Her face always went bright red when she was flustered, and as she sat trying to reason with the impassive bureaucrat in front of her, 31-year old Marie Capps was getting increasingly apprehensive. “But I was two days late. I had to wait until I got paid, that month I was short because the washing machine broke. I paid the insurance, it was fine!” She was sat in one of the offices of the city Civil Enforcement Department, the CED. She hadn’t heard of the CED until she received one of their enforcement letters through the mail, and it had taken her some time to find the buildings, which were located in a light industrial park on the edge of town.
She was charged with driving without insurance. She was aware that her conversation with the official was being recorded, but naively disregarded it. She thought that if she explained the circumstances, the official would let her off this once. But she didn’t know what the officials at the CED were like. The official’s continuing silence encouraged Marie to keep talking: “As soon as I got paid, I drove straight home and renewed my insurance.”
This went on for about 5 minutes, before the official decided to start talking. “Miss Capps, we are aware of the the facts of your case. Your insurance was expired for 2 days. You yourself admit this. You drove without insurance. Again, you admit this. It has all been recorded. You were informed on the letter we sent you that this was an official appointment, and that you were allowed to bring legal representation.”
At that point Marie could have kicked herself, thinking “Why didn’t I read the letter properly?! Argh. I should have brought Frank, he would have known how to deal with this guy.” She had tuned out the official, and now tuned back in again: “two options. You can plead not guilty, and this goes to court, you lose, and you risk going to prison. Or you can plead guilty and avoid prison. Your presence here without legal representation means you have waived the right to have an attorney present, so you now have 15 minutes to decide” he droned, before passing her two separate piles of paper, each stapled at the top left corner.
“I have to decide now?” she replied, not quite believing what she was hearing. “Yes” was the curt response of the official. “Don’t I at least get a phone call?” she enquired. “Yes, but make it a quick one. Remember you have 15 minutes.” Her head raced – “Who do I call? Gah, Frank’s probably in court, I guess I’ll have to ring Mom.” The phone call with her Mom was not easy, even as an adult with kids of her own it was difficult admitting that she was in trouble. She flipped through the pages of the documents in front of her as she spoke, explaining the situation to her mother.
Her Mom asked questions, as she always does. “But won’t the jury understand?” – “I don’t know Mom, they’ve got this recording, I shouldn’t have admitted, well, too late now.” “Won’t you have a criminal record?” – She had to ask the official about this, and the official replied that she would, but not a felony. Several other questions followed, before Mom simply said, “Well honey, it’s not a nice thing to have to do, but if you think you might lose in court, well, you don’t want to risk going to jail. You do what you think’s right, but don’t take the risk if you’re not confident.” “Thanks Mom, I think I’ll have to plead guilty. I can’t believe this. But I don’t want to go to jail, no way. I’d better deal with this now. I’ll speak to you later. Love you Mom.” “Love you too dear.”
And with that the call ended, with 5 minutes to spare. Marie breathed in, sighed, and said, “I guess I’ll plead guilty then. Which form is that?” The official motioned to the one to her right, and took the ‘not guilty plea’ form away. Marie asked for a pen, and the official gave it to her, before asking “are you sure you wouldn’t like to read through the form?” “Well, you didn’t give me much time, and, I looked over it while I was on the phone. I know I avoid prison, so that’s OK. I can deal with a fine.” With that, she found the final page of the document, signed her name, wrote in the date, and passed it over to the official, who also signed it, before scanning it. He printed Marie a copy, and also her criminal record information sheet. She thought this was needlessly insensitive, to be reminded that her details were now on a database, where she was branded a criminal.
“So what now, she enquired, I have my checkbook, do I pay the fine here?” The official, opening another drawer, replied “Yes, you can. Please make the check out to CED Fine Account.” “OK, so what’s the amount?” Irritated, the official answered, “It was in the document Miss Capp. $5000. Payable to CED Fine Account.”
Marie’s face had returned to near its normal color after she had signed the document, but now grew pinker. “$5000? I don’t have that kind of money. Is it really that much? That really is a lot.” “Drivers without insurance cost the State a lot, Miss Capp.” “So how long do I have to pay it, I can probably spare about $50 a month, it might make things tight, but I could do it.” The official closed the drawer. He wasn’t going to be filing any check today. He put his elbows on the table and drew his hands together, joining them at the tips of fingers. “Miss Capp. The document you signed was quite clear. There are two sentencing options. Either you pay a $5000 fine within 7 days of signing, or you will spend 16 days in jail.”
