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An old tin cup sits on a shelf in my office. People who see it rarely ask about it, with most not giving it so much as a second glance.

The cup, while scratched and slightly dented, still has a bit of shine left on its surface, Those thin etched lines resemble an intricately-drawn roadmap. And, if one knows the history of the cup, well, each line is indeed a well-traveled path, and each line has a story to tell. While I don’t know the details of all of the stories held by my old tin cup, I know a few.

When the cup was first manufactured, World War II had recently ended as had the manufacturing of cordite. Schools in Virginia had not yet been fully integrated and Arthur Ashe’s father was working as a Special Policeman for Richmond, Virginia’s recreation department. Arthur Ashe was the only African American man to ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open.

As tin cups made their way from factories to their final destinations, the Virginia State Penitentiary complex, built in 1800 at Belvidere and Spring Street, in Richmond, was in full swing. It was a horrid place that was so bad the ACLU once labeled it the “most shameful prison in America.” But it didn’t start out that way.

The idea to build the Virginia State Penitentiary was brought to the table by Thomas Jefferson.

In 1785, Jefferson served in Paris as ambassador. It was then and there when he noticed a different type of incarceration, one that was an experiment of the effect of labor by inmates in solitary confinement.

Jefferson believed that the object of punishment should be discipline, repentance and reform. Not as vengeance. So, when he returned from Paris he proposed his “labor in confinement” for prisoners. His idea was to have prisoners work on public works projects during the day then spend their non-work hours in small solitary confinement cells so they could reflect on their crimes.

It was 10 years later when Virginia lawmakers moved forward on Jefferson’s plan. Construction began on the Virginia State Penitentiary, soon to be nicknamed “Spring Street,” a moniker used by both inmates and staff. The name Spring Street quickly became associated with darkness and torture and pain … and the electric chair.

Prisoners at Spring Street drank from tin cups, much like the one in my office.

The Virginia State Penitentiary was designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, who later designed the U.S. Capitol.

The cell doors at the Spring Street prison had no windows, which meant that officers had to physically open them to check on the inmates inside. The prison was unheated, and believe me, it gets cold in Virginia during the winter months.To keep warm, prisoners wrapped themselves with thin German-made wool blankets. Each prisoner was give one blanket, their only protection against the freezing blasts of air that blew in through the barred windows.

The prison was not equipped with a sewage system; therefore, prisoners were forced to collect waste in buckets and then empty them down a trough that flowed into a nearby pond. Summertime in Richmond, Va. can be extremely hot with humidity so thick that flies nearly swim in mid air. It was after 100 years had passed by that officials decided to improve the sewage situation.

Tin cups remained in use throughout, during executions, riots, the incarceration of both notorious and noteworthy inmates, such as former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and the evil Briley brothers, a duo whose vicious and vile crimes I’ve written and about and detailed here on this blog.

At the close of the the Civil War, the entire population of the Spring Street prison escaped following the Richmond evacuation fire.

The tin cups, though, remained at the prison, waiting for the return of the prisoners.

Hundreds upon hundreds of tin cups where in use just a half-mile away.

Virginia began executions by electric chair at the Spring Street penitentiary in 1908. The last hanging was in 1909. Executions took place barely a half mile from the center of Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus, where in later years (much later) my wife Denene was hard at work earning her PhD in pathology.

A few blocks further down the way was the location of the state lab where I delivered crime scene evidence for examination and testing. The state morgue was also there. It was the place where I observed numerous autopsies performed on murder victims. It was where the autopsy was conducted on the armed bank robber I shot and killed during a shootout.

It was there at the basement morgue when the medical examiner told me, in detail, that four of the five rounds I fired were fatal rounds. The fifth, the first round I fired in response to him shooting at me, was a shot to the side of the head, caused massive damage, but had that been the only round to have struck him, the shooter/robber may have survived.

A Hanging

In the summer of 1900 Brandt O’Grady was hanged along side Walter Cotton. O’Grady was white and Cotton was black. The hangings were in retaliation for the brutal murder of several individuals.

A mob of citizens, both whites and blacks, stormed the jail and pulled Cotton from his shackles and hanged him from the Cherry tree in the corner of the courthouse yard. Minutes later the black townspeople demanded that O’Grady also be hanged so the group forcefully removed Mr. O’Grady from his cell and “strung him up” on the Cherry tree next to Cotton’s  lifeless body.

Inside the old red brick jail in Southside Virginia, the land of cotton, peanuts, and soybeans, were enough tin cups for each prisoner to have one he could call his own, as long as he was serving time there.

When I started working as a sheriff’s deputy, way back during the days of revolvers, patrol cars with those super long whip antennas, and when pepper spray was unheard of, my first assignment was to serve as a jailer. Part of that duty was to oversee the delivery of food trays at mealtimes. Prisoner trustees—short-timers with good jail records— carried the trays from the kitchen to each cell.

