119 Days

After three drunk-driving arrests, I am sentenced to almost four months in the Pima County Jail. This is my story.

No encouraging thoughts come to mind as I walk toward the gate of the jail to turn myself in on this hot, Friday afternoon, hours after sentencing at the Pima County Superior Court.

I take a seat on a soiled cement bench and watch as officers yank a young Teletubby type out of a Tucson police car.

"What are you looking at, faggot?" the Teletubby screams at me.

I wonder if I've chosen the right outfit for my booking. I'm wearing a Gap T-shirt, Banana Republic chinos and a pair of New Balance sneakers. Everyone else waiting with me wears FUBU, Phat Farm or Ralph Lauren transient-edition jeans.

After sitting and sweating for 90 minutes, I come to the conclusion that if the police brought me in, I wouldn't have had to wait so long. I start to think the gate that opens to let police cars drop off prisoners doesn't shut quickly enough. Someone like me could get cold feet and take off. Before I can get up and bolt, Big Brother blares out of a hidden loudspeaker: "Sarkinson (pause), hey SARKISSIAN, wait at the damn door."

Funny, I feel no explosions of fear in my belly, only displeasure as I picture the mountain I have to climb to complete my sentence.

I hear a click, and the gate opens. I have my medical information taken by a nurse.

"Have you ever stayed at the L.A. County Jail?" she asks.

I think to myself: "Do you know where I'm from? I don't GO to jail!"

Well, that's a lie.

After my third arrest for DUI, I wouldn't cooperate with police, so I was booked. After I claimed to be suicidal, I was stripped naked and thrown into a holding cell with piss on the floor. When I demanded that the mess be cleaned up, a corrections officer choked me and then threw me into the puddle as his female colleague hung her head and watched.

The memory prompts me to keep my opinion to myself at any cost.

I count off the seconds on the intake room clock during the hour that I wait for my name to be called by one of the women doing paperwork.

Later, I notice a problem. "You forgot my Superior Court charges," I tell her, through the fingerprint-smeared glass that separates us from them.

"Oh shit, you're right," she says with a nervous smile, giving me the 'Are you sure?' look.

She documents the other charges but still circles "60" on the orange file that would follow me throughout my sentence. Perhaps this is my first taste of life in the jail. If I show them some decency, they'll see I'm a good person and let me off easy, after only half of the time I think I am supposed to serve, right?

I have my mug shot taken and roll out my fingerprints. I'm crammed into a 10-foot-by-10-foot cell with six other guys. Aside from a move from one cell to another, we spend five hours just waiting.

The ventilation in the room is so bad that all of us gasp for the vile stench of the jail hallway each time they open the door. The stale-beer and BO taste out there is better than in the shoebox they've shoved a half-dozen sweaty, tired, grown men into.

One man, who successfully grew dreadlocks by not combing his hair for years, takes a seat on the stainless steel, three-gallon toilet that includes a sink doubling as a hot-water drinking fountain. Another man looks as if he was clean-cut at one time, underneath the filth, slime and cigarette-butt-yellow shirt he wears. He sits quietly on the rectangular, moist, rubber-sponge bed that takes up the majority of the room, alongside an elf who only talks about four things: using, drinking, his alleged sex life and how nice the minimum security facility is.

Then there are the "tourists" in for drunken driving: a well-dressed Mexican, a cameraman from a local TV station, and me.

I bet there will be more of us tourists filling the bunks of the minimum security facility. By the looks of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Victim Impact Panel I recently attended, at least three quarters of the more than 250 people who packed the room at Tucson Medical Center were there because they'd been busted for DUI. The scary part is that I had to register for the panel more than a month in advance, because they were booked solid.

Wow. That means hundreds of people--whether they're a mother of two children who had a few drinks with co-workers after clocking out, or a 20-something clubber who was pulled over racing to an after-hours party--will all face the same humiliating, degrading and appalling experience that I'm about to endure.

Thinking about it in this humid-ass box, I was not only selfish enough to not think about the lives of others when I drank and drove; I'm also giving up my dignity, all because I didn't think to call a fucking cab.

It seems the wait we're facing in the holding cell is typical, except for the Teletubby. His high-pitched screaming earns him a cell somewhere else. As the clock ticks on, I watch officers keep the caged lions tamed with loud but timid commands and the occasional show of force.

"I don't know why you're acting up. You've already been DOC-trained; you aren't getting away with anything in here," one officer tells some guy in a holding cell across the hallway who repeatedly pounds his head against the tiny Plexiglas window in the door. Apparently, he's using his knowledge of DOC life to announce that he knows it's feeding time. He's spotted a corrections officer eating something and is trying to tell them he's hungry, too. We all are, but it doesn't matter.

