise person travels today carry a brush.
It's a good idea to carry a small toothbrush.
If you have false teeth putcarry 'Fixodent'`
Put a tube in one back pocket. Carry 'Bag Balm'`
Carry those toilet articles if you enter a PA bank.
If an editor @ Salon gets the 'can' he can pretend?
Pretend he's a shaved head monk walking a beach.
Just pace back and forth and see seagulls and crap.
mid-life crisis . . .
the Salon editor pondering
life as a monk
The biggest employer in Washington County, Maryland is the State Prisons. We have four jails.
I've only been in one PAs jail.
I laugh to be told ref my record.
Before I was Drafted to Viet`nam . . .
I was hauled to a county jail for dipping.
A few high school graduates hopped a fence.
We went 'skinny-dipping' and cops nabbed us.
During Bush reign I found out `I am a criminal.
After my arrest in a bank - my probation officer:
Oh, never mind
I am not teasing
No bank in PA
Eloquent and you raise disturbing and profound points about our society and judicial system. The only hope is that there are more people like you involved in these lives. R
On a logical level I understand that there must be punishment for crimes against society. My problem comes with the knowledge that there are two seperate levels of justice....one of for the rich and a completely different one for those of privilage. I fear that Justice is not blind and those scales she holds are used to weigh bank accounts not facts.
excellent, encompassing piece, jls; it hits - and explains but doesn't excuse - all the pieces, the reasons that do and don't make sense, the hopelessness. i couldn't work in the criminal departments, just couldn't. but i have a judge friend who put a program in place in the juvenile courts here that had astonishing success in getting *parents* straightened/cleaned up which (obviously) benefited their kids. he, the judge, is a very kind and very strong person, and he stuck it out.
Toritto--There's a lot to make you sad and disgruntled on both sides of the aisle.
Art--Interesting poem and interesting life. That skinny dipping gets you every time.
Gerald--Thanks. Those are nice words to hear.
David--Money and the lack of it plays a part on several different levels.
June--Thank you.
Femme--I love to hear about judges like that. They are around and they can make a profound difference.
I'm a psychologist who sees perps and victims. Yes, they're all usually victims of sorts, but I have seen some remarkable insights developed in jail, some breakthroughs and some definite life changes. The shorter the time in jail, the better the results in terms of long-term change. It's heart-breaking, but I try to help kids realize that as long as they are living, there are choices, decisions and opportunities.
As luck would have it, I just watched this afternoon the series finale of the HBO award-winning The Wire. Your post eloquently puts a sharp point on the hopelessness of everybody involved in "the system" as it was depicted in this program. Bless you for even trying, for I know how utterly frustrating it must have been. This is one EP I can solidly get behind!

I've only been in jail a few days in my life, been to court maybe ten times. I didn't care much for any of it, but I had the good luck to have friends and family behind me. Hard to imagine dealing with that alone. I can understand why you're selling books now.
Brilliant and lucid description of the problem. Until we treat it as more than just a "justice" issue, the cycle will continue. I'm glad you made the decision to keep your own hope alive before you burned yourself out. I'm also glad that you took the time to write about your experience. Raising awareness is important, too.
The question for you.

Not all kids that grew up poor with crappy parents end up doing drugs and crimes. How do you explain the kid who didn't make it and his brother or sister who did?

When you figure this one out I think you will have the answer to your problem.
Gads . . . This EP made me happy!
I often say to me? Please hush up!
I sense a comment can irk editors!
I always say . . .
Solvitur ambulande (Margaret Atwood)
It is solved by walking - "work it out - walk."

I feel bad if I saya word - offensive - 'scrotum'
I may tell `bout a lawyer - he faint - he see striper
In West Virginia it's cash - Women - they get naked
Honest -
I no frequent W.V. Strips - Woman - dance beautifully
Ay, O my -
Why babble
Who knows
I heard this:
a nice stripper
giving a editor
I recall . . .
seeing a Mom in a jail's
waiting room, a breast
bare - a tongue tattoo
I no ever intend to offend
I did not stop at the saloon
but, maybe I should have
. . ."a former lawyer" ...
Congratulation . . . a EP!
This made me burp milk!
Rural hick belch heehaw!
That's not a evil ideation.
I tried to just hop in sack.
Ay what another wild day.
Please stay-away from thee:
CEO banker in Waynesboro,
I liked the PA's Magistrate.
The cop-officers were nice.
They no hand-cuffed a fur.
huh . . .
They handcuffed with steel.
Cops didn't 'ruff' a hicks-ups.
Cops quote `W. Shakespeare.
Behave . . .
Maybe I best visit loco`saloon.
The local Pub is a Place`shalom.
The women no say Ya so`kook.
There's no Place like a Home . . .
Nowhere to go . . .No kooky . . .
No creepy ale . . . Kooky boozers.
I work indirectly with people who do this job, and I don't know how they keep going. Yes, you could paint all these people with the criminal brush. But it only makes me realize how blessed I have been--a safe, loving, intact family, parents who knew me and made me do my homework, parents who cooked dinner, went to school plays, worked, and gave me the best they could afford.

