December 15, 2018

I go visit Carl. Inmate 4389616. I’m shocked.

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — He’s a friend. Well, sort of.

Never have I been to a prison. Nor a jail.  This is a first. And what a first. So awful I end up doing something unthinkable.

San Luis Obispo County Jail. Grim and full. But why so few visitors? Strange.

Had to. I said he’s a friend, sort of. We meet now and then.

I’ve called him Carl but that’s not his name. I’ve also changed other things that might ID him. He’s in trouble enough.

Carl’s close to 70. A white man like me. Strapping, yes, and fit. Pleasant. Likes to bat the breeze.  A nice guy. You’d probably consider him a nice guy, too. A regular church-goer, it turns out.

But basically homeless. I say basically because he has an old, battered pick-up camper. It’s running and registered. Well, till now. His home for some years, I believe.

I don’t think he could get a thousand dollars for it, but it’s everything to him. Otherwise he’d be sleeping in the woods somewhere. I know some homeless here who do that.

And he keeps an old bike chained up at the back. He parks on a quiet side street. Rarely the same place twice.  Cops are

The warning leaves no doubt. In two languages. The penalties are serious.

tough on homeless here. Pull them in for “loitering.”

He takes down his bike and pedals around.  It’s common to see him doing that. His long, thick white hair held in place by his old felt fedora, which he’s never seen without.

As always, he’s got his big purple sunglasses on. He even wears them inside so they’re prescription, I guess.  Anyhow, he loves pedaling around. And he pedals hard. Not many old gents do that. Plus it saves gas.

I like to chat with people. I’ve chatted with him half a dozen times. He’s interesting. One time he said, “Hey, John, I lost my padlock for my bike. Need one bad. Know anyone might have a spare?”

I understood. His having the bike stolen would be a loss. But how can you lose a padlock? Well, I had one and gave it to him the next time I ran into him. He was genuinely surprised. “Thank you, John. Thank you, my friend!”

Another time he spotted me and said, “John, have you got $10 you can spare? Gotta buy gas to get out of town at night.

The waiting room. Surprise: nearly empty on a Saturday! Visitor Window is at far end. The wait time was awful.

You know… the damn cops! You’ll get it back. Count on it!”

I had a spare ten and handed it to him.  Again, big thanks. But I felt I was kissing it goodbye.

One day he spotted me and hurriedly pedaled over. “John, my friend, I just got my social yesterday. Been looking for you.  Here’s your ten! You’re a good guy, John.”  My respect for him zoomed way up.

In our talks he had found out I was a vegetarian. He said, “John, I go up to the Xxx Xxxxxxx Church. Kinda small, but nice people. I like the service. Makes you feel good, you know.

“And they always put out a big spread afterward. You’d have no problem sticking to vegetarian.  But why do you eat that way? Anyway, I’d be glad to introduce you around.”

“Sounds great, Carl. Count me in.”

A bit of background. I was raised Catholic. Some years ago, for three months or so, I would go to a different church

Vising room. I sat on this side. Carl on the other side. Scene of great frustration for both. Then I couldn’t get out!

service just about every other week. Presbyterian. Methodist. Episcopal. Unitarian. One time, Mennonite. And so on.

One Saturday I even went to a synagogue. There were spare yarmulkes in the lobby. I put one on my head. No problem.

A wonderfully broadening experience, visiting all these churches, to say the least.

All because of John Steinbeck and his “Travels with Charlie.” The eminent writer got himself a truck camper, much like Carl’s but fancy. That was something new back then. He wanted to tour the country and size it up. And write up his experiences. His wife turned him down for the trip, so he took Charlie, their poodle.

On Saturday he’d pull into a campground. Meet and chat with other campers. On Sunday morning he’d put on his white shirt and tie, don his blue blazer, and go to church somewhere. Always a different church. Would have a fine time. Learn interesting stuff. And he did write and publish that wonderful book about it all. A best-seller.

