Illustrations by Deshi Deng

Jail Is Where You Don't Want to Be

Clancy Martin reflects on his seven times behind bars, from Dallas to Kansas City.

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Nov 14 2016, 12:00am

Illustrations by Deshi Deng

I didn't know why I had been arrested, and no one would tell me, but the really scary part happened when I was in the elevator with the guard on the way up to cell 5C. I was in my oranges and blue rubber flip-flops. I had my mattress under my arm. It was about 10 AM. I had been arrested in my apartment at dawn.

"What did you do?" the guard asked me. He looked at me with a mixture of skepticism and cautious respect. He was probably in his 50s, a bit pudgy, handsome, with closely cropped gray and brown hair.

"I'm not sure," I said. "I think it might have something to do with my old jewelry store."

A cop had been calling me from Arlington, Texas, where I had owned some jewelry stores with my two brothers. We had declared bankruptcy in one of the shops, and there were customers whose consignment pieces—in this case, a gaudy diamond engagement ring owned by an Arlington criminal defense attorney—were caught up in the chapter 11. I didn't know this at the time, but the angry criminal defense attorney had convinced a buddy of his in the police force and the DA to file theft charges against me and, subsequently, a fugitive warrant for my arrest. But standing in the elevator with the guard, all I knew was that some cop had been calling me from Arlington and leaving messages asking me to return his calls, which I hadn't returned—hoping, as I so often hoped back then, in my late 20s and early 30s, that somehow it would all just go away—and which, I could only suppose, led to the fact that two men pretending to be "checking on a gas leak" had pushed past my girlfriend1 at our front door, charged into our bedroom, pulled me out of bed, thrown me to the floor, and handcuffed me, while I asked if I could please put on my glasses and my girlfriend demanded to see the undercover cops' badges.

"Well, whatever you did, it must have been bad. I'm taking you to 5C. You won't last one night in 5C."

He was looking down at his clipboard as he said it. Then he looked up and gave me the odd, suppressed smile that people will give you when they are delivering news that is very bad for you but not for them. I wouldn't say it was a shitty smile, because I could tell he truly did feel worried for me. He wasn't reveling in my predicament. But he couldn't help himself. I've been there. I've smiled that smile at people many times.

"Then don't take me to 5C. Take me somewhere else. Please."

This was only my third time in jail—I had previously been in jail in Austin (age 22) and Dallas (age 29)—but I already knew that it was pointless to argue with a guard. "A prisoner... discovers the impossibility of his escape, as well when he considers the obstinacy of the gaoler, as the walls and bars with which he is surrounded," David Hume wrote in 1748, "and, in all attempts for his freedom, chooses rather to work upon the stone and iron of the one, than upon the inflexible nature of the other." Damn straight: I'd have better luck tunneling out of the New Hanover Correctional Center in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina, than talking this guard into moving me.

"I don't make the rules, buddy," he said. "I'm just following orders. But I'll see what I can do."

He was a good guy, too: On my third day in 5C, he showed up at our cell with his clipboard in hand and said he had permission to move me to a cell down on the third floor.

"You'll be more comfortable there," he said. "It's for... a different kind of offender."

I lay on the bunk and counted the tiny cockroaches that scrambled all over the walls. That was the filthiest jail cell I would ever occupy.

But by then I had already made friends on 5C, I was under the protection of a man named "Eel," and we had good windows and a good view in the cell—I could see my girlfriend out in the street, when she came to visit, if I climbed up the bars—so I didn't want to leave.

"You're telling me you want to stay in 5C? I'm not going to be able to do this twice. You'll have a bed in the new cell."

He frowned gently, as though I was under some kind of duress. He looked past me to see if anyone was listening in on our conversation.

"I'm sorry," I told him. "I appreciate it. I don't mind sleeping on the floor. I think I'm better off in here."

"OK then," he said, and knocked on the guard's window to be let out of the mantrap that opened into our cell. "I take no further responsibility."

But before I relate the interesting facts of my experience in 5C, and about the four times I was in jail after my lockup in North Carolina, I should tell the stories of my first times in jail, where I started the slow process of learning jail etiquette.

Jail is where you don't want to be. I have spoken with many former and current prisoners, and they uniformly insist that jail (with exception for the most horrible prison experiences) is worse than prison. In general, in prison you get out of your cell; in jail you do not. In prison you can exercise; in jail you cannot. In prison you can get time outdoors—even work-release time—in jail, of course, you do not. In prison you will occasionally find some privacy; in jail you live and breathe the stink of one another. The only privacy you get in jail is if you're in a solitary cell, which is hell, or if you're showering, which, if you're a 160-pound weakling like me, you do swiftly in the morning before everyone else wakes up.