I could attribute my own relative middle-class affluence to my own hard work, but much of it started before I was born.

It makes me sad. I see the sea of disadvantaged people, and I feel like I'm looking at the ocean with a dixie cup.
Thank you for what you do for these people. Hope is a thing with feathers that sometimes flies away. You bring it.
It is really often the case that these kids are innocent and are being railroaded. Sometimes they are guilty but will face charges for things they are not guilty of because many prosecutors need to win and win so they may be promoted. That is the dark truth that no lawyer wants to discuss. In the past, I would think differently, but I saw the injustice system up close and I am convinced that it is a filthy and broken system full of cronyism and corruption, and that unless you are very rich or very connected-- you will be left broken and gasping. Public defenders and prosecutors, are on the whole, a self interested and base bunch. And, judges and private lawyers are worse or no better. Perhaps, this is just a huge problem in Los Angeles, but I doubt it.

I would implore you to write more about these experiences.

Terrific piece.
Everyone needs someone in their corner, even if they don't deserve one. It must be tough, knowing when you need to get out before you can't be that someone anymore.
On a different scale a "bad" kid can turn around when you least expect it and have already kind of written them off--I'm talking about kids in my class where I teach high school in the Bronx. I've been ready to give up on kids 3/4 of the way through a year and had them pull through in the last couple of months. It's hard to keep hoping sometimes but when someone changes in the least way it's a moment of quiet celebration.
Jackie--I'm sure it happens, but it was certainly rare in the people I saw, perhaps partly because of a lack of meaningful access to good resources.
Lezlie--Thank you so much. I haven't seen that series but will see if I can get it.
jmac--Yeah, neither is much fun--particularly if you're facing it alone.
Jennifer--Thanks for reading and commenting.
Cat--I wish I had the answer. I'm just glad that some make it. I wish more did.
Art--See? You're not a curse. Keep the poetry coming.
Froggy--Good thoughts there. I was lucky too.
I agree with Fernsy...I would love to hear about some of these specific experiences. That generational aspect you wrote about really hit home for me. So, so, sad. It takes a great deal of strength to make such a life altering decision as you did to start selling books and leave that world behind--causes me to pause and think about where I am at and what the future will hold for me. A powerful piece all around. Thank you.
Miguela--Wonderful sentiment. Thank you.
Fernsey--Most of the criminal work I did was in smaller communities where things are a little different. Less corruption, almost certainly. And generally more fairness and concern for a "just" result all the way around. But I worked in cities too and saw a lot of what you talk about. I wish you weren't up against it. I once argued an appeal against Senator Eagleton, which I should have won. But as soon as he stood up all three judges started nodding their heads in agreement. I knew that the law I had on my side meant nothing that day.
Manhattan--I agree. And the best time to make that happen is when they're still in school. I'm glad you stick with them.
Pensive--Thanks so much. It was a good change for me, at a time in my life when I could make it.
Thanks for that comment. I am now pursuing a civil rights suit, and today I lost a defamation suit against two lawyers. Absolutely no legal basis existed for the judge, Mark Mooney, to sustain their demurrers, but he did, and my lawyer says, "It's the system." and just lets it go . Today, I have had to realize that it is rigged and that there really is no justice, at all, to be had in such courts. Bitter pill to swallow.Very Bitter.
I hope you write more about your experiences where the law was on your side, and it didn't mean a thing. Many are lucky enough to never know these things, but all of us should know about it before it's too late.
It's not nearly as dramatic or depressing as what you describe, but as a school counselor I also often saw the lights go out in the kids' eyes way too soon. Yet, you touched many of those souls in ways you have yet to learn. The idea of bringing books to jail. . .
I liked how you described the background of the kids in the system. Every society has crime and criminals but it's worth alleviating the conditions that lead to more of it.
Thanks for bring hope to one of the loneliest places...