So that’s why I quickly said yes to Carl. I had never been to a church of that denomination. It turned out just as he described. A beautiful small church. A small congregation. Only 40 or so. Wonderful feeling of loving togetherness from beginning to end. But a long service – an hour and a half. Followed by that wonderful buffet spread.

Carl was there, of course. Greeted me. Did introduce me around. Knew quite a few of them. Leaving, I said, “A great idea, Carl! Thank you.”

Later he told me folks there had been extra good to him. He needed dental work. They sent him to a dentist and picked up the bill for him. How about that?!

Oh, he mentioned one time he’d park in the quiet lot in back at night. As a regular thing. He’d be alone back there. Less chance for the police to see him sleeping back there. The church said that was okay.

I have two or three friends who know Carl. Ten days or so ago, one, Patrick, said, “John, hear about Carl?”

“No, what about Carl?”

“He’s in the county jail. The police had a warrant. They grabbed him! He failed to make the monthly check-in with his probation officer.”

I picked up details bit by bit. Carl was a registered sex offender. He had told somebody, “She was cute. Under age. But I felt she wanted it. And I did it.” That was a felony. Trial. Was found guilty. Did a lot of time.

He was a very young man. It changed his life for the very worse till this very day. I’ll explain in a few minutes.

Over the years he also did time for other crimes, much less grievous. Not sure why or for how long. The details are hard to come by.

I decided to visit him in jail. I thought he’d be pleased to see a friendly face. And of course I was curious.

Thought I could just stop by and get in to see him. No, no. A big deal. Had to make an appointment. Online, mind you. Fill out a long form about myself. Get checked out. Finally got an appointment: Saturday at 12 noon, but I had to be there at 11:15 at the latest.

Thought that on a Saturday it would be a busy place.  The jail is at the end of a long, winding dead-end road. It’s obvious they wanted to play it down. It looks like an industrial building, with a few touches and lots of fencing and security around. It’s big – more than 600 inmates.

Only two cars in the visitor parking lot. Yes, on a Saturday. I made my way in. Long, narrow, deep room. Rows of red plastic chairs for visitors. Fluorescent lights. Registration Window at the far end.

Only three visitors. A middle-aged woman, sitting, brooding, obviously forlorn.  Another  middle-aged woman, heavy-set, tattoos, with a teen-age girl next to her. Sitting and not saying much. Three females waiting to see their locked-up menfolk. I felt bad for them. Imagine the young gal growing up with memories of this!

I walked to the Registration Window. A heavy glass plate. A uniformed officer on the others side, a woman. She nodded. “Driver’s license, please!” She was speaking through a sound system.

A steel drawer slid out in front of me. I dropped in my license. The drawer slid back in. The officer picked up my license and typed in a computer.  Gave me my license back. “Twelve noon. Please take a seat.”

“What will happen, please?  Where will I go? This is my first time.”

She pointed to a steel door over on the right, set in at a right angle. That’s why I hadn’t seen it. “Twelve noon!”

I took a seat. Looked around. A literature rack. Many pamphlets. All related to Alcoholism and Narcotics Addiction. Their symptoms. Where to get help.  On and on. Obvious that many inmates have a problem of this kind..

I saw a sort of vending machine. I took a look. You put in coins. Lots of coins. For a specific prisoner.  The money would pay for their calls out, at so much per minute.  No coins, no calls out, it seemed.

Oh, I had looked up why somebody got locked up here. It would be on a criminal complaint, so locked up awaiting trial. That is, unless they put up bail or got bailed out by a relative or friend or by a professional, expensive bondsman.

But many here were serving time after being convicted. The largest number, I think.

Carl was here awaiting trial. He couldn’t make bail. And no way could he pay a bondsman.

I had also looked up jails versus prisons. Especially the differences. Interesting. But I’ll let you Google or Bing that.

Why did I have to come so early? Seemed unreasonable. I fretted. I read some of those pamphlets. I did learn stuff.  Finally it was 12 noon. But nothing happened.

What’s this? I walked up to the woman officer behind the heavy plate glass. She pointed to the steel door.  “Open it. Go inside.”

