Hold the Gate….

This is a familiar phrase for anyone who visits Florida jails or prisons.  It means that the exit gates and doors are locked shut as there are inmates walking past.

Its 8am, and as I walk though the gate into the elevator lobby in the Pre-trial Detention Center in Miami, I  hear the familiar phrase and a line of inmates in Orange shuffle past me, handcuffed in two’s and shackled to the inmates in front.  They are all on their way to court.  Some say ‘Good morning Miss’, others nod at me or smile, others keep their heads down or eyes straight ahead.  These are usually the inmates who are new to the system, and who cannot grasp what is going on around them.

This part of the jail is mainly metal gates, the lobby echoes, and with all these inmates and the corrections officers directing them, the sound is deafening.  I get the nod from the front office, the interview room on the floor I need to visit is free, I can go up.  Despite the fact the room is full of shackled inmates, with no space to squeeze around the edge of them, I will not miss the opportunity to get into an interview room, there are only one or two on each floor and  as the day progresses they will become more in demand.  I eye up a couple of inmates who have nodded to me and said ‘Good Morning’ to me.

“Excuse me lads, you couldn’t just crouch down so that I can jump over your chains could you?”  They oblige and I skip over their chains and head for he lift.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no illusions that all inmates will be nice to me, and I will never duck under the chains, as it would be all too easy for an inmate to loop that chain around my neck.  For the very same reason I will not sit in an interview room with an inmate who is handcuffed (inmates are handcuffed to the front), although I believe I have a good gauge of my defendants, and have never had a client, either in England or anywhere else, make a move on me, I don’t want to be in a 6′ x 6′ locked room with an inmate who has a metal strangulation method on their wrists, everyone has bad days..

The inmate I am going to see is charged with capital murder, but is not considered to be a high risk, and so is on one of the less violent floors.  He is based in a pen with 23 other inmates.  The corrections officers know me as I regularly visit him and spend hours with him in interview.  They take my  badge and allow me to walk down to the pen gate.  Before I can yell to my inmate, others have seen me coming and have already called him.  The rules don’t allow me to stand at the gate and talk to the inmates, but it doesn’t prevent me from taking a very slow walk back to the interview room whilst chatting to the inmates who have come to the penn gate.  To many, this is the only contact they get with someone who is not a corrections officer or inmate.  Our conversations are like normal office talk ‘did you see the game last night?’ ‘Have you heard the new Usher track?’.

I wait in the interview room for my client to be brought in.  He is handcuffed and the first thing I ask is ‘Cuffs off please’.  The corrections officer is new, to the floor, I have not seen him before.  “I don’t know m’am.  Its for safety.”  he says.  I look at my client  “You aren’t scared of your safety with me in the room are you?”.  He laughs, and the guard takes the cuffs off.  I shake hands with the client and we sit.  There is just enough space for the table and two chairs, the room has windows on two sides and as we talk, the inmates outside preparing the lunch trays watch us.  They are ‘Trustees’ which means they have earnt the right to be out of their penn carrying out jobs.  Earning the right usually means they have behaved themselves, but it also means they have been in jail for a long time.  They know me and know better than to interrupt my interview by banging on the window, or trying to attract my attention, but they give a small wave and nod as they go past, and I return the same.

This client is one I first met two years ago, and I have spent a lot of time with him since.  He is charged with capital murder,

“How are you doing” I ask.

“Ok, there was a fight in the penn last night.  Dude got shanked, he was cut real bad”

“Who?”.  He tells me, and I recognize the name. An inmate who is a co defendant on one of my other cases.

“Can you find out how he is?”  Just as I think my client is feeling compassion for this inmate, he continues “cause he has a good bunk and if he ain’t coming back I want his bunk”.

“Wow you are all heart, you know that?”  I make it clear that I am not impressed with his lack of compassion.  He just nods.

We talk about things that have happened in the jail since my last visit and then we talk about  the specific element of his mitigation that I want to cover that day.  This client is not the easiest to obtain information from, not because he is not prepared to talk, but because his thought processes don’t work in a logical way.  I cannot ask direct questions as he either does not understand them or cannot think through the answers.  So I have to ask roundabout questions.  For example when I asked him ‘Did they cuff you to the back in the cop car?’ he didn’t know.  But when I said, think about sitting in the cop car, was it uncomfortable, did it hurt?’ he replied ‘yeah, as they had my hands cuffed behind my back so I couldn’t sit back’.  I have probably spent over 200 hours with this client, and from that have obtained the occasional chink of helpful information.  That is one of the benefits that  I can provide to the public defender’s office, as I am a volunteer, I  am not on the clock and can spend hours sitting talking to the clients, whereas my colleagues cannot justify doing so as they have so much other work to do.

We talk for about an hour and I manage to get a small amount of useful information from my client.  I always try to finish the interview on a positive note, rather than dwelling not he case, and this morning we talk about one of my recent escapades…

I bang on the window to let the corrections officers know I want to be released, but I am not sure that they hear me as they don’t make a move, so I catch the attention of the trustee and get him to let them know I want releasing.  I do often wonder, if my client were to start kicking off whether the corrections officers would notice in time to help, but fortunately I have never had that scenario.  I have had situations where I can see that a client is changing their demeanor (I have one client who hears the Devil every so often), and when that happens I decide it is time to go, the last thing I want is for my client to get in trouble because I have pushed his buttons too much.

As I leave the interview room I have a chat with the trustees, one of them wants to know whether I can teach him the rules of soccer.  “Another day’ Honey..’ I say as I get in the elevator.

The lift arrives in the lobby to another mass of orange, and the familiar ‘Hold the gate’.  Once again I am trapped in this noisy lobby with over 40 inmates.  One of them leers over towards me, I stand my ground…any sign of weakness can get a beating or a reputation of being scared…I want neither.  The line of shackles move off and the leering inmate moves forward and out of my way…

The gate is released and I can walk out into the sun and humidity of a Miami morning.  Every time I walk out of the jail I am eternally grateful that I have my freedom, and the humidity,  that I usually bitch about, is suddenly a great feeling.  I am aware that some of my clients have not had that feeling for the last 5 years, and may not get it again for a long time, and when they do, it will be in a yard surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers.

Since the Trevor McDonald programme I have been inundated with questions about my life with death row prisoners, and those in jail awaiting trial for capital cases and who may be ordered to face the death penalty.  This is the first in a series of blogs to explain the reality..which is nowhere near as glamorous and dramatic as the TV indicates.  This extract of a jail visit is made up of my experiences with different clients in order to protect and preserve their anonymity.

I am happy to answer questions about my work, but I will not under any circumstances provide any access to my clients, so please don’t ask me if you can interview my clients, visit my clients, interview me about my clients, or come with me on a visit to the jail or prisons because the answer will be a resounding ‘NO’ . These are peoples lives I am dealing with.  I am not a bleeding heart lawyer, I accept that some of my clients are guilty, and some are innocent, and that the guilty ones caused the death of another, often in horrific circumstances, but that does not make them a circus animal they are still entitled to the best representation, and I will do my utmost to protect them to make sure that there is a due process of law.

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About gurdena

Social Justice Lawyer, interested in all things contentious. Specialising in criminal law, and anything criminal justice related, also employment law. Door tenant at 1 Grays Inn Square chambers. Find out more at www.alisongurden.com

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