The official had intended to continue, no doubt to lecture Marie on reading forms thoroughly, but he was interrupted: “Jail?! But you said if I pleaded guilty I wouldn’t go to jail! It’s on your recording. I don’t have that kind of money, I don’t know anyone who does. I can’t go to jail, I have two children, I have a job. Please, there must be some way I can pay the fine in instalments, you promised me I wouldn’t go to jail.” The official, viewing Marie’s distress, was unsympathetic. In his mind she was guilty, and her reaction – the reaction of a worried woman – was incoherent. “Prison, Miss Capp. I said you would not go to prison. Jail is different. It’s cleaner and safer for a start, and it means you don’t have to go upstate. And you will only serve your sentence at weekends. If you are seriously telling me that you cannot pay the fine, I must give you something.” He reached down and opened another drawer, and brought out a pamphlet, ‘Serving Time in Jail – A Guide’ which he handed to Marie. She was stunned, and blankly placed the pamphlet in her handbag. “No, there’s no need for that, I’ll, I’ll find some way to pay the fine. I have seven days? Do I come back here? It will be fine” she said, reassuring herself more than the official, “I will pay.”
The official confirmed that she had seven days and could pay the fine at the CED offices, and also at any courthouse. This information was delivered more out of duty than expectation, and Marie detected the scepticism in his voice when he said it. He added, “Miss Capp, in case you cannot pay the fine, please take time to read the pamphlet. It explains everything you need to know. If you have to go to jail, it will not be pleasant, but knowing what is in store for you will at least allow you to prepare yourself, and also avoid nasty surprises. Good luck, Miss Capp.”
Marie was surprised at this, “wait, has he actually just said something to try and help me?”, she wondered. For a second it distracted her from her racing thoughts about jail, $5000, how to get it. She went to drive home, but just as she was getting towards busier traffic, she pulled her vehicle over, realizing that she could just not concentrate on the road. She called her Dad, and he picked her up. She knew that her parents did not have that kind of money to spare. They weren’t poor, but their money was tied up in their home, and in the pensions they both had. None of her friends had much money. Later that evening, she contacted her ex-husband, who said he would see what he could do. But the next morning, he said that his new wife wouldn’t allow it.
She went for coffee with Frank, an attorney and a friend of hers from childhood. At first he chastised her for not coming to him and not reading the forms properly, then consoled her. He too said he would see what he could do. He too, had a wife who would not allow him to part with $5000. Over the next few days, desperation and attempts to beg, steal and borrow yielded the possibility of $2000, which was not enough for the CED. Eventually, her stomach churning, she came to the realization that there was no way out of this.
She had purposefully not taken the pamphlet out of her bag, and it had ended up crumpled at the bottom. Still hoping that something might turn up, but more and more convinced that it wouldn’t, she took out the pamphlet, straightened it out as much as she could and began to read.
After going through the whole 16-page pamphlet, Marie had mixed feelings. Sure, it sounded completely horrible, but in a different way to what she thought. She won’t find herself at the mercy of violent offenders, or block dykes, or male guards touching her up. The facility she would be going to was only 2 years old, and looked clean, if basic, spartan and really secure.
She would have to report by 7pm on Friday night, and released at 7am on Monday, for 8 weekends. She bridled at losing so many weekends – she needs her rest after a hard week in the office – but was glad she could look after her kids in the week and hold on to her job. “This is really going to be bad, but you can get through it Marie” she told herself.
Boldened by that little motivational speech to herself, she put the pamphlet on the table, and started making calls to tell her friends and family what was going to happen and to make arrangements. Her friend Claire would come and water her plants and feed her cat, her ex-husband would have the kids Friday evening to Monday evening rather than Saturday to Sunday, and her place in the charity fun run would have to go to someone else.
Only when all these arrangements were in place did she break, and sobbed to herself, curling up on the couch. Ten minutes later, her kids came back from soccer practise, and she wiped away her tears to welcome them home. She wouldn’t tell them what was going on, though they sensed their Mommy was not her usual happy self.
That was Wednesday. Wednesday evening passed quickly, and Thursday passed even quicker. Friday was upon her. She left work at 5, picked the kids up from a neighbor, and went home. She had been told not to take anything to the jail that evening, so after the kids were picked up by their father, all she had to do was shower. She left her home at 6.10pm, and made the journey to the jail. 30 minutes later, she saw the jail come into view. It was huge, like an aircraft hangar, but much bigger. She was confused by the signs pointing in all sorts of direction, but eventually saw the sign for ‘INMATE PARKING’, which she simultaneously wanted to see, but also made her heart skip a beat. Was it dread, shame, nervousness? Maybe all three.