As Friday turns into Saturday, I endure my inaugural strip-search at the minimum security facility, which consists of running your fingers through your hair, folding your ears, opening your mouth, lifting your scrotum, spreading your buttocks, then lifting the bottoms of your feet in front of another grown man. I will do this every time I return to the men's unit from work or work crew for the duration of my sentence.

I'm given a starchy, red polyester shirt and pants with "Pima County Jail" printed on the backs and legs. I'm issued two rotten tuna fish sandwiches, warm milk and oranges.

I eat alone in the mess hall day room. Some 60 inmates stare at me like I'm a zoo animal.

I eat my orange, plug my nose, chug my milk and get assigned my bunk. I end up in a spillover room alone, with a glass wall allowing all of the other inmates to stare.

I cry myself to sleep, wishing I had never agreed to be there. Alas, I didn't really agree. Any DUI, by statute, requires jail time.

Day 118

I had heard during booking that breakfast would be served at 5 a.m., but I've planned to sleep until I go to work on Sunday.

No dice.

"BREAKFAST! BREAKFAST! BREAKFAST!" bellows the loudspeakers. I awake to discover someone sleeping in the bunk below me. My sheets have fallen to the side, exposing the hole-ridden, rubber-polymer mat to my skin. I scream silently for a shower but change my mind as I recall jokes from my buddies about rampant anal sex.

I decide to learn what feeding time at my new home is like. Perhaps some food will wake my emotions. After a night of shameful, sad and regretful bawling, I'm numb.

Others in the unit line up close to one another, only letting members of their racially based cliques cut in line. The more popular men in the unit--the ones whose stories of their criminal life as drug dealers, hustlers and all-around crooks have bolstered their political standing in the facility--whisk themselves to the front with confidence. Lowly punks like me cower in the back. In fear, I stare only at the end of the line and hope that no one notices me.

My fellow inmates tell me that we'll be served ham, scrambled eggs and hash browns. I get steamed bologna, fake and undercooked eggs, and some albino, shredded potatoes. I stick to the potatoes and meekly venture to the jail library.

You'd think they'd try to offer some educational options while they have all of us pinned down with nothing to do except to play chess or cards, watch Mexican television or use our bunks to work out. But all that's available is discarded literature from the Tucson library system--mangled books that no one else wants to read, including several graphic romance novels. Those are hidden under mattresses and treated like porn, depending on how descriptive they are. Magazines like FHM and Maxim that are obtained through subscriptions set up by inmates circulate from bunk to bunk like porno mags, too.

That night, as a reward for keeping the dorms clean during the week, officers dole out popcorn and RC Cola. But you have to be there for more than four days to get some. Against the tacit rules, some inmates share with each other.

Day 117

I choose to pass on the raw French toast and oatmeal this morning. I'm supposed to go to work and can pick up real food along the way. But first, I have to get out of the fish-bowl-like cell.

My new bunk is at the very back of a room that looks like a high-school gymnasium, on the work furlough side of the men's unit. Inmates stop chattering and playing cards as I lug my jail-issued garbage bag of belongings toward my new home. I'm pale. I'm not tough, muscular or sun-burned from working outside for a living. They know I'm a scared little boy who is trying to look strong.

The metal of my bunk is still warm from the inmate who just vacated it. The bed base is pitted in the center, not like the last one, and there are splatters of dry blood on the cinder block wall that runs behind it down the center of the room.

I'd later find out that those stains were from a white supremacist assigned to the bunk two months ago. After stealing from others, he was beaten senseless with jail-issued combination locks stuffed in tube socks, first by a group of Mexicans, then blacks, then anyone else who wanted a shot. He was sent to the main facility, and the three chief culprits were dealt heavy charges.

Since then, my bunk has been referred to as the "Victim's Bed," even by the officers.

Day 110

Today is my first full day behind bars, after a little more than a week on the work furlough program. I try to use the amenities afforded me by the county: two TVs with bad reception, the ball court where guerilla basketball takes on a whole new meaning, and my bunk, which is so rock hard that it gives me bruises on both hips. With no one around, I read my new library find--some writer's half-baked attempt at a mystery novel that wasn't checked out once from the Woods Memorial Public Library before it was downgraded to the jail.

At one point, I open my big fat mouth.

"I'm a journalist," I confess to a clean-cut player.

"Oh man, I've got all sorts of stories I could tell you," he says. For the next four hours, I listen to him rant about his life. He's been kicked out of the Marine Corps for dealing drugs. His big dream is to have a classy party--$200 a head--with world-class DJs and gorgeous ladies.

He introduces me to everyone by my own name. Until now, they'd all referred to me as "bitch" or "faggot" in Spanish, giving me a chance to expand my Spanish vocabulary.

They tell me about an inmate a couple months ago who tried to hang himself by jumping off his top bunk with his bed sheet wrapped around his neck. He believed the stories about anal rape and assault; they told him he would be next.

