Sometimes you just have to write…
Today my students and I were treated to an introduction to Skagit County’s legal system by one of their public defenders. After an introduction to what his job entails, we were allowed to go to one of the courtrooms to observe the proceedings.
There wasn’t a court case in session, but rather a series of bureaucratic procedures. Some prisoners were brought in to enter their pleas and to set trial dates. One lawyer was there with her client, whose mobile phone had been taken when he was arrested, asking for the phone to be released because it contained texts that would help his defense. One convicted sex offender was there to ask permission to see his son under supervision.
This was a remarkably casual courtroom session. Between cases, lawyers lounged around and practically constantly conversed with each other in low voices, even when cases were being heard. A prosecutor or defense attorney would make a short statement and then a period of several minutes would pass while the judge read papers or his computer screen, or an attorney spoke with the prisoner, or piles of papers were read and signed. People came and went seemingly randomly.
What struck me most, though, was the appearance of the prisoners. They were all dressed in “prison reds,” a top that looked like a doctor’s scrubs, except in red, and a loose-fitting pair of pants that looked like pajama bottoms, also red. Each was shackled, with a big linked chain around his waist and his wrists, so that his hands were of necessity crossed in front of his waist. One tried but struggled to shake hands with his lawyer, but was unable to lift his hand enough to reach, forcing the lawyer to reach to his waist and simply clasp hands with him.
They entered the room one at a time, and each was shown out before the next was called. Once they came in, they stood with their backs to us, so that we really only got a good look at their backs. Many had tattoos on their necks or arms. One had a tattoo of his name across his head, visible because his hair was a very short stubble. Their ages ranged from early 20’s to middle-aged, and their sizes tended toward bulky and muscular. They were all either white or Latino.
The fact that they were in prison reds and shackles somehow made them look abject, but also dangerous, scary. I suppose the idea that they have to be chained implies that otherwise they would be inclined to violence or to attempt to escape. Yet only a few of them had confessed guilt. These could be perfectly innocent men, but by presenting them this way, they seem guilty.
When each short “case” was finished, the prisoner was escorted back to the heavy, locked metal door where they had first entered. And every one of the prisoners took that moment to stop and look at the room, the audience of sorts, that they’d had their backs to while their case was happening. They either scowled or looked completely blank. Perhaps it was just the uniform and the chains, but to me they looked hard and mean.
As they looked toward us, each one seemed to be searching for someone. One, I noticed, did catch a glimpse of someone he knew, presumably his father, sitting down the row from me. The rest seemed to search in vain. We – the students and I – made up most of the audience, yet the prisoners searched. What were they hoping for? Just a familiar face? A way to escape? Or was it just curiosity as to who would bother to observe this court session?
One, almost the last one before the lunch adjournment, looked not once, but three times. It had just been decided that he would be released on his own recognizance pending his trial date. Perhaps he was looking for someone he knew who he expected to come and pick him up. But all three times he focused for more than a second or two on one of the students who was sitting behind me. Did he think he knew her? Was he checking and double-checking to see if she was who he thought he recognized? Did he find her attractive, and that’s why he looked so long? Certainly the student was “creeped out” at this attention. Given that this man was going to be released, should we have worried?