The trays we used were the kind you see in school across the country, hard plastic with divided sections that separate each portion of food from another. They were passed to the prisoners through “tray slots” in the cell doors.

At the top right of each tray was a tin cup filled with the beverage du jour. At breakfast time they contained coffee. To accompany lunch and dinner, the beverage was a fruit-flavored drink similar to Kool-Aid.

Prisoners were not allowed to keep the cups inside their cells. To do so was an infraction of jail time which could’ve led to time in “the hole” or a loss of privileges such as visitations, phone use, or their weekly canteen service.

But, inmates will be inmates, and they seemed to find ways to steal a cup or two. The kitchen staff was responsible for the accurate inventory and control of all kitchen items (cups, silverware, trays, etc. Someone was accountable for those items at all times, and it was serious business if something turned up missing. And yes, it’s true. Sometimes those cups were used to bang against the bars. That’s a sound one doesn’t forget too easily.

Tin cups could be fashioned into all sorts of weapons, of course. They were also used for cooking. They’re great for heating coffee, soup, etc., when held over an open fire. Fire, of course, is not permitted at any time. But prisoners find a way. They always seem to find a way to do, well, anything.

My old tired eyes have seen many prisoners over the years, many of whom shared some pretty incredible stories. Some not so true, but others were so fantastic that they manage to flicker cross the front of my mind to this day. I still feel the emotion they exhibited when telling those personal tales.

Those men sipped from their tin cups during holidays, peering out of small, narrow windows, wishing for someone, anyone, to come for a visit. Some drank from the shallow metal cups during their last days on earth, knowing that in just a few hours an executioner would “pull the switch.”

Today, I see my own face in the cup’s reflection, but it’s someone I barely recognize. I’m much older now, but in my mind I’m still the same person who oversaw the delivery of those cups to thirsty prisoners. Many of men were grateful for something as simple as a morning cup of coffee, something we take for granted because we have the opportunity to brew one whenever we like. Not so for the folks who live in captivity.

Yes, the face I see looking back at me is far different than the person who used to peer back at me. Life has moved on and it’s sometimes difficult to let go of the past. But knowing where I’ve been sure goes a long way towards helping me get to where it is I’m going.

Like most things that come and go with the changing of the times, tin cups in jails and prison are likely a thing of the past.

Newcomers to my office barely give my old tin cup a first glance, seeing merely an old and empty, scratched and slightly dented, drinking vessel. Me, I see a tin cup that’s brimming with a lifetime of sorrow, pain, death, misery, happiness, tears, laughter, and more. It’s a cup that runneth over with emotion.

A cup filled with precious memories is what sits in my office. Some good and some not so good. But precious they are. And yes, the cup in my office was once used by murderers, robbers, rapists, and burglars.

Here’s to you.

Mr. X is a former business professional who committed a crime that landed him in federal prison. He’s out now and has agreed to share the story of his arrest with the readers of The Graveyard Shift. You might find this tale a bit interesting.

GYS: Thanks for taking the time to share what must have been a difficult time for you and your family. I’ll dive right in. What were the circumstances that ultimately led to your arrest?

X: It’s embarrassing to have to tell it. I’ll start by saying I was ill at the time. A mental problem, I guess you’d call it. My doctor gave me all sorts of drugs that were supposed to help me, but didn’t. They just screwed up my wiring—my thought processes. Anyway, to this day I still say I would have never done anything wrong had it not been for the assortment of antidepressants and pain pills. Still, I did what I did and I accept the responsibility for it. I wish I could change it, but I can’t.

GYS: What was the crime that ultimately led to your arrest?

X: I bought some cocaine to sell. I didn’t use the stuff, I just needed money. You see, with my mind so scrambled I couldn’t hold down a job and my wife was struggling to make ends meet. The medicine and depression simply wouldn’t let me think properly. Either I’d get fired or I’d quit for some crazy, unjustified reason. All I had on my mind was the feeling those little pills offered, especially the pain pills. At the time, I think I’d have married a bottle of Hydrocodone. I loved and craved it that much. Still do, actually, and I haven’t touched the stuff in many years. But I think about it nearly every day.

GYS: How long did your life of crime last?

X: I didn’t make a very good criminal. My entire crime spree lasted about a week. I bought the cocaine to sell, but chickened out. I couldn’t sell it. But someone who was involved in the transaction was already in trouble with the police and told them about me to help themselves out of their own jam.

GYS: Tell us about the arrest.

X: As it turns out, the person who told on me was an informant for a federal task force so, needless to say, I was surprised when my house was raided by a team of FBI agents along with state and local police. There must have been fifteen or twenty officers involved in the raid of my home. All for a little over $100 worth of cocaine. Although, I’m sure if I’d sold it it would have netted more. The prosecutor leading this investigation was a man named James Comey. You may have heard of him.

