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Inmates by Phil Quam | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

January 17, 2016      

Inmates by Phil Quam

August, 2008. In Jacksonville, Florida, it was barely 10 a.m., and already searing hot. It had been like this for months. Outside the Duval County jail, the sidewalk was littered with cigarette butts, which manifested the mood of the place: angst, fear, guilt, addiction, depression, mania and so forth. But many of the cigarette butts likely had been dropped by people who cared deeply about someone locked up inside. They were also there out of love.
      I didn’t have to be there, but I had no better place to be. It simply got me out of the house, the way a smoke break might get you out of the office. I sat on a concrete bench, hunched, forearms on knees, smoking my own cigarette over those butts on the sidewalk. As a volunteer for the Public Defender’s office, my task was to interview recently locked up inmates and get statements from them.
      The jail was downtown near the St. John’s River. I was 26. My skin was peeling from sunburn and my insides were soupy with heartbreak over the ending an absurd relationship. Five months later, I would fail out of law school. I volunteered only because it might look good on my resume, not out of any goodness of my heart.
      Earlier that morning, when I was in the office, I noticed something unusual with one of the reports. Written across the front in Sharpie made bolder through Xerox, the bail for a man named Foster Rayfield Leon was set at 3.5 million. I flipped the page and read over his case because I had never seen a bail that high.
      On July 4, 2008, Foster Leon was at the Starlite Cafe in the Riverside district. He was with an unnamed girlfriend. They were drinking. A man named Anthony Blakely was the disc jockey that night. At approximately 12:30 a.m., an altercation occurred between the two men concerning the girlfriend while Blakely was putting his deejay equipment in his car. Leon allegedly beat Blakely unconscious, cut Blakely’s eyes out, and robbed him.
      A call came into the police station around 2 a.m. from a man who’d found Blakely lying in the street with his eyeballs on his cheeks. Officers were dispatched to the scene. The suspect had already fled and Blakely was taken to Shands Hospital for treatment. In a later statement, Blakely said that the altercation began after the suspect said he didn’t like the way Blakely was looking at his girlfriend, and that he had refused to play her song request. Foster Rayfield Leon was arrested in New Orleans by the FBI on August 14 and extradited to Jacksonville.
      The job was usually cake-walk. The interview room was the size of a walk-in closet. The inmates entered, unshackled, in their green jumpsuits and shower-shoes, and I lobbed slow-pitch softball questions at them and filled out pre-printed office forms. I spent that summer trying to gather all of the information I could. Not just from the inmates, but also how I had let my own life get to the point it had.
      What was most important were the inmates’ statements, their recollections of the arrest, step by step, as I wrote down what they told me. I read their police reports out loud to them and asked them about any inconsistencies, hardly ever getting through it before they said something like: “Hell no! That cop’s lying his ass off. That’s not how it was.” Those answers always made me laugh a little inside (what else would you expect them to say?).
      I asked the inmates if the cops had read them their rights, which surprisingly, given the narrative of the police in this country, happened most of the time. Then, to make sure they could understand a letter from their lawyer should they receive one, they were supposed to read a paragraph about a guy running from the cops with a bag of marijuana in his pocket out loud. Sometimes it hit close to home for them and they laughed, especially when they had to pronounce the full word: marijuana. It was almost like someone farting in class. I signed off on it if they read it successfully.
      Most of the cases I’d had so far were pretty boring in terms of legal severity: petty theft, crack possession, DUI, burglary, dope dealing, etc. There was the occasional armed robbery and a solicitation of prostitution. So Foster Leon was set to be the most dangerous man I’d met.
      I had started the job a few weeks before. A squatty Latino lady named Xenia had brought me in earlier that summer for an orientation, giving me a badge to get in the building in the mornings and a photo-ID card that I clipped to my shirt. She went over the pre-printed interview forms and how to read a police report. Then she told me about the inmates and how the interviews generally go.
