A friend of mine is in jail in the far reaches of Virginia, which is to say some thirty miles away. She did a couple of stupid things that could have endangered her and the local populace. She was caught and charged with a misdemeanor; I heard about it three or four days after the fact. When she called, I could hear noisy conversations and the din of muddy announcements over a loudspeaker. I learned that she could not afford a private attorney, and that a public defender would be assigned to her case.
I set up an account with a company specializing in handling inmate calls, and also put some money in a commissary account so she could buy some essentials—a blanket (because the cell she shares with another woman is cold), a sweatshirt, reading glasses, and candy bars (dinner is at 4:30 p.m.; breakfast at 7 a.m.)
The big issue was her car, in which she was arrested. The vehicle had been towed and put into an impound lot a few miles from the jail. It was stuck there, costing $50 a day, and had already accrued several hundred dollars in fees. I volunteered to go and get it.
This proved to be a Kafkaesque task. My friend had to sign a notarized deposition, a property release form permitting me to get the vehicle. This makes sense, but notaries are few and far between in jail. She finally got the form and I went to the jail to pick it up, intending to go from there to get the car out of impound. I’d planned to drive her car back to her home and take a Lyft back to the lot, retrieve my own car, drive back to my place and take a nap. When I got to the detention center on a rainy mid-morning, I was informed that the paperwork was still being processed. Could it be hurried, since I was already at the jail? No. Things take time. The officer I dealt with was uninterested and shrugged a lot.
It struck me that my friend had been found guilty without benefit of a trial, which is allowed under the Napoleonic Code but frowned upon in the US and deemed unconstitutional. I didn’t press the issue. My experience, when dealing with people who have guns and a bit of authority, is not to argue the finer points of law.
During the following week, I called three times a day and was informed no one knew where the papers were. Often, phones went unanswered, or I got cut off. I was transferred repeatedly to an officer who had nothing to do with property control. After a while he asked that I stop calling him, and hung up. Finally, one guard suggested that perhaps the forms got lost? This was not an unusual event in the penal bureaucracy. My friend would have to sign another form. It took seven days for the deposition to make it to the jail’s personal property office. The little mishap cost my friend $350.
When I learned the forms finally were ready, I returned to the detention center. I found that the jail sounds I’d heard on TV shows and movies were remarkably accurate. Jail doors do slam with authority. It’s almost as if the sound was designed to flout hope.
I watched as jail visitors came and went. After close to an hour, I asked a guard how much longer I might have to wait. She looked at me blankly. “I have no idea.”
I waited some more.
Eventually a friendly man with a handful of papers appeared. Yes, I said, I was indeed Mr. Saginur. I showed my ID. He handed me the papers. I signed a release. Hallelujah.
At the impound lot, a pleasant young woman looked at the documents, nodded, took my credit card and handed me a receipt. Yikes, almost $1300 in fees. These included towing fees, processing fees, state fees, county fees and a fee I couldn’t quite figure out. It struck me that were my friend to be found not guilty, she’d be out quite a few bucks with no hope of getting reimbursed.
Somehow this isn’t right.
I don’t excuse my friend’s behavior, but I do take issue with the assumption of guilt, the indifferent bureaucracy, and the fact that what should have taken minutes instead took more than a week. Guilty or not guilty of a misdemeanor, this is unfair.