The Jail Courts: An Exercise

by jkatejohnston

December 11

Dear Max,

I woke up at 3:45, before the alarm. It’s not difficult if you’re asleep by 8:15 the night before. And I love the feeling of being the only one awake. It’s luxurious and lonely.

But the sound of me moving around the kitchen to get my coffee woke up D-Day, and he and Teresa got up to pee. Now Teresa’s back in bed and D-Day is lying on the couch beside me in the dark. I can’t tell if he’s gazing into the fire or asleep. Either way, he’s a comfort, stretched out long beside my thigh, chin on his paws.

He shakes now—as in shakes hands, or paws. And twirls in a circle. But his best trick is lying beside you with his smooth compact bulk pressed heavy and close and warm. He does it perfectly.


I said that I needed to put the world into my book. Mostly I just mean setting. Where is all this talk happening? So here’s an exercise in that direction:

The Sacramento County Main Jail is an eight-story concrete building with four courtrooms on the ground floor. The courtrooms have no windows, and each has a cage where in-custody defendants come out to face the judge. Defendants used to come into a little fenced area, a small corral, but one day, years ago, a defendant jumped the fence and escaped, and then they built the cages.

Corral, cage, cell. It’s all confinement. But visually, there’s something offensive about the cage, especially since so many people inside the cage are brown or black, while most of the people outside the cage—the judge, the DA, the Public Defender, the crush of private attorneys—are white. But you get used to it. At least, as a person outside the cage, I have.

When the jail was built, in the late eighties, there were some stabs at humanity. The entry is a tall light-filled atrium with a huge fishtank built into the wall. The fish are supposed to be calming, and maybe they are. The hallway leading to the four courtrooms is also filled with light. The exterior wall and ceiling are glass. Outside on I street, three lanes of traffic move toward the interstate. And on the sidewalk there’s a steady flow of lawyers with our everlasting wheeled black briefcases, or sometimes a DA or Public Defender with a whole cart full of files for the arraignment calendar.

Around the corner from the jail, in the same block, is the old courthouse. The county still owns it, but it’s rented out to a fancy law firm—one that wouldn’t touch criminal defense, except maybe the starchiest of white collar. It’s a beautiful building. Even when it was new, it must have been beautiful. Broad granite steps, marble columns, tall arched windows, and inside more marble and warm old polished wood. The old court house aspires to something. It says, “Enter this temple and receive Justice.” The jail courts say, “Stay in your cage and be Processed.”