By: Karla Fetrow
Prelude to Criminal Justice
It’s a crime to be an Alaskan. It’s an even greater crime to be an Alaskan with outspoken political views; or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a crime to be an ordinary Alaskan, living by Alaskan life styles that aren’t particularly ordinary by urbanized or mainstream standards. There was, after all the case of the sixty-one year old fisherman who was mauled and manhandled last year by federal agents for fishing in waters he had come to regard as ye old fishing hole habitat, as he had returned to the same location year after year without divine or human intervention. It didn’t take an act of Congress, but it did take an act by the Senate to release him, when our history making Senator, Lisa Murkowski, who regained her seat on a no-party, write in ticket, intervened.
Maybe that’s the rub. The federals have been having a field day intervening with Alaskan lives, ever since they whisked away several of our legislators on charges of accepting bribes from unscrupulous oil lobbyists. Perhaps our legislators were rather unscrupulous as well. After all, it’s not very conscientious to base your policy making on gifts, yet if that was the primary concern of federal motivation, wouldn’t the entire government structure of corporate special interests have been torn down? While shame and blame, finger-pointing, whispers and innuendos shocked the world of Alaskan politics, investigations into corruption barely made a ripple in the Continental United States, firmly in bed with their own gift bearing lobbyists. It seems, more than anything, a case of special prosecution.
These were the muses running through my head when I was picked up at my work place, in full view of a number of regular, store attending customers, my boss and fellow employees, on charges that were as yet unclear to me. The charges, I was finally told, were fourth degree misconduct involving a controlled substance. This did not enlighten me greatly. I had not staggered around in public in an alcoholic stupor, basked in a poisonous conglomeration of chemicals constituting bathtub meth-amphetamines, , hyped myself on cocaine or heroin, or even indulged in pharmaceutical drugs. In fact, I don’t find any of the above mentioned indulgences very pleasurable. What I do enjoy is marijuana, which I began smoking at the age of twenty when I discovered its affects had the tendency to stimulate my mind, allowing free flowing thought when I write. Like so many people who gravitate toward the arts, it became my tool, my instant inspiration for creativity. Cheat mode or not, it was my single drug indulgence, if you don’t count the more subtle influences of caffeine, sugar, chocolate and tobacco.
Throughout my years, I felt I had conducted myself quite well, if not always within the boundaries of the politically correct. At sixty-one, I had virtually no police record, had worked voluntarily for a number of community services, including environmental protection programs, advocacy against domestic violence, minority rights activism, and had opened my door to a number of homeless victims even though my own home, by any sense of the word, was poverty level. Within this poverty, alleviated only by owning the land I sit on through inheritance, I had single handedly raised two children who grew up to become law abiding citizens, had an excellent job record, and was respected and cared for by my community. I had accumulated no debts, and never borrowed money I couldn’t pay back. I was just a little surprised to learn my conduct had received a disapproval rating.
The surprise did not end there. The police officers, who had been hitherto quite courteous, allowing me liberal use of the phones to announce to all who might possibly afford it, that my bail had been set at five thousand dollars, cash or credit, became increasingly irritable to discover I knew nobody who could cough up that much ransom on such short notice. They gave me a breathalyzer test, which they declared was point zero nine; a physically impossible feat since I very rarely drink at all and during my work hours is not one of those rareties, but seeing as how their hospitable nature had dwindled, I shrugged it off. When I balked at receiving a DNA testing however, my glasses, which I need to see much of anything at all, were ripped from my head, and I was thrown in a solitary holding cell. It was then that I came to the conclusion that my sudden unpopularity had to do with my outspoken political activism. Sitting on the concrete floor, with still no clue as to why the federal magic godfather had gone poof and converted me to a felon, I took notice that the large, round drainage seal made an excellent drum. I tapped it. The sound made a wonderful echo that bounced throughout the cell, and, I suspected, beyond. With the palms of my hands, I began tapping out a beat that nearly shook the walls with its compounded resonance, and began chanting alternatively, “the government is a sociopath”, and “we are the ninety-nine percent”. After about two hours of this, the weary officials in charge of keeping lawless disorder told me if I would just be quiet awhile, they would begin processing me.
I had no real desire for processing, but since it was apparent this was going to happen at some date, I quieted down, waiting to see what would happen next. What happened next was a very unpleasant strip search that required you to expose every inch of your body, from lifting your boobs and belly flap, to spreading your butt cheeks. I learned over the next few weeks that this was customary practice, even when transferring prisoners from one jail cell to the next. How a person is supposed to acquire illegal contraband in the transit from a holding cell to a correctional institute, but logic and reason are not among the strong points of law enforcement. Embarrassment and humiliation, however, is.
Having complied with the obligations of baring my advanced middle aged body and transferring from street clothes to felon yellow, I was then given a seat where a psychiatrist proceeded to ask a few preliminary questions. “Are you married?” No. “Do you have children?” Yes. “Are you depressed?” Of course I’m depressed, I answered, eager to ask him how he would feel if he had been abruptly removed from his place of work and shuttled to a jail cell without explanation, but I didn’t get a chance. It was the wrong answer. I was immediately wrestled from my chair by two International Wrestling Championship policemen, and thrown back in my holding cell. Another long wait while they stewed over the information that of course I had just become severely depressed. Apparently, I was supposed to accept my condition as cheerfully as if I had been invited along on a picnic.