They want to know when I plan on showering, so they can come with me. I tell them that tomorrow, I'll be getting ready for work at 10:30 a.m. The fear I have of the jail starts to trickle away. As if I were drinking again, I start to get courage.

The next day, a guy asks me again. After stripping off my red uniform, I walk to the entrance of the bathroom and let everyone know I'm ready.

No one comes. Threats of showering with me never come up again.

Day 100

Tonight, after a hard day at the Arizona Summer Wildcat newsroom, I get my own taste of sanitary hell at the jail.

I venture to the bathroom before going to bed, before falling asleep to the sounds of hundreds of headphones blaring Mexican music and rap, or the girlish chatter from those strung-out on pills that were smuggled in. But I can't bring myself to put my ass on any of those toilet seats. Each bowl holds a different surprise, whether it's vomit, blood, refuse or all three overflowing onto the floor and into the floor drain. It reminds me a bus station bathroom I experienced in Acapulco when I was 13.

One of the sinks seems OK, until a 20-ish smoker with advanced emphysema coughs up the better part of his bloody lung into it. Shaving scum covers the other, piles of tiny black hairs dotting the white porcelain like cow piles in a snowy pasture.

Rather than clean, I hold my urge to let my bodily functions flow. Perhaps I could have taken the route that one man did, as announced over the PA system by an officer one Friday night.

"Attention B dorm: If you're going to defecate, please use a toilet and not the shower. Thank you."

I learned to always wear my flip-flops while showering back on day 116.

Day 70

Tonight, two inmates become involved in a scuffle, held back only by a thin wall that separates the release-program side from regular confinement. After exchanging words, the person on the release program was spit on. He raised hell, swore he would kick the offender's ass and then ratted him out to corrections officers. The offender was sent to the main, and his victim sulked back to the dorm, where his little lap dog--a short, scrawny 18-year-old--followed him, yapping away about the injustice of it all. Other inmates agreed that this lap dog was only tough when his larger master was around. When he was alone, he was tolerable. He's one of the many who lied about their charges to look tougher--he told everyone he was in for nearly killing someone in a fight in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I looked up his record: He was in for driving a stolen car and having pot on him.

His larger friend got his, though. He was sent back to the main for some violation. There, the cousins of the guy he told on beat him senseless.

Day 62

I eye my orange file every time I change the paper listing my hours (the paper I carry with me while outside the jail). On it, the same "60" is still circled on my release date portion. Just to make sure, I ask an officer to check the release list.

And there it is: On Aug. 26, at 17:15, I am to be released, after 60 days in custody.

At this point, even I'm confused by the way the judge had noted that my Superior Court sentence would be served consecutively with my city court charges; even the woman in booking saw things in my favor. Getting too much change at the grocery store is one thing; getting out of hell is another.

My ever-present feelings of shame and embarrassment wash away with the refreshing idea of getting out. Could this be true?

That night, I write a letter to God begging Him to give me some sort of sign of whether I would be released without incident. I somehow fall asleep quickly but wake up only a few hours later.

Day 61

"Do you need a ride to the courthouse?" asks one of the friendlier officers as he taps his flashlight on the metal frame of my bed.

"Am I looking at more charges?" I ask him. Fear is rising in my chest. I haven't committed any other crimes, as far as I know.

"I don't know what you're going for, but you've got court at 9 a.m., and I need to know whether you need a ride or not. Yes or no?"

The familiar but still bloodcurdling shot of fear zips through my body, from my heart to my extremities.

With court inevitable and the thought of being paraded into the courtroom wearing my jail uniform flashing through my head, I decline the ride, make a collect call to my father and ask him to bring my suit.

After dressing in my father's car, I get a call from my attorney. He has continued the hearing, which was concerning a problem with my sentencing.

I check my name on the release list. It's still there.

Day 60

I wake up earlier than usual, dump my belongings into a clear, plastic bag and throw my toiletries away. At the exact minute I am to be released for work, I run up to the door with my stuff to get my time card, which a corrections officer punches each time we leave or enter the unit.

"Where are you going?" asks the corrections officer, with a sarcastic leer.

"I get released today," I tell him, with a confident smirk. "Check the list. I'm on it."

The "you're-a-fuck-up-and-you-know-it" attitude that jail personnel have toward me erases, replaced by a "you-mean-you-don't-know?" look. The officer slams (bam!) a faxed court order on the desk in front of me: 59 more days, to be released on Oct. 24.

The fucker grins and nods his head.

My heart sinks. My eyes well up with tears, and I walk away.

The prosecutor told the judge that the jail screwed up my sentence. She demanded a clarification. The judge then agreed.

This is the only day I think of running away, to somewhere like Chicago, where one inmate told me I couldn't be extradited because of budget constraints in the state of Illinois. Then again, that was inmate talk. It's like using a drunken wino for a source in a news story.