      They will be just as scared of you as they are of the police, especially the first-timers. Some know the song and dance and will try to manipulate you and push you around – do not let them. For some of them this is the first time they’ve been sober in months. Some of them are still going through withdrawals. Some may still be on drugs. Some clam up once you tell them you aren’t their lawyer. Some use it as a confessional and purge every dark detail of their lives to you. But most will lie. Most will smell. You may want to take some hand sanitizer.
      Use the numbers and letters at the top of the report to find out which floor and wing to go to. 4-W means the fourth floor, west wing, for example. Hand over the names to one of the C.O.s (correction officers) and they’ll bring them to you one by one. You’ll be sitting in a small room that has a metal table and two stools. The door will be closed. You’ll be in there with them alone, and probably be the first person the inmates will have talked to, besides police officers and other inmates, in weeks. Go through the interview sheet, have them read a paragraph to you, and get them to sign their names. Don’t let them keep the pen. You’re pretty cute, she said. The women might show you their breasts or the homosexuals might say some things. We’ve had some problems before with female interviewers and male inmates masturbating under the table. But you probably won’t have to worry about that. Just tell them that you’re not interested and to keep their hands out on the table. If they say anything else, end the interview and tell them to go back to their cells. There’s a red button near the door. Press it if you have any problems.
      While I sat outside the jail that morning, I reread Foster Leon’s report. I thought again about Xenia’s explanation and figured that if there was any day I would have to press that red button, it would be today. I rose from the bench, walked towards the front doors, and asked myself: “Why are you walking voluntarily into jail?”
      After I made my way through security in the lobby, presenting my i.d. badge and informing an officer that I was heading to the fourth and fifth floors, I had to wait in front of the elevator. The elevators lifted with the speed of an octogenarian rising from a beanbag chair. I was certain that I could have climbed the stairs faster, but I didn’t know where the stairwell was in there and, beside the fact that I’d rather not get lost in jail, I wasn’t one to ask for directions.
      The whole process was slowed even more because you had to wait for one of the C.O.s in the booth to open the doors for you and then signal to them by hand which floor you wanted. I doubted seriously that these C.O.s went through whatever rigorous training was required to obtain their badges to run elevators. I know how I’d have felt about it. So a lot of the time you had to stand and wait in front of the doors until an elevator-load’s worth of people showed up – like letting the dishes pile up in the sink before loading the dishwasher. So I leaned up against the cinderblock wall and make sure my reports are in the order I wanted, with Foster Leon at the bottom of the deck.
      Two people showed up at the elevator bank, and I nodded at them. One looked like a lawyer and the other a family member. In jail, it was pretty easy to tell who was who. But what was not so easy to tell was what people were thinking. Everyone in jail working or visiting had expressionless faces, as though they had been primed for emotion but would not receive it until later. Everyone was within himself, withholding information. It was a lot like reading the police reports. The reports were often in loose chronological order, facts and statements strung together that made up some semblance of coherence. You could tell reading the reports who was who and what was what, but there wasn’t much, anything really, in them about how or why. It was a Joe Friday, just-the-facts-ma’am thing. No one really had the time to worry about any of the other stuff: feelings, gray areas and the like. Pathos and nuance only got in the way. I understood this completely. The last few months, I had been trying to do the same thing.
      I had entered into the relationship with my ex-girlfriend, Cora, after meeting up with her at a concert in 2005. We had known each other since we went to high school together in Virginia in 2000 and 2001. I was older than her by three and a half years, which may as well have been a generation gap at that age. But it was the early years of the internet, and those kinds of barriers to getting to know someone were being broken down by AOL Instant Messenger. We would converse late into the evening with the ascending and descending tones of I.M. about some fairly profound topics for a couple of teenagers, religion and family among them, see each other at school the next day and never really speak in person.
