The 72-Hour Trial
The banging pierced the cold, dark cell like gunshots in the night. My groggy eyes opened to the blast of light that immediately followed—the light at the end of the tunnel. It was as if everything in the world was backwards: thunder first, then lightning. The guard made it a point to keep that flashlight on my face, relishing the moment.
“Seventeen cell, you got court today,” he said while opening my gate.
“They didn’t tell me I had court today,” I half-moaned, hoping he had the wrong cell listed. ”I went yesterday.”
Looking at his clipboard, he took a few seconds to match number to number to date. “You zero-five-A-two-nine-two-five?”
“Yeah, that’s me—I mean my number. But I ain’t got no court today,” I mumbled towards the bright light, not seeing the voice behind it, as if I was speaking to God in all his splendor.
“Well, I got you on the list. You got five minutes to get ready,” he responded, lowering his clipboard and continuing down the hall with his keys rattling in the distance as if laughing for getting the last word.
Shit. Another day of this. I wasn’t even allowed to shower the night before because we got back so late. If I got three hours of sleep, I would be surprised. There was no way to undress, shower, redress, and be ready before the escorting guards arrived.
The hard, twin-sized bed never felt so comfortable. My body was attached to it like it was an extension of it. The sheet that was supposed to lie on top of it was riddled with holes: wear from aging, tears from pulling, and cigarette bums from the previous owners. I was able to feel the cold plastic covering through the holes.
My mind kept telling the body to move, but it was hard for it to budge. I first took out one leg, then the other. Then I used both legs as leverage to pull my entire torso into a sitting position.
When I was able to sit on the side of the bed, I was slapped on the side of my face by the cold draft streaming in from the window. That damn window refused to fully shut because of debris blocking its way. The metal mesh prevented me from cleaning the trash, but allowed me to see the faded wrappers and leaves that had perpetually teased me. The toilet and its metallic surface—frozen by the window’s cold assault—didn’t get along with my butt. Even taking a piss was painful; my balls and junk hid inside my body like a turtle in its shell.
The metallic “mirror” without a single unscratched surface refused to let me see my own face. I could’ve had streams of eye-boogers in the corners of my eyes, but I had no way of noticing—a little splash of cold water and hope was all I could provide myself.
I had an option: either wear the three-piece suit that hadn’t been washed after a five-month stint going to court, or the blue jeans and beige sweater I just used as pajamas. My lawyer had suggested that I dress in a ‘presentable’ fashion for the judge, but neither option could be considered so. The suit—though lawyerly looking—could be smelled from about ten feet away. The jeans and sweater were wrinkly and casual, but relatively clean. I hadn’t completely lost my dignity at that time, so I chose the wrinkly pajamas.
I quickly brushed my teeth with the standard-issue, short-handled, toy toothbrush that required your fingers to enter your mouth if you wanted to reach the back teeth. The toothpaste worked by the placebo effect: it made you feel that you were cleaning your mouth, but only made it worse. It was of no surprise why guys weren’t amused by each other’s words, and how much easier it was to punch each other in the mouth instead of having morning conversations.
Before I even rinsed my trap, I heard the approach of the guard’s keys down the hallway, and the half-asleep/half-dead entourage of inmates behind him. I swiftly grabbed my legal work and a book, ran out the cell, and joined the procession. I was taking a risk by bringing my book to court—some guards would confiscate them. It was a “law” I had to break.
The long walk to the holding cells for court added hundreds of people to the march. Every housing unit we passed sent their detainees as if they were emissaries of their locations. The guys from the detox units were distant and smelled like piss, shit, cigarettes, dirty laundry, or a combination of these. The adolescents’ quad unleashed the bulk of noise—the Bloods, the Crips, and the ensuing beefs.
At the end of our procession, multiple groups from all corners of the facility converged in what was dubbed ‘Times Square.’ In the center sat a guard with a long list of names on a small desk. He made no effort to project his voice when calling numbers, forcing everyone to shut up and listen. If you were lucky, you were one of the first to be called. If not, then you would remain standing for a while; it looked like a scene from Schindler’s List.
As the guard called numbers, I was distracted by the bulletin boards and posters lining the walls. Suicide Prevention Guidelines, said one, with a long list of telltale signs of someone undergoing suicidal ideation. Beware of inmates unexpectedly giving away their property was telltale number one. It never dawned on them that we really had no “property” to give. Another poster advocated safe sex with the picture of a smiling couple, the word AIDS in big red letters, and a condom over the letter “I.” I thought of asking the guard for information on where in that all-male facility I could obtain some Trojans, but I didn’t dare.