In prison everyone knows when he's getting out; assuming that you are going to be released (I met people in 5C who will never be released from prison), you have been given a date by which you will be free. Jail is different. Many of the people in jail don't expect to be there long, but, excruciatingly, they don't know quite when, or sometimes if, they are getting out. This expectation of being released is constantly disappointed—every time they call a name up to the mantrap, it's not your name, but it could have been.

***

Austin, Texas, 1990. I was walking home from Sixth Street, drunk, balancing on the curb with my arms extended as I made my way up a hill. A cop car pulled up. The window rolled down.

"Son, would you like a ride home?"

Only in Austin, I figured, would the cops pull over to take you safely back to your apartment. I had two miles to go, and I gratefully hopped in the back.

They drove straight to 500 West Tenth Street, Travis County Jail. A four-minute drive. I was shouting and complaining about my rights in the long line as they booked me—it was one of their monthly roundups, when they go through midtown and arrest everyone who looks drunk, in the hope of catching lots of outstanding warrants—and then shouting and complaining about my rights as they moved us into our cells, and then shouting and complaining about my rights as they moved me into a five-foot-by-ten-foot windowless solitary cell, and then shouting and complaining about my rights as they handcuffed me and footcuffed me, and then shouting and complaining about my rights as they threw me off the concrete bench onto the ground and cuffed my hands and feet together behind my back and then cuffed me to the piss grate on the floor. They hadn't given me a phone call, they hadn't explained what the charges were, they wouldn't tell me anything. I kept on shouting. I was 23 years old, drunk, and didn't understand my situation. Then two cops came in with their badges off, and told me if I didn't shut up, I'd get to shout in the hospital.

One of the cops stomped on my hands, and the other one kicked me in the stomach a few times. Another cop came in and threatened to duct-tape my mouth. All through this I kept shouting empty threats, and when I ran out of those, I shouted out The Waste Land, which I had memorized at that time, many shorter poems, and long stretches of Macbeth. Finally there was a shift-change, and before the new guys came on, they uncuffed me from the piss grate and lifted me onto the concrete bench. "Some people in here want to sleep, you know," they told me, and I realized I hadn't considered my shouting from that angle.

When they lined us up in the morning to go in front of the judge, each of us cuffed to the other, I came shuffling out in my leg irons. The guards were complaining about me, and one of them mentioned my name.

"You're Clancy Martin?" the man I was cuffed to asked me. He was about twice my size.

"Yes," I said, worried that he was one of the guys who had been trying to sleep.

"Right on," he said, and gave me a thumb's up, lifting my own hand with his.

Then we all went back to trying not to look at one another—an important jailhouse skill—and in an hour or so the judge ordered me released, without any charges. They gave me my phone call and moved me to a two-man cell with another fellow in it, who explained to me with undisguised happiness that "if you pissed them off, they just move your paperwork to the bottom of the pile every time it comes up." He wasn't getting out that day, and I wasn't released until late that afternoon. I lay on the bunk and counted the tiny cockroaches that scrambled all over the walls. That was the filthiest jail cell I would ever occupy. It was also the only time I was physically attacked by a cop or a guard while in jail, and of course, it could easily have been avoided. I learned the first rule of jailhouse etiquette: Never argue with the cops or the guards. You aren't holding any cards.

***

Six years passed before I would be back in jail. My girlfriend and I had a big fight. I was living in a loft in Dallas, and I went down to Elm Street to get back at her by getting drunk. (Yes, there is a discernible trend: Four of my seven times in jail were the direct result of my drinking. I am a recovering alcoholic.2) I remember trying to enter a bar, being turned away, and then finding a doorway to sleep in. I remember a cop asking me where I lived, and then explaining, just like in the Who song, that "you can go sleep at home tonight / If you can get up and walk away." I remember him helping me into the back of his prowler, and then I remember the drunk tank: It was about half the size of a high school gymnasium; there were at least 50 of us in there, and the men stayed close to the walls, with a wide space in the middle that nobody crossed. We were in groups: the Hispanic guys, the black guys, the white guys. Most of them were sleeping with their feet out toward no-man's-land. I took a blue vinyl mattress from the stack in the corner and went to lie down next to an old Hispanic man who was in the border territory between the Hispanic guys and the white guys.

