Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hanukkah Behind Bars

There are many great ways to celebrate Hanukkah, but visiting a maximum security prison is not one of them.

Nevertheless, sometimes the pursuit of justice requires traveling outside of your comfort zone and into the abyss. Dressing up (or, rather, down) as the "warden" is highly suggested (per my mom) and if you can take along a companion to ensure that you get out of prison alive, well, you just might get out of prison alive.

Bess and I met in 2005 when I started at the Firm. She was already an associate attorney. She stopped by my office to greet me on my first day along with another young associate, Tom. Tom did all the small talk and Bess just smiled at me with a twinkle in her innocent blue eyes. (I later learned that Bess fears small talk the way other people fear snakes).

Via email, Bess and I learned that we had grown up in the same area, worked at the same TV station, lived in the same high-rise apartment building, and even attended the same law school, all at the same time.

It was beshert that our paths finally crossed.

And thank God. Because I has just graduated from law school three months prior and all of a sudden the partners at our firm wanted me to represent an inmate at Graterford Prison who was allegedly abused by prison guards. (I'm sure the partners thought the case was frivolous, but upon reading the inmate's handwritten complaint, his claims detailed so articulately, I was pretty sure he deserved his day in court, if not immediate acceptance to Georgetown Law).

But, before I could get to court, I had to go to prison. To meet my client, Mr. W, a middle aged career burglar, and an eyewitness to his abuse at the hands of prison guards, Mr. J., a violent rapist.

(During my first visit to the prison, some prison guards locked me in a cell with Mr. J., separated only by a plexiglass divider, as a "practical joke" because they knew I was there gathering evidence for my case against them. That experience was enough to give a veteran combat soldier PTSD).

But, here I was going back into battle; this time I had Bess as backup.

(Did I mention that Bess not only looks as pure as a Disney princess, but that she actually is that pure? That she once called opposing counsel back to apologize after hanging up on him seconds earlier? That she howls in fear when getting an eyebrow wax?)

Maybe prison was not the best place for Bess after all. Taking Bess to prison was almost as absurd as taking an inmate to Sesame Street. The worst thing Bess has ever done in her life was drink excessively and then drive a local news anchor's car around a sanctioned course for a news special. (And they paid her to do it). But, after much pleading to the partners, Bess was now my co-counsel, and we believed that Mr. W. had his civil rights violated by prison guards.

Bess and I blasted music during the 30 minute drive to prison.  We belted out inaccurate lyrics, off-key, pretending it was just another "Friday concert," which we liked to stage in our offices at the Firm. But, my stomach was churning at the thought of going back behind bars.

Snow was falling as we navigated up the mile long prison drive. Bess and I munched on soft pretzel bites, debating whether I actually kissed our doorman, Rafiq, on his mouth or goatee when I told him I passed the Bar Exam. (Either way, it was a mistake. I was clearly aiming for his cheek, but you know how sometimes the other person makes a quick move and your kiss ends up somewhere you had not expected?)

The barbed wires and stone watch towers surrounded us as we entered, instantly making us feel condemned. Prison guards searched our rental car as we shivered in the snow. (There was no use making small talk with Bess because she fears small talk more than a full body search).

Once inside Graterford Prison, our bodies were scanned for contraband, our hands for traces of drugs. The guards flipped through the prison cell photos in my folder and eyed us up sideways. It's never a good thing when a prison guard tells you that he remembers you. Or that he knows that you're visiting - again - because you have a lawsuit against the prison guards.

Bess and I fidgeted in the waiting room on a long, scratched wooden bench amongst mothers and toddlers and a few stone-faced older children, presumably waiting to see their fathers. But, we could not get swept up in emotion. There was one reason we were spending Hanukkah behind bars. We were there on business; in particular, to interview our star eyewitness, Mr. J., a rapist, locked in solitary confinement.

When we entered the visitation cell, Mr. J. was behind a thick plexiglass divider. He had a grin across his face as deep as his rap sheet. I picked up the smudged telephone on my side of the glass and Mr. J. grabbed his.

"Yo, Stacy, how ya' doin,' counselor?" He winked at me just like he did the first time I met him. I deflected his wink.

"Fine, thanks. How are you, Mr. J.? This is my co-counsel, Bess," I told him.  "She's going to ask you a few questions about what you saw and heard on the night in question."

Now, I had imagined introducing Bess to a nice Jewish gastroenterologist,
a fellow attorney who also blushes when in court, perhaps a funny graphic designer, who ran marathons, like her.  But, never did I imagine introducing Bess to the creepiest convicted criminal imaginable. In solitary confinement.  In a maximum security prisoner.

We stood in the dank gray prison cell and stared at at each other for a couple of seconds.

"Here you go," I said, handing her the telephone. "No small talk. Just business."

(Did I mention that Bess fears small talk even more than she fears convicted criminals?)

She smiled at me and said the only thing left to say.

"Happy Hanukkah, Stace."

"Happy Hanukkah."

(And, in case you are wondering, we took those abusive prison guards all the way to federal court, like you knew we would. If that isn't a Hanukkah miracle, I don't know what is!)