After being called, I had to be searched before entering the bullpen. I hid my book inside the big legal envelope, hoping it eluded the censor, and then placed it on top of the conveyor-belt X-Ray machine. I had to take off my shoes, my belt, and put the contents of my pockets into a bucket for inspection. Then I had to pray for the metal detector not to ring as I passed through. If it did, it only meant on thing: strip search. The lucky person had to get completely naked, turn around, bend at the waist, spread the buttocks and make the sphincter smile for the guard—all in front of the other prisoners.
I slowly approached that machine like Marie Antoinette going to the guillotine. The only metal objects on me were the zipper and button from my pants, but the metal-detector was known to beep at the slightest agitation. If you walked through it too slowly, zippers and buttons could make it ring; if you walked through it too fast, the air displacement would make it move and scream. Inmates joked that the machine would not ring if you passed through with happy thoughts.
I walked through at normal speed and safely made it to the other side. I quickly picked up my property and jetted towards the bullpen. But I noticed the stare of one ofthe guards through my peripheral vision, and just as I was about to turn the corner for the Manhattan court-bound bullpen, he called me back. “What’s in the envelope?”
“My legal work,” I quickly said, looking at him directly in the eyes and continuing on to my bullpen as if I had all the right in the world. He was about to say something else when the metal detector started going crazy, and his attention went immediately to a better victim—nothing like staring at another man’s puckering asshole in the morning.
When I went into the bullpen, I quickly scanned the surroundings. I didn’t have any beef with anyone, but I still had to go through this ritual. Looking around at people made you look confident and as if you’ve been doing this for a while, even if you were really shitting yourself. The last thing you wanted to do in Riker’ s Island was avert your vision and go into the bullpen staring at the floor—seasoned vultures would deduce that you were either a pedophile, bitch, or snitch. All three designations could spell out more problems.
The tightly packed bullpen left little room for comfort. Benches were seldom empty for sitting. The walls were always decorated with bodies, as if guys were already conditioned to form a line-up for the witnesses. The guards always had to yell by the entrance over the human fence made by men eagerly waiting to be called. If you needed to take a piss, good luck: the toilet was always clogged and always smelled like you were already pissing in it. If you wanted to take a dump, you had to be prepared to give everyone a graphic, X-rated lesson on how the last phase of the digestive system works: the toilet was right in the open. There were groups of smokers on all corners, but no open windows. Once in a while, a guard would run into the bullpen making threats and demanding to know who’s smoking, as if someone was going to tell him. When he left, the smoke came back.
We had to wait until the individual court buses arrived. There was one bus for each of the five boroughs. If you were lucky, the drivers for your borough got there early. Every time a bus arrived, guys would rush to the window to look at who the drivers were. “That’s Gutierrez, the Bronx driver!” someone would yell, and all the Bronx people would get excited and celebrate. They embraced their fetters, shackles and chains as if they were made of gold. “Thank you for comin’ early, Mr. G. We ain’t tryin’ to stay in no damn bullpen for the whole mornin’ like yesterday,” one of the men would say, while Gutierrez grunted and wrapped him in iron.
After about an hour of waiting, the Manhattan bus came for me. As they called names, I was quickly measuring who was a bearable person to be cuffed next to on the bus ride. Anyone from the mental health unit was automatically disqualified because of their smelliness. The methadone-infused, detox guys were too restless and unpredictable. The adolescents were usually rowdy, so I would only sit next to one if my left hand was shackled, that way my right arm was free to defend myself if he got stupid. The ideal shackle-mate would be someone from the “normal” quads where I locked, but they weren’t many.
I was partnered with an adolescent. I immediately went first to the guard and offered my left wrist. The kid didn’t look like a threat, but he was a member of the Bloods. The three fresh cigarette burns on the top of his hand made it evident that he was recently initiated—probably there in Riker’s. I wondered if he had any brothers and sisters who looked up to him. Did his parents know he joined a gang? Did he even have parents? He had the small frame of a sixteen-year-old and was probably still battling with puberty. His pants were about three sizes too big, and his red hoodie almost reached his knees. He didn’t smell, but he was unkempt, as if his mama was the only person who was able to fix him up. “You a homie?” he asked me while getting cuffed, as if the guard didn’t understand what he was asking.
“Nah,” I responded while keeping a straight face—stern, but non-defiant.
We walked outside in lockstep. My left leg was fettered to his right leg with a chain that was no more than two feet long. If our legs didn’t move in the same direction simultaneously, then the cuffs around our ankles would send a jolt of paint. His short socks below the ankle made it clear that he was a new jack, for it was wise to wear long, thick socks to soften the discomfort. When I noticed he was not paying attention to his walking rhythm, I alerted him by giving a slight yank.
The sky was dark, with only a hint of dawn in the horizon. It must’ve been around six in the morning. The silence was interrupted by the clash of metal chains and concrete sidewalk as we marched to the bus. These few seconds were the only time during the past few days that I was able to breathe in cool, unadulterated air. I inhaled so deeply that my lungs received a sting of pain: they were unused to purity.