"You should go somewhere else," he told me.

"I'm not afraid of anyone in here," I said, which was true, because I was still very drunk. To prove my point, I walked into the middle of the room and did a little shadowboxing. I had in my mind a short story by Charles Bukowski when he does this in jail, and it keeps him out of trouble.

Several men shouted in Spanish, and then a few guys shouted in English. "You like to fight? You want to fight? You want to box?"

"Lie down!" the old man said to me. I looked at the guys who were getting to their feet and took his advice.

One guy, younger than me, shorter than me, wiry, tattooed, in a tank top and paint-spattered work pants, came over to my mat and stood over me.

"Hey, Mr. Fight," he said. "Hey, Mr. Boxer? You want to fight?" He laughed. I rolled over on my mat and ignored him, and the old man beside me said something to him. He walked into the middle of the room and did a shuffle, imitating me, while calling out in Spanish. People laughed. He kept it up for a few minutes.

"What's he saying?" I asked the old man.

"You don't want to know," he said.

***

The third time I was in jail it was the notorious cell 5C, about which more shortly. The fourth time I was in jail was in the Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport. I had taken my family—my pregnant wife, my mother, my mother-in-law, and my two daughters—to Italy for a month, and we were on our way back to Kansas City, where I was now a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri.

"You are Clancy Martin?" the customs officer asked me.

"Uh, yes," I said. This fellow already had his guard up because my mother had had her passport pickpocketed when we were in Pisa, and her paperwork from the embassy was complicated.

I saw the headlights of my mom's little Volkswagen coming down the emergency road through the chain-link fences to save me.

This was in the summer of 2006: September 11 was not even five years old, I am not a US citizen (I'm Canadian), and US Customs was less friendly than they are today.

"You'll need to step over there," he said. He waved another customs officer over. They exchanged some words that I couldn't hear, and the second customs officer took me by the arm and escorted me—while my family watched in silent confusion—to a smaller room, where about 20 of us sat in rows of plastic and aluminum chairs. At the front of the room, two customs officers reviewed a stack of passports, calling us up one at a time. After an hour or so, they called me.

"Mr. Martin. Have you ever been arrested?"

I started to tell my stories.

"I'll need you to go with him."

Another customs officer took me through a second door that locked behind me, down a hallway, and into a very ordinary-looking room, about the size of a typical living room, with a folding table with two chairs on one side and one chair on the other. Windows with blinds. It must have been hastily built, I assumed, that they would hang the blinds on the inside of an interrogation room—cords hanging on the blinds, suitable for strangling yourself or someone else. I raised the blinds: I wanted them to know that I didn't have anything to hide. Then I thought that might look suspicious, so I lowered them again. One of them got stuck and hung sideways.

Two or three hours passed. Someone came and offered me a bottle of water and then left again. Finally a police officer arrived. She confirmed that I was Clancy Martin.

"You're under arrest," she said.

"Under arrest? What for?"

"Passing bad checks."

"I've never passed bad checks."

"That's not what I'm told."

She handcuffed me and took me through the airport and out front where her prowler was waiting at the curb. I will always remember the fearful, awed, and angry looks people gave me as I walked through that airport in handcuffs: Normally, when you are cuffed and in public, people look at you with either pity or disdain.

The officer put me in the back of her patrol car, and we drove the short distance through yellow, sunburned fields to the small DFW airport jail, which looks a bit like an unsuccessful strip mall, or a particularly nondescript library in a new suburb. She parked and went inside.

I was still sitting in the back of the car on the hard plastic bench, with my hands cuffed behind my back. I moved my cuffs in front. I waited. The car was turned off, and the windows were closed. It was getting hot. It was about 3 PM, and within a few minutes, I'd breathed through all of the formerly air-conditioned air in the car. Soon it was at least 90 degrees in there. I couldn't see anyone for miles. I tried shouting. Useless. I couldn't lie on my back—there was a plastic ridge separating the two seats—but I tried my best to get leverage and began kicking the windows. I was starting to panic. The hot air was closing around me like a dry-cleaning bag. I kicked harder. I tried to get both my heels through that damn window: no luck. I shouted more. Then I lay there, panting. I realized: This is how it happens. I am going to die in the back of this police car.

Then she came back out. I stopped shouting. She opened the door on my side.

"It was a little hot in there," I said, climbing out. I was dripping in sweat.