After another long interval, when it became obvious I was not going to apologize for my depression, they finally released me from my solitary confinement and placed me in a cell with three other girls. We were each given a mat and a blanket, and squeezed together on the small floor space to sleep. In the morning, we were each given an apple, a peanut butter sandwich and informed we would be appearing in court.
True to their word, about an hour after our generous meal, we were all handcuffed together and taken into a small room, where our rights were read to us from a television screen. More accurately, I assume our rights were read to us. I am severely hearing impaired and depend largely on reading lips to know what’s being said. Without my glasses, reading lips wasn’t very possible. After this brief formality, we were ushered into a court room, where each person was given five minutes of attention after our overnight detention. The various charges for the various culprits went by my head in a monotonous blur, something like the “blah, blah” spoken by adults in a Peanuts cartoon. When it came to my turn, I had to be nudged before I understood my name had been called. The judge said something. I answered, “With all due respect, your honor, I can’t hear you. Neither can I see you because my glasses were taken away.”
After indicating I should be equipped with ear phones, the judge told me, “I’m sorry to hear that,” although he did not order my glasses returned. He then went on to tell me I had been charged with five counts of miscellaneous misconduct of a controlled substance.
“Understand,” he added cautiously. “At this time, these are just allegations. Is there anything you’d like to say on your behalf?”
“I’d like my glasses returned,” I answered. “I’d like a bail reduction hearing. I want a copy of the police report, and I want an attorney.”
Agreeing an attorney would be assigned to me, he ordered me to remain in custody and return to court the following day. I was then returned to another holding cell with the three other girls, all in felon yellow, and given another peanut butter sandwich and an apple. By now, I had gotten used to waiting, so was a little surprised when within an hour or so, we were all filed out, handcuffed together once more and placed in a police van. More surprising, our escorts were remarkably polite. They gently helped me up into the van and informed me I was going to the Highland Correctional Facility. I didn’t know it at the time, but Highland is the Hilton of Alaskan jails.
I wasn’t sure just what to make of our genteel company. Cops are supposed to be brutal, right? And the ones in Anchorage had certainly exceeded all expectations. But these were just people; kindly, soft-spoken, with the manners you would expect from the deacons at a church supper. Once again I was helped gently out of the van and marched chain linked into a carpeted hallway, where one by one we were once again strip searched and given a clean set of yellow hospital scrubs. I’m not sure what possesses them to do this, but the assigned clothing is always two sizes too big. I had to roll up the waist of the pants to keep them from falling, roll up the cuffs to keep from treading on them, my shirt came down nearly to my knees, my shoes had two inches of toe space in front of them…. but I wasn’t complaining. The benches were wood, the walls were paneled, there was an actual feeling of space; even light and airiness. When I was given my bedding and extra set of clothing, I asked the guard in attendance, “may I please have my glasses.”
“Of course,” she said pleasantly. Within five minutes, they were in my hands. I put them on eagerly, blinked and said involuntarily, “why, you’re a nice looking woman”.
She seemed as surprised as I was for having said that, but it was true. She was pretty, somewhat tall, her hair pulled back in a dark pony tail, soft, large eyes, and the kind of nice, round little butt men liked to look at. Even a police uniform was unable to diminish her attractiveness. Unbelievably, along with my glasses, she also handed me my police report.
Before being assigned rooms, we were taken to the cafeteria to eat our first real meal since our confinement. Wonder of wonders! The cafeteria was large, well ventilated, with enormous bay windows. Outside the windows was a pavilion with benches and several dogs romping and playing at the end of leashes led by other inmates. Inside the cafeteria was a soda fountain, with four different drink choices. The other girls and I looked at each other with amazement. Free sodas! We filled our cups eagerly, wondering just how many free sodas we were entitled to, but deciding not to press our luck, and settled for one. I could have sat in the cafeteria for hours, just basking in the warm sunlight that streamed in through the windows, but after twenty minutes, we were instructed to follow our escorts to our assigned rooms. We were each given a key.
There was very little about the compound that resembled a jail; no concrete, no bars, no thick sliding doors. In fact, it most resembled the dormitories for a college campus, or a place where people paid twenty bucks a night to attend a seminar. The buildings were all built of wood, attractively shaped, with a ribbon of sidewalk and overhead roofing attaching one to another. Inside each complex was a large day room where telephone calls were made, meetings and mail call took place, and the comings and goings of the other inmates were monitored. At the four corners of the day room were the individual “houses”, each with ten bedrooms containing two bunks apiece.
My “house” wasn’t like anything I would expect from a jail. The central room contained a table, several comfortable, stuffed chairs, two matching sofas, a television set with cable access, a small refrigerator and a microwave oven. I stepped inside my new living quarters timidly. “Welcome,” said one of the girls jovially. “What’s your number?”
I looked at my key. “Room seven.”
“That’s Stephanie’s room. She’ll take care of you.”
That she did. Stephanie was a sweet, smiling Yu’pik girl serving eighty days for drinking and driving with a minor in the car. It may have been very poor judgment to get behind a wheel while inebriated, but in every other sense of the word, she was a saint. As soon as she learned I was deaf, she took it upon herself to be my guide and interpreter. She let me know when it was time to leave for a meal, when my name had been called, when it was time to return to our rooms for count, when it was time to turn in our laundry for fresh clothing and bedding. She taught me the ropes.
That night, after settling in, I finally read the police report and the great electric light bulb in my head switched on. I couldn’t believe it. I had been betrayed by someone I had thought was my friend. I had been set up and though her name had been carefully deleted from the report, I knew exactly who it was.
To be continued