The bus was similar to a yellow school bus: it had the same shape, the same entrance, and the same double tows of seats, but once you got inside, you noticed the abundance of metal. The windows were covered with metal fencing. The back was enclosed by a metal gate. The seats were metal with no seat belts. No seatbelts. An accident while we raced down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway meant an assured, metallic death, and about twenty less dregs for law-abiding citizens to worry about.
We were the first facility to be picked up, which meant we could pick our own seats. The safest seats were in the back—no danger sitting behind you. The kid wanted the front seats close to the exit, but he accepted my reasoning and followed me to the last row. We sat on the left side so that he could be distracted by the window, and I could read my book.
When the bus finished picking up all the inmates, they shut us all in the back and picked up their guns from the armory. They made sure to insert the bullets in the magazines, slide the magazines inside the gun, and cock the guns in front of their captive audience as if expecting our applause for a stellar performance.
They required total silence on this trip. If they heard talking, they turned off the radio and wouldn’t turn it on for the rest of the trip. This frequently caused problems amongst those who preferred to talk and those who wanted to hear HOT97; I preferred neither, so I didn’t care. “Yo, if they turn off the radio ’cause ya niggas can’t shut the fuck up, I’ma hurt somebody!” was the reply from the back when the guards started complaining about the noise.
By the time we arrived in downtown Manhattan, the sun was greeting us and the people were moving along to their jobs. Passersby would stare at the fortified bus, but quickly looked away when they noticed the occupants. They didn’t want to acknowledge we existed. We moved through the tiny side streets in Chinatown until we snuck through the back of 100 Centre Street: the Manhattan Supreme Court building. Little old Chinese ladies were always doing some type of aerobic exercise in the park outside of the court, and a clown or two from within the bus always made it a point to scream inappropriate stuff at them.
When we were unloaded from the bus, the classification process began again. The Manhattan court building had many floors, so the guards had to determine where we belonged. When they removed the cuffs and shackles, a few detectives were waiting for my shackle-mate, and they immediately re-cuffed and shackled him by himself. He was probably taken for a line-up in a precinct. I never saw him again.
We were then escorted from bull-pen to bull-pen until we reached the holding area right outside of our assigned courtroom. The bull-pen I was held in was on the 12th floor and had a decent view of the downtown skyline. Even though I was kept there for most of the day, there was usually enough space to sit, and it was too risky for the smokers to spread their nicotine—no poisoning for a few hours.
As I was lost in the world the novel created for me while I read, a figure stopped in front of the gate. “So are you taking the plea deal or not?” said my lawyer, ruffling through the stacks of papers he was always carrying.
I put down my book and stared at him. “What are they offering now?” I asked, knowing what the answer was.
“Look, we’ve been through this already,” he said. “The D.A. isn’t going below the fourteen years. Either you take it, or you’re going to trial.”
“Then I’ll go to trial,” I responded in defiance. “How the hell you expect me to cop out to fourteen years for assault when I didn’t even kill anybody? I’ll be in my thirties when I get out. My parents may die while I’m in here!”
“Well, if you want to go to trial, so be it. But I must warn you,” he said, while keeping a stern face, “if you go to trial, not only are they finding you guilty, but the judge’s going to give you the max: 20 years!” He lowered his stack of papers and got closer to the bars. “Let me also remind you that you’ll be going to trial with a legal aid lawyer because your parents can only afford me for pre-trial hearings. If you want me to go to trial with you, that’s another ten grand.”
He went in his briefcase, pulled out a stack of papers, and handed them to me. “Those are Rodolfo’s medical records,” he said with a defeated demeanor. “No prosecutor is going to be lenient on you when your victim is paralyzed from the waist down.”
I looked at papers with the outline drawing of a human figure. It was broken in sections going down from the upper spine to the bottom. I didn’t understand what all the numbers at the top meant, but the lower limbs indicated only one number: zero. Somewhere laying on a bed was another man who couldn’t walk because of me. He and his drunk friends who thought I was sleeping with one of their ex-girlfriends used me as their punching bag, but I used him as a prop for target practice in response. What I thought was a self-defense action was suddenly shattered by my lawyer’s revelation.
Even though I would later find out then man I shot was not paralyzed—he walked inside the court on sentencing day—my lawyer took all the air out of me. As my eyes were fixed on the medical papers, my mind went elsewhere. Paralyzed? Unable to walk? Unable to have sex? Unable to work, run, play, or swim? The papers became a blur, then I noticed it was from my tears. Had I really done this?