I walked through the door. Very heavy.  I thought the two women and the teen-ager might come in, too. But they didn’t. A long, narrow room. I was alone in there.

The room was split lengthwise. Big panels of thick glass divided it in two. Fifteen steel stools were bolted down on my side. Fifteen matching stools on the other side.

Where to sit? I sat on No. 12 and waited.  Each seat had a phone. Each matching seat on the other side had a phone. Nothing happened. I waited five minutes, it seemed.

Finally Carl walked in from the far end. Alone. Saw me. Sat on the stool opposite me. Same long, thick shaggy hair. Same purple glasses. White T-shit. Orange jump suit. He nodded and smiled a wee bit.

Said something. I couldn’t hear. So he picked up his phone. I picked up mine. He spoke into the phone. I listened on mine. Nothing. He frowned. Searched for what to do next. Nothing worked. Frustrated, he held up one finger, meaning “One minute!” and walked out.

Finally returned with a male guard who gave instructions then walked out. Carl picked up his phone again. He looked at a wrist band on his left hand. Studied it. There was a number code on it, it seemed. Picked up the phone and tried. Didn’t work. Tried again.

Greatly frustrated, he again held up one finger and strode out. Finally returned with a different guard, female this time. That surprised me – a woman guard with all these men. She instructed Carl. He tried. Tried again. Zero.

I felt like screaming at her, “Why don’t you just do it for him!”

Poor fellow. Couldn’t get the sequence of numbers right or something. All the while I was holding the phone to my ear. Finally, finally, he spoke and I heard him! Whoopee!

He was sitting now. Gave me a glance but then dropped his head, held it in his hands. Long seconds went by.  It was clear. Total frustration. Total despair.

It occurred to me that in his various jailings here, this was his first time receiving a visitor. His total phone failure said it all. Must be true of a lot of inmates.

“How you doing, Carl?”

He looked up. Grimaced. Jabbed his thumb down. Muttered….

“Can’t hear you, Carl!” Yes, I have a hearing problem, still….  “Carl, turn up the volume, please!”

Bit he was having a hard time hearing me, too! He fumbled. No better. So it went. At least for me the whole session became a guessing game. This is what I made out:

How long will you be here? No idea. Waiting for a court date. Hope it’s soon.

Are you in a cell? No. Most of them are. I’m in a large room. About 80 men. No privacy.  Big TV set, pre-set, on all day. That’s good and bad.

The food? Pretty good. We go to a cafeteria.

Your biggest worry?  What the judge will decide. Anxiety big-time.

Other worries. Yes, my pick-up camper. In storage. Costing $100 per day! How will I be able to come up with that kind of money?

Sleeping okay? Big problem. At least twice every night, we have to all get up and stand in front of our bunk. They take a count. Make sure we’re all here. Awful. It’s driving me crazy.

Should I notify anybody? Yeah. For sure. Anybody who might know me. And tell them how awful this is!

With the lousy phone set-up, this had become an ordeal for both of us. And now not much left for either of us to say. I pointed to my watch, said I had to go. He nodded. Hung up his phone. So did I. Dropped his head. Long pause. He stood up. Gave me a tiny wave and walked back into whatever it was back there.

I looked at my watch. We were entitled to one hour. Eighteen minutes had gone by. I stood up. I was the only one in the room. No other visitor had come in. This on a beautiful Saturday, mind you. And 600 inmates here.

I walked back to the door. That big, heavy door. Tried to open it. It wouldn’t budge. Tried again. Impossible. Was I locked in? There was a grate next to it. Maybe I was supposed to speak into it. I spoke into it. Nothing happened. Spoke again. Nothing.

My God! Was I a prisoner in here, too!?

What to do? I strode to the far end to the heavy glass panel that you couldn’t see through. With my cane I tapped, tapped, tapped on the glass.

A man’s voice. “Go back to the door, when you hear an alert, push!”

I heard a low alert, pushed, nothing happened. I waited for the man’s voice again. No voice. Walked back to the window. Tapped, tapped, tapped.

“GO BACK TO THE DOOR. WHEN YOU HEAR THE ALERT, PUSH!!!”