I have no choice but to hunker down and get through another 60 days.

Day 46

I'm moved into the other dorm of the work furlough portion of the men's unit. Considered a promotion, it's known as Green Valley due to its older occupants and quieter nights. This is compared to my original dorm, Nogales, known for its wild inmates and drug-laced, party-like atmosphere on the weekends.

With this promotion, I break down and feast on the snacks I ordered through the jail commissary, which charges ridiculous prices for ramen noodles, chips, toiletries and such. I take a crack at making jail tamale for myself.

What's jail tamale? Crush up a package of Doritos, hot fries and ramen noodles. Mix them up in a container. Add hot water. To really treat yourself, top with nacho cheese sauce, or throw in some salami for kicks. Damn, this is good shit!

Inmates regularly gather on the weekends during dinner or free time to have tamale parties. Those who make some contribution are fed, as are those who are considered veterans of the jail. I put in every so often, but at this point, having been in jail for more than three months, I've been pseudo-accepted as a veteran. After being called every name in the book and having some of the most fucked-up questions thrown at me, I retain a numbness both inside and at work--great for hurling back insults at other inmates, bad for the people who really love you. I no longer say "please" or "thank you." I also no longer volunteer for anything unless there's something in it for me. When someone aggravates me, I call them out, even though I'm bluffing. In the jail, saving face--even on the littlest things--is crucial. There's no such thing as picking your battles.

I am not the same person I was 46 days ago. Ask any of the friends on the outside I pushed away.

Day 13

One night, one of the most hated men in the unit throws a roll of paper towels at me as I tune my hand-me-down personal jail-issued ($17.95 at the commissary) radio and headphones.

I think about it: Should I ignore this guy? Let it go as a joke and fall asleep?

I jump off my bunk. I call this guy out. I let him know where, when and why. He demands to fight in the dorm. I deny, as officers will notice and throw both of us in the Main.

My original demand (an Oscar-deserving bluff) stands, but he declines. I prove my victory, and the dorm agrees. A few larger inmates get in his face, and the situation is diffused.

"What the fuck am I doing?" I think to myself.

Later that night, when everyone has fallen asleep, I go back and apologize for my behavior. I tell him my sole concern was image, not rage. The other inmate, surprised, shakes my hand and falls asleep.

Day 1

I wake up at 3 a.m. Today is something I've dreamt about for 59 days. I can't get back to sleep, so I tune my radio to a rock station and listen to Styx's "Come Sail Away."

I have only one thing on my mind: a half-hour shower by myself, my most comfortable sweat pants and the steak dinner my father keeps promising me.

I try to go slowly this morning--extra slow--so I won't be sitting on my bunk waiting to leave here for work for the last time. I've waited 119 days for this. Doing the last of my time in the worst way, waiting, would be like crashing a car before completing a race.

After verbally sparring with another inmate for allegedly "taking his shower," I dole out my toiletries and food to others and am off.

"Are you sure you're getting released today?" asks the officer at the desk.

"Yep, sure am," I say. In the back of my mind, I remember the disaster that occurred 59 days ago.

The officer clocks me out and, for the first time ever, looks at me like I'm human. "Good luck out there," she says.

I thank her, and I'm off.

My dad waits for me in the parking lot, nearly in tears as he pulls his truck up toward the front entrance. I fight hard to hold the tears back, too. I don't know why I'm crying. I don't know what to feel. I just want to leave.

I return to the facility after work at 17:15--the exact time jail officials said I turned myself in 119 days ago. I'm pushed to the front of the line ahead of the other inmates, who are trying to get their paychecks turned in so they can be deducted for rent. With one signature, another jail worker, for once, gives me a friendly smile. His only words: "Stay out of trouble now."

No shit.

I feel like I'd already learned my lesson a year before, when I claimed a lifestyle abstinent from drugs and alcohol after a non-driving night of heavy drinking. But I never realized the severity of the crimes I committed until I served time.

While growing up, I thought only bad people went to jail--those who stole or killed. Now anyone--from mothers and fathers, to a radio star on a morning radio show, to an attorney who said, while on the work furlough program, he was helping Diana Ross' DUI defense team--are going to jail for DUI.

As I grew up, grizzly images were flashed in my face at school and on TV portraying the dangers of drinking and driving: the lost lives, broken families and life of hatred, regret and sorrow. But those are hard to remember when you're five beers past midnight and can only think of passing out in your own bed.

If all else fails before you leave that party, bar, strip club, whatever, try this: Find another grown person of the same sex, and strip your clothes off, even your socks. Now run your fingers through your hair, fold your ears, stick out your tongue, yank up your scrotum, spread your legs, turn around and spread your ass cheeks, then lift the bottoms of your feet before waiting for the other person to say it's OK to get dressed.

Now, call a damned cab so you'll never have to do that again.

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