      But we were both completely aware of each other’s presence as we circled around one another. What went unspoken, what was said in glances and movement, got to be addicting to me, and I think for her as well. Since I was older, there was a certain level of control I had, due quite simply to high school hierarchy. This went on for the better part of my senior year, after which she found her first real boyfriend, a boy her age who attended the same church, and the youth groups that I despised. I went off to college, deeply in love with a girl who had three years to go before graduating high school. It would have never worked.
      In 2005 the fates of Instant Messenger conspired once again. I was finishing up my junior year at college, she her freshman. We’d both be home for the summer. We were both planning to go to the same concert. Let’s meet; it’s been way too long, and so on. I’ll never forget the way she walked towards me on the lawn of the amphitheater, smiling, wearing that white dress. She had lightened her hair, which drew out her blue eyes. The way she moved, with a dancer’s up-right posture and her proportionate, sleekly feminine shape had always been a large part of my attraction to her, and that had only improved. She gave that plain, white, spaghetti strap dress a proper life with her body’s motion. That was it. I found out later that she had left the guy she had been seeing at the concert to be with me, and I should have seen what that indicated. But she was in that damn dress, and she knew it.
      By the summer of 2006, Cora and I had begun to make long term plans, despite clear signs of the relationship’s unconquerable volatility and absurdity. She became enraged after I received a phone call from a girl I knew in college. She and I were driving at dusk. I tried to calm her, but she quickly turned violent and eventually kicked the windshield with her bare foot, causing a large spider crack. Another time she locked herself in her bedroom and threatened to cut herself. She had a butter-knife though, so I didn’t take her all that seriously – but still.
      To be clear, it’s no picnic knowing me either. I took out my insecurities on her as well, which essentially stemmed from the fact that I knew, in the back of my mind, that she could leave me at any time and nothing bad would ever happen to her. She could slide into that white dress one night and never have to worry again. I believe I cared about her more, too, and it’s been said, and my experience bares it out, that the power in a relationship lies with the one who cares less. She gave me a certain direction that I thought I wanted. I doubt I would have gone to law school if it weren’t for her. At the time, I was happy to have that feeling of fate and forward momentum in my life.
      We continued on for another year and a half, with all the ups and downs love and resentment could bring. We survived her six month study abroad trip to Australia, despite her hacking into my cell phone messages to finding out that I was guilty of smoking weed with a woman in her late-40’s or early 50’s. Didn’t she have anything better to do in Australia? But, in a twisted way, I felt flattered and thought it was because she cared. She accused me, yet again, of infidelity. I would have never cheated on her. That wasn’t (and isn’t) my nature, and I loved her too much.
      In spring of 2008, I was a second semester law student in Jacksonville. But I wasn’t in the right law school, meaning I didn’t go to the law school her father had graduated from, where she was an undergrad, or to one better. I had applied but been rejected. Cora was in her senior year there. We arranged for her to move to Jacksonville after she graduated, but I was having difficulty in school while maintaining her. She was constantly suspicious of me and what I was doing. My cell phone bill was astronomical. Looking back on it, I should have seen that as a deflection: she was the one looking for something else.
      She became angry that I could not make some sorority dance due to my final exams, and so she took another law student at her college. She refused to answer my calls, only answering once to tell me that it was over, and then she turned off her phone. I didn’t get much studying done and barely recall taking my exams. I later saw a photo of her and her new boyfriend at the dance I couldn’t attend. In that moment, the way he was looking at her, I wanted to cut his eyes out.
      Cora still moved to Florida after graduation. A part of me thought it wasn’t over. I could not believe how quickly she had changed. She came to my apartment to get some of her belongings, and we had sex. But we were too far gone. We had always survived through our arguments, and our strays in behavior, but this one was too much to overcome. She had found what she wanted: a law student at the same school her wealthy father had attended. Someone more in step with the life she came from and the one she wanted to lead. She called me several times early on, complaining about her status on the Jacksonville Jaguars cheerleading team or some other nonsense. I tried once to call her mother to persuade her to stop, but she called me about a half hour later, presumably after she’d gotten off the phone with her mom.