☼(ˆ◡ˆ) ⋱ ⋮ ⋰
(ˆ◡ˆ) ♥⋯ ❤ ⋯ ★
☼(ˆ◡ˆ) ⋰ ⋮ ⋱(¯`•´¯)¸.(¯`•´¯).¸.(¯`•´¯)¸. ☼
(¯`•´¯)¸.(¯`•´¯).¸.(¯`•´¯)¸.(¯­`•´¯)¸.(¯`•´¯) ¸.(¯`•´¯).¸.(¯`•´¯)¸.Ŀ☼√Ξ ❤.
•¸.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.•*´¨` *•.•¸.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.•*­­´¨` *• Hugs ☼
A beautiful, tough read.

Fernsy--I'm sorry about your case. Defamation cases are hard, as are cases against lawyers. You may be climbing a hill too high or you may have an attorney who's reluctant to tell you the hurdles you're going to run into. Sometimes it is just people honestly looking at facts and law differently and, if it's worth it, you have to keep trying. There are good people in the system too. It doesn't sound like you've run into them, but I hope you do.
John--I think where you're at is probably a more important place in the overall picture than where I was. Good to have you there.
Abra, Algis, and V--Thank you for reading and and for the thoughtful comments.
Excellent writing. Jarring. I understand your need to leave. There are some professions and jobs which begin to erode your own sanity. A book store is a perfect refuge. Thanks for writing this.
Thanks. It is worth it but it is also a hill too high. As of today, I am COOKED.
This defamation suit was not a hard one to win . Otherwise, a lawyer wouldn't take it on contingency. Its dismissal is bizarre and senseless, if regarding any law or precedent . I wish it was just a matter of interpretation of the law, but it is not.

I'm sure there are good people in that system, and I have a very easy time seeing the good in people. Alas, only one judge, in my case, showed any sense or humanity, over four years now.

Not your concern, of course, and pardon me for these long unrelated comments. Thanks for your perspective, and for sharing your esoteric(most just don't know until they are mired,) viewpoints.
Fernsy--"Mire" is a good word. Unfortunately it's appropriate too often.
keep hope alive say the political snakes.
you did, by exiting a place of no real hope.
you were indeed always too damn late, dear lady..

"By the time I sat down, their ability to look at what could be
had been overshadowed,
and then rubbed out, in the face of what was. "

Time to serve.

But time will be restored to most of them, someday.
Maybe a book you donated will make a difference.
Believe me, it can...
Heartbreaking. The last line said so much.
You must be filled with compassion, seeing all that hopelessness
would be the hardest thing I can imagine.
Beautifully written
rated with love
Very compelling. When we have hope, we can do a lot more with what little we may have, but without it it's time to get out. I experienced similar sentiments in teaching and saw a high rate of burn out around me.
Being a substitute teacher in LA exposed me to the joint three or four times. The youth facilities of LA would be classified as medium security prisons in Oregon. And there was nothing sadder than seeing some 16 year old devote his entire life (in and out of the joint) in scratching his gang sign wherever he could.

And you probably nailed the background of the kids that I "taught."
Romantic--Thank you, but there's equal or more compassion in your poetry.
Fusun and lefty--I'm sure you've both seen a lot of the same in your teaching. It can be heartbreaking and demoralizing.
Ande-- The book store has been a nice change.
James--Too damn late? Too often, yes.
Alysa--Thank you.
Really sad that what little hope they had of someone actually caring about their future ran out of hope once you were looking into the eyes of the next generation. I can't imagine doing what you did my heart is easily broken. rated
Someone like you sat with my daughter on and off for over a year, ultimately steering her into drug/mental health court after a year in and out of county jail. I made sure to thank him for his work, noting how difficult it must be to defend someone who lies to you and believes a boyfriend who tells her a "real" lawyer is on the way, so don't sign anything. After seven months in rehab, she's graduated to a halfway house. I get why you wanted a career change, but I'll also bet your skill helped a few into better circumstances than they would have gotten without you. Please accept my gratitude for your efforts.
My best friend is a mental health counselor in a state's prison. I often ask her how she deals with thier hopelessness. At the same time, as a woman who has "had {her} face bashed in by {her} man," to quote Toritto, I am glad they are all there behind bars - not oout here with me. It's so complicated in its fabulous simplicity. I find it nearly impossible to reconcile that I at once want them to suffer and be miserable, but I want it to be humane. And I want them to feel hopeless.
Damn shame. So much pain and injustice in the world. You did good and still are doing good in the world.
Desnee--It is heart breaking and it can make you feel helpless.
jimmy--Thank you for saying that. It sounds hopeful for your daughter. With family behind her, I think she'll find her way back.
Robin--It can kind of be a yin and yang. I understand how you feel.
Erika--It is a shame. And thank you.
Jane--Good quote. I like it.
What we see is just the tip of the iceberg....it is so sad. I loved this post, and I love how you donate the books!! Thank you!!