I heard, went back, pushed with all my might, and the damn door opened!

I was furious. I strode to the female guard at the Visitor Window. The two women and the teen girl had left. There was just a new woman here.

I suspected the female guard was aware of the whole damn, crazy experience.  I burst out, “This has been awful! Awful!”  I wasn’t yelling. But I was damn loud. “People gotta know!”

She didn’t say a word. I couldn’t even see if she was watching.

I was getting even madder.  “Hey, I’m going to call the newspapers about this! The Trib and the New Times! Both of them!”

Now the guard stared at me. But not a peep from her. No, “Oh, that’s too bad!” No, “I’m sorry!” And that irritated me!

The new woman had come right up to me. “Do that!” she said. “Call the papers. I’m with you!”

“You a visitor?”

“No, I’m an R.N. here.  Just coming on. But you do that!”

“I will! I sure will!”

I got home and was still fuming. Rare for me to explode like that.

And the R.N. had applauded me when I said I’d call the newspapers. That told me a lot. She was on the payroll. She must know the problems.   A lot of people must have a lot of frustrations about going to visit at the jail. Hey, how come such a terrible turn-out of visitors?

The next day I followed through on my threat. Left a detailed voice mail for the editor of The Tribune. Joe Tarica. It’s a daily. Serves the whole county. Does a decent job despite the financial squeeze all daily papers are living through these days.

Then reached the editor of the New Times, a weekly. It features exposes, loves to splash a new one. Camilla Lanunh. She listened carefully. Asked many questions. I hung up feeling good about her.

My message to both: “You must do a story. And the right way is to check out the whole process. But not by going and showing your press pass \and asking a jail spokesperson a lot of questions. No, no, no.

“Go and test the system. From a visitor’s point of view.  Act like just another first-time visitor trying to get to see an inmate. Find out how difficult it is to set up the visit, then go through every step. From your first minute in there to your last.

“Look up an inmate in there. That won’t be hard. Hey, look up the one I went to see, Carl Zwink! Then go through the whole awful ordeal to get in to see him.

“Experience how awful the phone system is. I hope you’re alone in there with Carl. Or whoever else you choose. Try to get out afterward. And write it all up!”

Remember, dear reader, what I told you way up top. My experience was so bad that I felt I had to do something dramatic about it. Just had to! Well, this was it.

The next day I got a call from Matt Fountain from the Trib. Joe Tarica, the editor, had told him to check me out. I recognized his byline—a top journalist. Listened carefully. Said, “I’ll look into it. But it’s got to wait. The election. Other stuff. Thanks for sharing!”

Back in Morro Bay, I passed the story around to people who know Carl. Called an  elder at the church. He thanked me and said they have a member who visits people locked up in the jail and the prison. He’d get in to see Carl.

Oh, must tell you we also have a very large state prison here. It’s called The Men’s Colony. How’s that for a euphemism?!

It’s for felons, right up to murderers.  I’ve heard some criminals would rather do prison time than jail time. The prison has more programs of various kinds for prisoners than the jail does. More interesting. More helpful.

A few days later I was pedaling my trike through our shopping center grounds and I heard a loud “John! John!”

I looked. It was Carl. What?! He came running over. “Yeah, John, here I am. They let me out. Gave me a bus ticket.  So glad to be out of that damn place! Look!”

He showed me his right wrist, then the left one. “Look! I was in handcuffs! You can still see the marks!” He rubbed both wrists, vigorously. It seemed to help.

“Thank God, Carl! So happy for you. Congratulations! But what happened?!”

“I had a good public defender. He did a great job. He convinced the judge. The judge even eased a couple of the probation rules for me! Am I glad to be out! Boy oh boy!”

I’ve seen him a couple of times since. He knew I wanted to write a story and publish it as a blog post. I had to explain about blogging. He’s even more eager now.

“People gotta know! Use my name, John. Tell them about me and how I’ve been treated all these long awful years! How it’s ruined my life!”