      “Don’t you have somebody else you can complain to now?” I asked, after foolishly answering her call in a moment of weakness. I tried to sound as cold as I could, to have my icy logic not be melted by my molten insides. “This isn’t my problem anymore.”
      “But you always gave such good advice,” she said. That’s where her head was.
      She tracked me down a few times, at bars and such, once sent me a text message that she had parked the Mercedes she got for a graduation present next to my Jeep. I pissed on her tire before I left. Childish, but a glorious piss indeed.
      I made a bet with a friend during all of this who knew the guy she left me for. He bet the new boyfriend would leave her within six months, after he found out what she could be like. I bet he’d marry her. My friend still owes me fifty bucks.
      My life felt then so twisted and contorted and chaotic, like someone close to me had died, which, I suppose, was true in a way. The person whom I loved passed on into a life after me. I was angry at her, sure, but I felt more hatred towards myself, for having allowed that to happen to me. How could I have put myself in that position? Why didn’t I listen to those close to me and leave her the second she put her foot through my windshield? Hell, even my grandmother didn’t like her. I looked at the facts, read my life over like I did the police reports, and wondered, just like I did for nearly every inmate: Why would you do that? What were you thinking? How stupid are you? How weak?
      But there’s always more to it, isn’t there? It takes more to free oneself from an abusive relationship than a healthy one, it seems. Something drastic must occur. And so Cora cultivated another relationship while simultaneously ending ours. She wouldn’t leave me until she knew where she’d end up. While it doesn’t sit well, after a time, I understood. But I had been closer to her than I had ever been to anyone. She had led me into some of the darkest corners of her personality that she had never shown to anyone, including her parents, and I was glad to be there to support her. However, I used her confidence in me as an excuse.
      I’ve heard that love ticks the same receptors in your brain as cocaine, and that it is really a “sober” form of insanity. I’d have to agree. To put that much faith and trust into another person, to make yourself that vulnerable, is crazy. Humans have a terrible track record when it comes to disappointment, historically. But it was so difficult to have any sort of objectivity, to see what others saw in only a few moments time. That’s not how it was, the inmates would tell me, and I understood exactly what they meant. I said the same to anyone who’d listen. But the inmates were the only ones who knew what the incident felt like to them, the twisted logic that brought them to smoke crack, steal a car, or cut a man’s eyes out. It was incommunicable, as those things tend to be. Or too weird. If I said that after Cora left me I woke up at 9:18 every morning for months, and that her birthday was 9/18, it would be difficult for anyone to believe and nearly impossible for me to prove. I have no evidence. Jail comes in many forms, and not being able to communicate with and convince others is one of them.
      Sitting in a jail interview room was about as comfortable as trying to defend Lebron James on a full-throttle fast break. (I can say that I’ve done both.) Xenia told me the rooms were closet-sized, but never specified whose closet. There was a table, side-mounted to the wall, with two metal stools welded to both sides of its frame. I’d eaten pancakes bigger than these stools. If you leaned back on the stool your back hit the wall, which sometimes made for a good backrest. The lighting was bright and harsh enough for a dermatology exam. Despite the cinderblock walls, you could hear everything around you: inmates talking with lawyers or other interviewers, buzzing doors, distant shouts, rattling keys. The air was thick and musty and cold, a strange combination that felt to me like the exhalation of a million lungs had been iced down and piped through the jail’s air vents.
      The door to lock-up buzzed down the hall. I organized my stack of paperwork. All the other interviews had been quick and easy, and I made sure they were all signed and ready to go. Foster Leon knocked on the door. His body took up the entire cross-wired window frame, six-feet, three hundred, easy, with a short afro, trimmed goatee and sideburns. He didn’t wait for me to wave him in: opened the door and sat down. He was wider than the table between us. He raised his eyebrows and looked at me as if to say: What the hell do you want.
