Sitting on the curb, hands cuffed behind my back, I watched the police open the duffle bag and smile.
One of the officers turned to me and said that I was going to get him a promotion. Another cracked jokes about me being the biggest bust he’d ever seen. I doubted that, but I understood that what I was carrying did not come through this small town often.
I knew the risk I was taking when I left Chicago with two hundred hits of LSD, twenty-five pills of MDMA, two pounds of Marijuana, and a quarter ounce of Cocaine.
Unfortunately, the odds weren’t in my favor that week.
A few days earlier, I was told that I had to come up with $10,000 in thirty-days. I owed money to the type of people with whom you don’t want to fall into debt. The business of “transporting goods” fell in my lap when I needed cash, and the leash that allowed me to make ends meet was now choking me.
In a scramble to shake off dues, my better judgment went elsewhere. Under usual circumstances, I would not take a trunk load of drugs out of the city, but I was desperate.
Desperation had been a recurring theme of my life at this point. As a small-town kid from a poor family, I had always fought to rise up above my circumstances. But looking back, this was just another chapter of the book titled “Eric Gets In Over His Head.”
The day was Saturday, February 12th, 2011.
I was driving down the highway, sleep deprived, when I came upon a sign that read, “DRUG TRAFFIC STOP AHEAD”.
My heart sank as I took the nearest exit into a rest area. My sister was with me, and she glanced at me with unmistakably worried eyes. But as I pulled into the parking lot, I realized I was sealing my fate.
It was a rookie move, but for a second I thought I could pull in, ditch the duffle bag, and continue forward. I barely had time to put my car into park before the officer was at my door.
It was the ole’ bait and switch.
They wanted me to try and get away from the drug traffic stop. He tapped his badge on the glass, and signaled for me to roll the window down.
The canine to his right alarmed me. I tried to act cool, but my appearance did nothing to help me. I was dressed in a retro outfit from the previous night’s party, complete with a corduroy jacket and a wool lapel.
The rusty Honda Civic that I was driving looked like something a man hustling his way through life would drive, but I ignored all of it the best I could.
I smiled, as if my world wasn’t about to fall apart. After a series of questions the officer said that he smelled marijuana, giving him probable cause to search my vehicle.
My main concern once they found the drugs was to protect my sister. She had come up from Peoria that weekend to see me, and her car had broken down. I decided to give her a ride back to Peoria and drop off some goods.
But now, she was front row for the most shameful experience of my life.
As soon as the officer opened the duffle bag I told him that the contents were mine and that my sister did not know I was carrying any illegal substances. I knew the best thing legally was to keep my mouth shut, but I couldn’t let my sister get dragged down with me.
Integrity defines you, or confines you, but this was my burden to carry, not hers.
After being pulled aside and questioned, my sister was arrested for paraphernalia she had in her purse. Fortunately, she was never charged with the contents of my duffle bag. As they put me in the back of a squad car, the thought came through.
I was about to go to prison for a very long time.
When I got to the station, the drug task force officers interrogated me. They were assertive and intimidating, wearing bulletproof vests with khaki pants and pointing out that I was likely to get sentenced to 15 years or more. They stressed that the “Feds” could pick up the case, and that I wouldn’t like that.
They told me to give them some information on where the drugs came from and where they were going and we could “work out a deal.” There was no hesitation, no moment of truth. I might have been caught red-handed breaking the law, which technically made me a criminal, but I had morals.
I told them that no good could come from this, except the good I make, and that I refused to cooperate. They shook their heads and left the room.
I tried to let it sink in. I tried to let it go. But truly, my brain couldn’t even process it. Twenty-five years old, and I was about to spend the best years of my life locked up.
The next day I awoke to a new life as an inmate. The food was bad, the jumpsuit was itchy, and the beds were unbearable.
The people? Well, the people were all right.
I was comforted by the concern these strangers showed me. My first impression of jail wasn’t a portrait of thugs fighting over scraps, it was of a group of men suffering together. The personalities could not be more diverse, and yet we all got along…more or less.
This was a small town jail with only 15 people in the felony pod. The space we shared was small, but the typical segregation still prevailed. The white guys hung out with the white guys, the black guys hung out with the black guys, and the lone Latino kept to himself.
I have never paid much attention to the color of people’s skin, but race is never more apparent than when you are trapped in a room with people of different cultures. We were congenial, but the idiosyncrasies of the groups made for a strange environment at times.
However, we were still a single unit. We were inmates, and we shared that bond knowingly.
We told stories to pass time. We played cards and watched television. We complained about the living conditions like we were not getting our money’s worth.
“This food sucks!”
“Why don’t they turn the air down? I’m freezing!”
“Why don’t we have HBO?”
I was surprised by the good humor at first, but then it became obvious. When faced with the darker side of reality, it is necessary to make light of the situation. We could have marinated in our despair, and some did, but that was accepting defeat.
We were totally powerless over our surroundings, which made it all the more important that we control our state of mind. That was the first of many valuable lessons I’d learn during my time in jail:
“If you can not control your circumstances, you must control your reaction to your circumstances.”
After a week, I went to court and the judge told me that I was looking at a six-to-thirty year sentence. I was being indicted on two class X felonies, three class 1 felonies, and one each of the class 2, 3, and 4 felonies. Once these words settled in, my body was consumed with vertigo.
Isn’t it strange what the mind does in times of uncertainty?
Mine became a stone wall. I wasn’t going to let them beat me, and I would take whatever sentence they threw at me. I wasn’t afraid of going to prison.
But then again, I was full of shit.