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Chris June 14, 2015

Last night Jeff Ross’s lastest comedy special “Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at Brazos County Jail” premiered on Comedy Central. Just as Johnny Cash famously performed at Folsom Prison, the comedian went to Brazos County Jail in Texas where he spent a few days interviewing inmates and then performed comedy sets to both the male and female facilities. Interspersed with the comedy are interviews with inmates (in the actual blocks) and corrections personnel and facts about incarceration in the United States. I suggest watching it next time it’s on.

I thought the comedy was  pretty good. It wasn’t as funny (or profane) as Ross’ usual roasts of celebrities but he was doing much of it on the spot and didn’t have the benefit of subjects who provided a wealth of material. I know many incarcerated individuals and regularly visit correctional facilities to meet with clients. While many people talk about crime and the prison system, few actually talk to prisoners or at least think of them beyond their convictions and sentences. Ross emphasized a simple yet important point: almost all of the prisoners will be released at some point. It is important that they be treated humanely and receive the education and treatment so that when they do leave they do not come back (unfortunately many do).

Ross’ other main point is that way too many people in the US are incarcerated. We have the most prisoners of any country in the world. We could spend volumes explaining why that is. One major reason is excessive sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses (for example, one of my appellate clients received 30 years for selling two bags of cocaine). Another is the deinstitutionalization movement which closed many mental institutions only to reinstitutionalize many patients into prisoners.

Although prison visits are geographically inconvenient as many of our prisons are up in “prison alley” in Suffield, Enfield and Somers and trips up that way could be tough to fit into the schedule, I enjoy my visits. I always learn a lot about my clients beyond the case we’re working on. From what they did before prison to what they’re doing in prison to prison culture, they have valuable and interesting stories and knowledge. Many times I’ve had long, interesting conversations with clients after we finished discussing our case. While I’ve yet to perform stand-up, I’ve had my share of lighter moments on jail visits. Here are some.

  • On one of my first visits years ago I set off the metal detector. Rather than have me walk through again, the guard just asked me if I had a gun. He said then said as long as the sureveillance showed me going through the metal detector it was ok. That is not a widespread practice or even something that happened again at that facility.

  • I once met with a prospective client who was a rapper. He started telling me about his case and said that he wrote a song about it. I then realized that he was rapping to me about the case. That conviction and sentence might’ve even increased his credibility as a rapper (in fact he met with me to have his sentence modified upwards…).

  • Earlier this year I traveled to western Massachusetts to visit a client held in county jail there (he had a Connecticut case but was under sentence in MA). I called a couple of times in advance to make sure my credentials would be accepted so I wouldn’t drive 2.5 hours for nothing–they said as long as I had a bar card, I’d be fine. When I got there, the officer on duty said that they didn’t think my judicial branch ID would work because it wasn’t issued by MA. They let me in but had to take a booking photo of me. They then produced the wrong inmate–it was another guy with a similar last name. He still wanted to talk to me about his case and asked if I could represent him. Unfortuantely I’m not licensed in MA.

  • Attorneys and clients (are supposed to) meet in private interview rooms–not separated by glass and on phones. Conversations cannot be monitored in these. At one facility the prisoner has one entrance and the attorney has another. Both lock. After concluding a meeting, my client left but my door was still locked. I dialed the intercom but no one picked up. The guards were talking to each other and didn’t hear my banging or see me through the window. My client however did see me and laughed, saying “You can’t get out either! Now you know what it’s like!” I responded, “If I can’t get out I’m going to crash in your cell.” To which he replied, “You’re going to have sleep on the floor then.” Fortunately they let me out.

  • For a while I was visiting a client at the same time every week. It was at the same time another inmate had a social visit. Week after week the same visitor would set off the metal detector with what was probably an underwire bra. She employed all different techniques to go through the metal detector (walking sideways, crossing arms).

  • This isn’t about one of my visits or even a visit at all. For future reference, when a non-legal call from a prisoner comes in and the message says that the call may be recorded, it really is being recorded. Two characters in one of my older cases learned that the hard way. I found out they were talking to each other when they shouldn’t have when the recordings were disclosed to us. You could imagine what a couple separated for months by one of them being in prison would talk about. They weren’t like Adnan Sayed’s and Sarah Koenig’s calls…at least not the calls they played on Serial.

I have a lot of other good stories. Those are the ones that aren’t subject to confidentiality.