      I couldn’t tell if he was aware of his smell. Maybe was me. I took small, quick breaths.
      His eyes were wrecking balls. He wouldn’t stop staring. I introduced myself and started to tell him what I was doing here.
      “You’re here to get information for my defense,” he said. He knew the drill. His voice was calm and showed no signs of real concern or anxiety. My legs shook on the balls of my feet again. It was so cold in there that my sweat from sitting outside earlier had turned into an icepack on my body. I began asking him the preliminary questions: Do they have your name spelled right? You married? Kids? He was quiet. Health problems?
      “You with social services?” he asked. “This a physical? I ain’t answering that.”
      “Could you read this out loud for me?” I asked, sliding the paragraph about the man being caught with marijuana over to him. He laughed at me.
      “You think I can’t read?
      “I mean, I think you can, but—“
      “I can read.”
      I looked down at my sheet and filled in what I could. I wrote N/A in the spaces where he wouldn’t give me an answer. He asked me if I had the police report. His breath bounced off the table. I showed him my Xeroxed copy next to the interview sheet. He picked it up, flipped over to the officer’s statement section, and read. I was not supposed to let inmates hold the report, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Foster Leon knew it, too.
      He ran his free thumb and index finger through his goatee and asked me a question with a supposedly obvious answer.
      “Would you cut a man’s eyes out?”
      I was silent, pleading the fifth.
      “Of course you wouldn’t,” he said. “That’s crazy! This is crazy!”
      There it was: the near obligatory exclamation that what was in the report was beyond logic and comprehension. It wasn’t the truth to him, or he didn’t want to see the truth.
      “Do you believe this?” he asked.
      “Believe what?” I tried to rope-a-dope my way around him.
      “Do you believe that I cut this man’s eyes out?”
      “I’m not here to judge,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what I believe. There are just the facts that are on the report and whatever evidence there is.”
      “That all there is to it? What about my side of it?” he asked.
      “I’m here to take it if you want me to,” I said.
      He looked at me square in the eye: “Who’s going to listen? Everyone’s already made their judgments here, even me.”
      “What do you mean?”
      He told me that he had already judged me. My blonde hair, tan, starched shirt, blood-shot eyes, watch and sunglasses, he thought I’d done nothing but lounge on the beach and stay up all night in a hot-tub with strippers, seeming to imply that I was some pretty-boy white guy.Someone who could get away with anything. Someone who’d had a light life, free from any real hardship or concern. Someone who didn’t know shit.
      The implication wasn’t entirely wrong.
      “But, there’s probably a lot more to it than that,” he said. “You’re in here with me now doing this. Right?”
      “It’s complicated,” I said.
      “Always is,” he replied.
      “I think I try to be a good person,” I said.
      “Me, too. Do you think I did it?”
      “It doesn’t matter what I think.”
      “So that’s who you are? Someone who doesn’t think?”
      “I’m trying to figure that out right now,” I said.
      Foster Leon leaned back on the stool. His shoulders reached the wall.
      “Let me ask you something,” he said. “Now why would I do something like cut this man’s eyes out for looking at a girl and a hundred dollars? Think about it. It’s crazy. And here you are talking to me? For what?”
      I stayed silent again. At one time I would have had good answers for Foster Leon. I’d always had a good answer for everyone. The answers were the ones that everyone wanted to hear. I recited them over and over in my head. Sound economic answers. Passionate answers. Humanitarian answers. Practical answers. The answers only a good person with his head on straight would say.
      Sitting there in jail, in the middle of an abstract conversation with Foster Leon, I had no answers. Not one. I couldn’t explain to anyone what I was doing, or why I was doing it. I went to law school for the wrong reasons, and I was looking at failing out. We seemed both to be two products of misspent passion, each imprisoned in his own way, and the blame lied squarely on our shoulders.

20140206035154_IMG_9706About the author:

Phil Quam is a teacher and writer currently living in Indonesia. He documents his travels at

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