She parked her car, and followed the arrows on the tarmac to the inmate entrance. She couldn’t believe how many cars were in the car park, and how many women she saw walking towards the entrance. The building was large, but was it large enough to deal with all of them. Us, she corrected herself. She clutched the criminal record information sheet she had been told to bring, walked in, and joined the queue for the reception desk. The line was long, and she was worried she would miss the 7pm deadline. She was not the only one, and the concern led to an announcement that the deadline applied to entering the door, which she had done. Despite the length of the line, it moved quickly, and it became clear why as she moved towards the front. The desk guard simply scanned the criminal record information sheet, which led to a plastic bracelet being automatically printed, and placed around the wrist of the inmate. The inmate would then be directed past the desk into a corridor.
Marie’s heartbeat grew faster as she neared the front of the queue. Eventually she was at the desk, and faced impatient, barked orders from the official. “Record sheet” – at which Maria hurriedly handed the official – who had her hand outstretched and impatient – the sheet. It was scanned, and her bracelet was printed off. “Gimme your left hand.” So Maria tentatively held out her left hand, which the official grabbed, and in a practised motion strapped the bracelet on. “OK, you’re in the system, head into the corridor and place your right hand in a cuff, next please.”
Maria wanted to ask exactly what she meant, but the demeanour and tone of the official put her off asking any questions, so she just walked, not knowing what to expect, past the desk and into the corridor. In the strip-lit corridor, she saw the same women who had been in the queue in front of her, now in another queue. Looking at the wall opposite, she now realized what the official had meant. At waist-height on the wall was a horizontal metal bar, with a single handcuff hanging down from it every two feet or so. The women in the queue in front were cuffed, the chain leading into the metal bar.
She was apprehensive about putting the cuff on – not only had she never been cuffed before, she worried that she would get it wrong and somehow be punished for it. She didn’t really want to ask the other women, so she just walked over, picked up the next free cuff, looked at how the women in front had put it on, and the opened the cuff out, placed her wrist inside, and moved the arm down until she heard a click. Then, concerned that it might be too loose, she tightened it. Not having shut a handcuff before, she tightened it too much, but soon learnt that once it was tightened, it wasn’t going to loosen without a key, however much she tugged at it. She could feel the cuff digging into her wrist, but she couldn’t do anything about. Pretty soon she worked out that if she stopped struggling against it, it wouldn’t stop hurting, but it would subside to a dull throb.
To try and take her mind off the tight cuff, she followed the chain. It led into the metal bar, and ended in a large ball bearing. She supposed that this allowed the handcuff to move along the bar without being pulled out of it, which was confirmed when the queue in front of her moved, and she moved with it, inching the ball along inside the bar. Her curiosity satisfied, she decided to take a look at the bracelet. It wasn’t a flimsy thing, not like the bracelets they put on you at the hospital. It was made of a tough but flexible kind of plastic, and was laminated. It contained a picture of her, which she thought they must have got from her driving license. It included details of her sentence, a couple of lines containing a code she didn’t understand, and various measurements, such as her height, waist size, hip size, bust size, leg length, and weight. It also included her hair color.
While wondering about how they got this information, and not liking the fact that this personal information was displayed on the seemingly unremovable bracelet for anyone to see, she couldn’t help but think to herself as she looked over it, “Huh, not bad for a Mom of two!” She had always looked after herself, and had always had a good figure. Never stunningly attractive or tightly toned, she had always been good looking. Her shoulder length brown hair was lustrous, and her classical womanly figure had been enhanced by her two pregnancies, which increased the size of her breasts and emphasized her hips. She had avoided easily visible stretchmarks across her torso, and the only signs that she had been pregnant were the barely noticeable stretchmarks on her breasts, and the less than tight skin across her belly.
She was self-conscious about this though, and it was with mounting dread that she saw the queue move ever forward, and towards a door marked ‘INMATE INTAKE’. Marie had read the pamphlet, and knew that meant that she would shortly have to bare herself in front of strangers, and submit to a search. Moving forwards was a struggle, as she often needed to wiggle the chain of the cuff about to move the ball inside the bar forwards, and each time she did this, her right wrist and hand throbbed harder. It didn’t help that her heart was beating so fast she could hear it. Finally, she reached the front, and a guard removed the cuff, and moved it round the corner. She instinctively grabbed her red raw wrist, indented from the several minutes it had been cut into by metal. Still rubbing her wrist, she walked forwards, paused for a moment, and then pushed the door open.