“Denis,” my lawyer said, bringing me back to reality, “keep those records and think about your plea deal. I’m going to go in there, fight the best I can, and get another court date—nothing more. You must have an answer next time we’re down here.”
As if on cue, the court officer indicated that I was next in the court. They put the shackles on me and walked me inside the courtroom. I looked to my right to see if I could spot my family, but I didn’t see them. From somewhere in the back, I did hear my mom acknowledging that she was there, somewhere in the back.
I was brought down to my seat next to my lawyer and right in front of the judge. They began to speak in codes and numbers. I looked around the courtroom with frustration. Except for key words, everyone seemed to speak Chinese.
“The defendant’s heinous actions counter the mores of society,” declared the prosecutor, but what did that mean in English? I knew he was talking trash about me, because that’s what he always did.
“Your honor, I object to the irrelevancy of such observations about my client,” countered my lawyer. Whatever that meant, it sounded great for my defense. I leaned toward him as far as the heavy iron shackles allowed me.
“Mr. Frankel, what did you just say?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you later. Let me focus on this hearing first,” he mumbled, annoyed as he usually was when I asked him questions.
His explanation never came; I had to figure it out myself again.
Sometimes I wondered if I was really the subject of these hearings; everyone in the court seemed to know what was going on except for me. The judge handed out decrees while everyone wrote. The court officers moved immediately after being addressed. The court people behind the judge passed him the right documents when called upon. Even the mean lady typing in the little typewriting thingy didn’t skip a beat as she glared at me with a nasty look. Although by this time I was a foreign-born teenager with about ten years of experience with English, their words were just as foreign to me as when I first arrived to the U.S.
“Mr. Martinez, your discretionary grace period ends the next time we convene,” said the judge while looking directly at me for the first time. “At that point, I expect your resolution to the plea bargain. If not, then you must arrange counsel for your imminent trial. Do you comprehend?” No I don’t! I thought, while looking at the judge in terror.
“Just say ‘yes,'” my lawyer whispered to me.
“Yes,” I immediately parroted to the judge.
The judge scowled as he looked at me. “You address me as ‘Your Honor’ or ‘Judge’; you are not my peer. Court’s dismissed.”
He had not finished talking when I felt a bunch of hands around my shoulders and arms picking me up from my seat. Reluctantly, I glanced at my mom as I was led out of the courtroom like a captured beast and saw the confusion and tears streaming down her face. By the wet marks on her blouse, I knew she had been crying all day. This recurring image of my mom would haunt me like no other punishment I would face.
Besides the language gap between us, I realized how different I was from the people in court. They all seemed to be peers and I wasn’t. They had tailored Brooks Brothers suits with expensive watches to match. They stared at me, laughed and giggled as they made jokes I couldn’t understand.
I hated the court people. They were privileged, silver spoon fed, and worry-free. They spoke about me and were delighted to know that I would be judged harshly on sentencing day. At the end of the day, they were able to drive home to their nice homes while I was dragged through darkened tunnels on a chain-gang to a 6’x9′ cell. Destiny favored them, but hated me.
As I entered the outgoing bullpen, I was told I had just missed the afternoon bus, which meant I had to wait until the night bus. My legs couldn’t take any more fatigue, so immediately tried searching for a place to sit in the crowded bullpen, but to no avail. I noticed that some homeless-looking guys made cardboard beds and went to sleep right under the benches without a care in the world. There was a space big enough for me, but no cardboards or bags. I closed my eyes, inhaled, exhaled, and crept underneath the benches. I noticed a fragment of a page from a porno mag and prayed that there wasn’t a money-shot accompanying it down there. I swept the cigarette butts, pieces of bread, and candy wrappers with my sleeves the best I could, but it was only to show that I still had some dignity left; I didn’t really care. I slept on that floor like a professional bum, covered by the legs of those sitting on top of me.
* * *
We returned to Riker’s Island very late. The officer on my housing unit only frowned and didn’t even respond when I asked for a shower. He brought me to my cell and slammed my gate shut with all his strength. I threw my legal work on the corner, took off my shoes, and dropped on the bed like a sack of potatoes. As tired as I was, I couldn’t go to sleep as quickly as I needed. I kept running the day’s events through my mind. I had to decide whether I wanted to spend the next fourteen years behind bars. I didn’t know what time I went to sleep.
In the middle of the night, as I was finally able to sleep soundly, I was awakened by screams. “Seventeen cell! SEVENTEEN CELL!!!”
Without opening my eyes to welcome the flashlight flooding my cell, I opened my mouth. “Yeah?”
“Get up, you have court today. They’ll pick you up in a few minutes.”
I didn’t answer him. If I did, I don’t remember. I do remember crying in the dark. Crying it all out before I left my cell. I cried just for the sake of crying, for it was one of the few things left that I would have the power to do for the next fourteen years.