Imagine: You’re walking down Del Playa Drive when two police officers confront you and ask to see some identification. You cooperate, taking out your license, handing it over to the officers and politely asking why they stopped you. They say you meet the description of a suspect who recently robbed a couple of houses on the same street. Fifteen minutes later, you’re riding in the back of a patrol car headed for the county jail.
This situation seems unlikely, but it happened to a friend of mine. Frank, a black Goleta musician visiting friends in I.V., was walking down DP during Winter Break when a similar scene unfolded. The two officers told him he met the description of the suspect – a 5′ 11″ to 6′ black man wearing a black beanie – who reportedly robbed numerous houses on the street. That one instance of racial profiling was all it took.
Frank was charged with burglary and dubbed “the hot prowler” of Winter Break (a hot prowler is a burglar who is seen while committing the crime). There was only one problem: He didn’t steal anything. I knew this upon reading the report, but I figured the lack of evidence against him (i.e. anything that was stolen) would eventually lead to his early release. I was wrong.
The problem is that I was ignorant of our current system of justice. I forgot that “innocent until proven guilty” translates to “money = freedom to walk.” Frank had no money and was therefore guilty of whatever crime he was suspected of committing, since constitutional rights only apply to those with money or influence. Silly me.
I tried to visit Frank in jail five times, but was allowed admission only twice. Apparently, when new recruits are held in the Inmate Reception Center (IRC) at the county jail, they are given two days to map out a visitor list for the entire month (with no permissible revisions). Unfortunately, Frank’s powers of telepathy weren’t working on all cylinders when he was given his month-long visitor’s schedule. The nice woman on the phone told me to come in during visiting hours, but the less nicer man with the badge told me I was two minutes late and wasn’t on the list. One time I called and they refused to tell me if I was even on the list until I came in. These games went on for a couple of weeks until another balding, badge man with a superiority complex gave it to me straight, telling me to come back a month later when the new visitation schedules were filled out.
When I finally got in to talk to Frank through the window-phone setup, he gave me the lowdown. His public defender was his biggest adversary. First, the lawyer assumed he was guilty (hmm, conflict of interest) and then used a prior possession of drug conviction as leverage to force a guilty plea out of Frank’s mouth. He told Frank that his bail, which was set at $10,000, went up to $47,000, and then that he was being held without bail (the bail didn’t change). Frank maintained his innocence, yet his preliminary hearings were repeatedly pushed back for the district attorney (the public defender’s boss) to “gather more evidence,” which roughly translates to “another month of jail time.”
The DA squashed Frank’s right to a speedy trial in his attempt to gather this evidence. I came to see him again one Saturday at 7 a.m. (the only window for visitors) at the “Honor Farm.” This is where well-behaved inmates are transferred and assigned jobs, whether or not they’ve been convicted of a crime. The picture Frank painted of the inside was grim.
He told me the inmates were nearly all drug offenders or people of color. He told me of David Attias’ arrival and the way he walks around without remorse (though I was told people spit in his food). He told me of the schizophrenic criminal who talked about killing people when he got out and how he was released. He told me of the stack of rhymes he had written during his down time, and how many of the inmates made remarks like, “Why are you here?” or “You don’t belong here.” He told me what jail does to an innocent man’s mind, and how the whole “correctional facility” is the antithesis of rehabilitation. The entire hour I kept thinking to myself, “Why am I talking to my friend through Plexiglas?”
I was surprised to see Frank near Woodstock’s last week while walking to class. It had been four months since I saw him on the outside. A friend had paid for his bail and freedom, but his legal troubles remain. It seems the DA and his cronies are so bent on convicting “the hot prowler,” that they overlooked the lack of evidence or identifying witnesses which might point to this man’s guilt.
Due process … innocent until proven guilty … my ass.
Ted Andersen is the Daily Nexus editor in chief and is now leery of meeting anyone’s description.