"Huh," she said. "I thought I left it running."

There were three cells that I could see inside the jail, and because of my time in that solitary cell in Austin, I asked if I could have a cell with bars.

"It helps if I can see outside the cell," I said.

"We don't care what makes you more comfortable," one of the cops at the station said. "You'll go in whatever cell we put you in. You're staying where we put you until they can ship you down to Austin."

"Ship me down to Austin?"

"Travis County. That's where you bounced the checks. That's where your warrant is. If you're genuinely claustrophobic, we could put you in the bigger cell," the cop who arrested me said. I could see that she felt bad about leaving me in her car. "Are you claustrophobic?"

For some reason I hesitated to lie. "Um, I was never diagnosed. But I freak out in small spaces."

After some debate, they put me in the bigger cell with the bars.

Cells with bars often have a phone you can use. I made my phone call. By now it was late, and my wife and children had skipped the flight back to Kansas City, stayed over with family in Fort Worth, and they were now tracking down the right bail bondsman. More helpfully still, I was able to listen to the conversation among the police about my situation. When there was a shift-change—thank God for the shift-change, I thought—the on-duty cops had to explain to the folks joining the party what the situation was with each prisoner.

"Bounced checks? That's a misdemeanor. We can't hold him on that."

"I don't know. They sent him over from the airport. They got him entering the country."

"They're supposed to be sending him down to Travis County. We're supposed to keep him here until the bus comes from Dallas County."

"We don't transport people for bounced checks. We don't arrest them for that. Hey, Clancy Martin. Did you do anything other than bounce a check? Was there a problem at the airport? Where do you live?"

"No! I mean, I didn't even know—I live in Kansas City."

"We aren't holding this guy. We need to release him. Hey, Martin. Do you have someone who can come pick you up?"

"Yeah! My wife! She'll be right out! She's close!"

"OK, well let's get your wife on the phone, and you can just wait in the cell until she comes. Unless you'd rather wait outside."

"I'll wait outside."

They released me, and I sat outside the police station on the dried grass in the hot starry Texas night, until I saw the headlights of my mom's little Volkswagen coming down the emergency road through the chain-link fences to save me.

***

The fifth and six times I was in jail were both in Kansas, which is a much more pleasant place to be in jail than Texas.

Number five was the most frightening time inside, though, because the last thing I remembered was my favorite bartender at Mike's on Troost (a good local bar in Kansas City about half a mile from school) pouring me a straight scotch about the size of a small iced tea, but without the ice. Next thing I was waking up, but I could hear the noises around me, and like that, I understood where I was. So I didn't open my eyes. I could feel the hangover coming already, and I understood in a vague way what must have happened, but I searched my memory and there was nothing. Just that drink and the busy bar full of friends. I knew my wife was going to be very, very angry—I wasn't supposed to be drinking anymore. I opened my eyes. I was lying on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed. I looked around: The cell opened into a large common area, and the door was open. I walked out and saw two floors of cells ringed around the large space in the middle, which had picnic tables bolted to the floor and was about the size of a basketball court. There were maybe two dozen cells, and 30 or so prisoners. A guard sat at a desk in front of the mantrap, and there were a few phones on the wall near him. The desk was elevated on a stage about three feet from the floor, so when you tried to talk to the guard, your chin was at about the same level as the top of the desk.

I approached him. I remember him very well, because of what happened next. He had blue eyes, was in his 40s, had brown hair brushed back behind his ears, and his face looked a bit mushy and layered, like a stack of pancakes. He had thick purplish lips. He was an unattractive man, but I still believed he might help me.

"My name is Clancy Martin," I said.

"Uh huh."

"Can you tell me what I'm here for?"

"What did you say your name was? When did you get here? This isn't an information desk."

We rehearsed this together several times. Eventually he found me in his computer.

"It says you're a DUI."

"Does it say anything else? Does it say if there was a wreck? Does it say if I hurt anyone?"

"It was bad. It says that," he said. "It doesn't say anything else, but I can see that it was bad."

"How do you know that? What does it say?"

"I can't tell you anything else. You can ask your lawyer."

I tried to remember anything about the car or people I had hit. I tried to keep myself from crying. It's a strange fact about experiences like these: Normally you won't start crying until you talk to someone you love on the phone. The worry in their voice makes you feel sorry for yourself, and then the tears come. I have seen men crying in jail without being mocked. But I recommend you follow movie advice on this one and choke back the tears, that's what I have always done, with one or two exceptions when the phone was in a corner and I could hide my face and keep my shoulders as still as possible.