“Yes. Yes. That’s what I’ll do. But I won’t use your name, Carl. I’ll disguise you. If I used your name, believe me, you might get very upset about the way some people react. This is a small place. I’ll do it my way. I insist!”

And that’s how we stand.

Here are some things I’ve learned.

He got his pick-up camper out of hock. But it cost him $1,000. And he still has $3,000 to pay. No idea how he’ll raise the dough.

He can’t drive it. His license has lapsed. He didn’t have the money to renew it. So it’s parked in some quiet corner. He uses it as his little house.

And his bike is missing. Got to buy a cheapie. Meanwhile, he’s riding the local bus here and there.

Still has to meet his probation officer every single month. Must not miss! But the public defender got the judge to loosen up on a few things.  But not enough.

His old mother lives in a neighboring town. He’d like to go visit her. But he can’t. He’d be too close to a school. Prohibited!

The main bus stop here is right at the little park on Morro Bay Boulevard, the main drag. But he can’t step on that park. Maybe kids there. Prohibited!

There are more than a dozen places in this small city he can’t go near. All prohibited!

Who can live like that? In a way, he’s living in a jail of a different kind. No steel bars. But the prohibitions are steel bars.

And local police know about him. If they caught him straying, they’d cuff him in a minute, book him, and give  him a one-way ride to the jail again.

Anyway, Carl had only a couple of bucks in his pocket. I lent him $95. What I had on me. “Thank you, John, buddy! You’ll get it back!”

It was cold out. I wondered where he’d sleep. He didn’t know. He said he’d figure something out. A man hitting 70.

I went to that little church with him again. I gave him a ride there, then drove him back. We did the service. Then the buffet. People were very nice to him. If they knew, they didn’t let on.  I was impressed.

I asked him why he didn’t let the garage that had impounded his pickup camper keep it, and thereby spare himself the $3,00 he was still obligated to pay. No, no. that camper is his little home, sweet home.

“I’ve been a freelance house painter all these years, John. A damn good one.  You know, my bread and butter work. But I’m also an artist. I like to paint nice pictures. I have a lot of paintings. They’re in my truck.”

Well, I’ve been thinking about Carl a lot. He did a stupid thing nearly 50 years ago. He admits it. He paid the price, and what a price, and he’s still paying it. And I remember his agonized protest:

“But I ain’t a criminal, John. No way! I got friends. They know I’m a good guy!”

Sure. But sadly Carl has not been 100 percent clean. He’s served time more than once, for this petty crime, then that one. He’s invited some of his suffering. As I said, the details are hard to pin down.

I do admit I’ve had a doubt or two. Who wouldn’t? Maybe I’m being conned by him. Maybe there’s a lot of dirt he’s not letting me see. But deep down I don’t think so.

For sure the biggie has been that encounter with the pretty teen-ager long, long ago.

And I’m thinking, there are registered sex offenders…and registered sex offenders. Men, sure, but women sex offenders also. Some who are much worse offenders than others.

Shouldn’t there be a sliding scale of some kind?  A stiff sentence for someone with a whole string of offenses …maybe against little children as well… true rapists, true sadists, violent and vengeful, incorrigible, a proven menace to society.

But should a youth of 20 or so, for a single offense, with a teen-age girl who seemed to want it, be branded with that for decades on end?  Someone who committed no true rape. Did not threaten or torture.  Did not do it a second time, or so I assume.

Who may be going to sleep at night in his old age worrying that that sex crime might be the headline event in his obituary one of these days?

Is that right? Can’t there be some way for someone so branded to be truly contrite, to finally shake that off … the awful label of Registered Sex Offender?! All in order to be a good and productive and reputable citizen again?

Hey, that’s how the people in his little church see Carl. Why can’t all of Morro Bay get to see him this way?

I’m no expert. But why is it that some expert hasn’t sounded off about this?

Do please tell me if you know of some true expert who has sounded off. Please.

Carl must soldier on with his enormous and unrelenting burden. It’s not like a backpack you can take off at the end of the day. There’s no let-up.  But I hope his jail days are finally over. For good. Pray God.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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