Here's another important thing to know: Memorize your important numbers. For a time, jail phones didn't let you call cellphones, and fortunately, my wife always insisted on a landline. Now that's changed, and so long as the cellphone you are calling can accept a collect call—it costs about $1 a minute to receive a call from jail, plus a $4 or $5 surcharge—you can call any kind of phone. But that doesn't do you any good if you only know your contact names and can't remember the number. Plus you tend to be in a hurry in these situations, because you do not have unlimited access to a phone.

I remembered the number, and my wife answered the phone.

"What happened? Where are you? You're in jail?"

"You have to find out what happened. I don't know if I've hurt someone. Call the Kansas City jail. What if I've killed someone?" I started to cry. I pulled myself together before anyone could notice.

It turned out that the cop at the desk had lied to me. When I was in my lawyer's office in Lawrence, a few days later, he told me that I had bumped into the back of someone but not even dented their car, in slow, heavy traffic on the highway, then pulled off the side of the road—blowing both tires on the right side of the car in the process—and tried to make my getaway. When the car dragged to a stop, I jumped out and made a run for it.

"They recorded most of it," my lawyer said. He was about

my age, bearded, handsome, athletic. He had kids about the same age as my daughters. My wife was in law school in Lawrence, so we had lots to chat about. "I have the videotape right here. Do you want to watch it? It's actually pretty funny. It might help you see the lighter side of all this."

"No, thank you."

"I don't blame you," he said.

The same lawyer represented me when, about a year later, I got drunk after a lecture I was giving at a university in northern Missouri and I got lost driving home. That time I woke up in the cop car, and I tearfully begged them not to take me to jail. When they found me, I was 80 miles south of where I lived, just outside Emporia, Kansas.

I made a project of learning the murder story of everyone. This was a ticklish thing, because not everyone likes to confess to his crime.

"Buddy, you almost died. You were parked on the side of the highway in a snowstorm. We have to arrest you."

"But I wasn't driving. I was just tired."

"You're still drunk. How'd you get there if you weren't driving?"

My last time in jail was five years ago. The kids were running late for school, and my youngest was refusing to get in her car seat, so I told her big sister, who was in front, to grab her and put her under her belt. (Yes, I know, I was being a very bad parent. It had taken 20 minutes just to get her shoes on her feet.) I was in such a hurry that I did a rolling stop at our corner and the blue-and-reds started sparkling behind me. It was a big white undercover police van. Why they were pulling someone over for a rolling stop, I'll never know. I'm a cop magnet.

The big cop was appalled at the chaotic situation inside my car. Three children, aged 17, seven, and five, none of them really seated and buckled appropriately. I don't remember, but I probably hadn't buckled up myself yet.

"Mr. Martin, I'll have to ask you to step out of the car."

"I am trying to get my children to school. I'll put her in her car seat now. I'm sorry. I was in a hurry."

"I'm sorry, sir. Not having a child in a car seat and having her in the front like that is very dangerous. That's a serious offense. Girls, you always make sure to buckle up, OK? You have to be in your car seats. Mr. Martin. Please get out of the car."

I realized that they were going to arrest me. I was still denying it all the way into the back of the van. My 17-year-old daughter walked back down to the house with her youngest sister in her arms. The seven-year-old followed her. Thank God we were only half a block from the house.

That time, the last time, I spent most of the afternoon handcuffed to a bench in the very busy hallway of the police-and-suspect-only entrance to the enormous detention center in downtown Kansas City. Then I was briefly in a lockup with three or four other guys, where I called my wife—"I can't do this again," she said, "this has to be the last time I get you out of jail"—and then I was in a concrete transfer cell with two guys in their early 20s, one of whom was acting crazy. He stood up on the bench and then sat back down, he closed his eyes and shook his head, he jumped around with his hands on his ears, he got in both of our faces. He was shouting at us, and I said to the other guy in the cell, "Bad medicine, I guess." Finally, during one of his lean-into-your-face-while-shouting sessions, the guy with me punched him hard in the nose. He fell back, then sat in a corner with his bloody nose in his hands. "I didn't see anything, did you?" the puncher asked me. "No," I said. We were there for several hours, and then I posted bond and I was out again. That time I turned in my wedding ring when I checked in (they take your jewelry and your wallet when they arrest you, and it's a good sign if they don't take your clothes), and the wedding ring had disappeared when I checked out again, which was a sign of things to come.

***

Almost every time I've been arrested, the charges have been dropped or greatly reduced, usually without the help of a lawyer. Which brings us back to 5C, when there were four lawyers involved: the two lawyers who had me arrested; my incompetent lawyer in Wilmington, who told me that I was likely going to spend a month or more in jail, "not to mention what will happen to you in the small-town jails on the way from here to Texas" (I was arrested on a fugitive warrant); and my friend and former jewelry customer, Irene, a criminal attorney in Arlington, who called the Arlington chief of police and told him that she was going to sue him unless they released me immediately without charges and with an apology, which happened... but not until after I'd spent a week in 5C.

When I walked through the mantrap into the cell, it looked empty, except for one guy who was sitting in a blanket sling tied to the bars about six feet off the ground. There was one long narrow window beyond the bars in 5C, but it was just for light, so the inmates would climb the bars and tie a seat with a blanket and look out the window, and that's what this guy was doing.

He stared at me from his perch. I looked back at him.

"One guess," he said. "Computer fraud."

I soon learned 5C was the jail cell in Wilmington, where they kept the murderers before they went to prison, or when they were being transferred from prison to prison. I never learned the logic of keeping all of the murderers in the same cell, or why they thought that a little white guy on a fugitive warrant from Texas should join the team of murderers' row.

I made a project of learning the murder story of everyone in 5C. This was a ticklish thing, because not everyone likes to confess to his crime while in a jail cell. But I eventually got most of them. T had shot his wife in an argument. "I didn't mean to kill her. I was just trying to slow her down. She was attacking me. It was self-defense. People don't normally die from one bullet." Another guy, whose name I don't remember, had beaten his girlfriend and her two children to death with a vacuum cleaner. He bragged about it. This was a guy who sat next to me on my mattress—very unfortunately for me, my mattress on the floor became a kind of gathering place for the lower rungs of the social ladder at 5C, especially for playing cards—and once accused me of cheating at hearts when in fact I had just missed a card in my hand that I was supposed to lay down. All of these smelly unwashed guys were sitting, sweating, and farting into my mattress all day long, and that was where I had to sleep at night. Not to mention the implicit humiliation. But I made myself easy to get along with in 5C, and I needed all of the friends I could get. I was the only white guy in there.

The one who fascinated me most was Mirror. He was named Mirror because he spent a long time very meticulously brushing his teeth while inspecting his handiwork in the stainless-steel mirror. My first day in the cell I kept to myself, and Mirror left me alone. He was watching me. The second day I found the courage to sit at a picnic table during lunch—I ate very quickly and got out of the way—and then played a few games of chess with different guys. Then, after dinner on my second day, Mirror approached me. I knew something was up, as three or four of his main guys were with him. I was sitting at the picnic table about to move a piece.

"What the fuck are you doing here, man?" he asked me. "Stand up! Stand up when I'm talking to you!"

The banter and insults continued. His buddies were joining in. There was shouting and finger pointing. All of this happened very quickly. He was backing me toward the bars of the cell. I realized I didn't have a lot of options. So I took the only one that seemed like it had any hope of success: I bumped chests with him. He bumped me back. I bumped him again. I don't remember what he was saying, or what I was saying. I remember thinking that I'd never actually bumped chests with someone before, and wondering if I would be able to get him into a headlock. This man had at least 50 pounds on me, was much, much stronger than I was, and was not afraid of me. I was pissing my pants and desperately trying not to let everyone see that.

And then it was over. "I'm not wasting my time on you," he said, and he and his group wandered back over to their half of the cell: the prestige half, where the phone, the shower, and the meal window were. I went back to my mattress. A couple of people patted me on the back. The next day, when I was playing chess before lunch, Mirror sat down, pushed the guy I was playing out of the way, and reset the pieces.

"I guess you're playing white," he said, and laughed. After I beat him a few games in a row—a reason to join chess club young—he said, nice and loud: "Shit. We're going to call you Chessmaster." That same day, about half of the guys in the cell introduced themselves to me, and I was never scared again in 5C.


1 She is not the woman Clancy would later have children with.

2 Because most of the author's arrests were for intoxication-related offenses, and in some cases occurred years or even decades ago, some of the details and conversations in this story are based on those hazy memories and therefore couldn't be independently verified. The names and identifying details of some characters have been changed.

This story appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.