GYS: Seriously, that’s all you had?

X: Yes, sir. $120 worth, or so. A heaping tablespoon full, maybe.

GYS: What were your charges?

X: Possession of a controlled substance (cocaine) with the intent to distribute, and obstruction of justice. The obstruction charge was later dropped. I think the feds automatically add that one to make you confess.

GYS: Why do you say that about the obstruction charge?

X: They threatened to arrest everyone in my family—my wife, kids, and mother—if I didn’t confess. And if I didn’t admit to the crime they’d let the obstruction charge stand, and that’s a minimum of a ten-year sentence. I had no choice. None whatsoever. Plus, they applied this pressure prior to my talking to an attorney, which I understand is perfectly legal. But let me again stress that I was indeed guilty. I’ve never denied it.

GYS: So what happened next?

X: Gosh, it’s all a blur. Let’s see. I was handcuffed, placed in the back of a police car, driven to a remote jail hours away from my home, fingerprinted, strip searched, de-loused, and placed in a jail cell. The cell was a single cell (only one inmate) with a plastic-covered mattress atop a steel plate hanging from the wall.

A former occupant had smeared feces on the block wall in several places. The toilet didn’t flush, and the door—a solid steel door—had a family of roaches living inside the hinges and other tiny crevices. They came out to explore at various times throughout the day and night. By the way, it was difficult to distinguish between night and day because there was no window and the overhead light remained on 24/7. It was a real shock to me. I’d never even had a traffic ticket.

Oh, my family had no idea where I was, or what had happened. They were away when the raid took place—at work and in school.

This, shortly after my arrest, was when I learned that I was a drug addict. Withdrawal symptoms set in not long after I was in the jail cell. The next several days were pure hell, for many reasons. I begged for someone to help with the sickness, but my pleas went unanswered.

My only contact with humans was through a small slot in the middle of a steel door. As I said, I’d begged for help but that door wasn’t opened again for three days. I did see a couple of hands twice a day when they shoved a food tray through the slot. But the person wasn’t allowed to talk to me.

A federal agent finally came to get me on the third day. He took me to a courthouse for a bond hearing. My family was there but I wasn’t allowed to speak to them. I was denied bond. Why not, I don’t know. This was a first offense, and a $100 dollar offense on top of that. So I was hauled back to the jail cell.

On the ride back to the jail, shackled like Charles Manson—handcuffs, waist and leg chains—I realized just how lovely trees, flowers, and the sky really are, even though I was seeing them through a steel screen. I also realized how important my family was. I’d taken a lot of things for granted in my miserable life.

So I wound up back at the jail, which I learned also doubled as a holding facility for federal prisoners. I was there for two more weeks until my wife scraped together enough money—$25,000 (she borrowed against the house)—to retain an attorney to represent me. Still, he obtained a lien on the house in case his fee went above the $25,000. Federal court is really expensive.

The lawyer managed to get another bond hearing and I was released on my own PR, but I wasn’t allowed to go home with my family. I had to stay with a relative in another city because the prosecutor said I was a threat to my community. For $100 worth of drugs that I never took or sold!

Anyway, I remained there until I went to court where I was found guilty (a pre-arranged plea agreement) and sentenced to serve nearly three years in federal prison.

In the beginning, an FBI agent told me Mr. Comey wanted them to question me to see if knew of public corruption. I couldn’t believe it. Somehow he was under the impression I knew something of importance, but I didn’t. Nothing. When I think back, I think he may have a little embarrassed that he’d initiated this huge raid that involved dozens of law enforcement officials, several prosecutors, and lots and lots of money, all for that tiny amount of cocaine (illegal, I know).

So he pushed hard. I also believe that’s why I was denied bond and was held at that way out of the way jail in another part of the state, and that I wasn’t allowed to return home.

The arrest occurred on a Friday, which meant they were guaranteed that I’d remain locked away at least until Monday when the courts were open. Slick move. All to prevent me from telling the story. Prosecutor Comey kept me in seclusion until they could begin the threats of “forever in prison and locking up my family.” It was no longer about the cocaine. This was to save face.

But this is my educated guess and a story for another day.

It’s no secret that many children of incarcerated parents are practically pre-destined to follow those same paths to a life of crime, followed by time spent in prisons and jails.

If memory serves, these kids are five or six times more likely to commit crimes than other kids their own age.

What’s it like to live as a member of one of those families? Well, let’s take a peek into the life of the Atwood family—Vernon and Vernon, Jr. Carly Atwater, Vernon’s wife and mother of Vernon, Jr., left many years ago. Couldn’t take the drinking and abuse.

So …

It had been nearly three years since Vernon Atwater had last seen his oldest son, Vernon, Jr.

December 14th, a day he would never forget, started when the judge, the Honorable James T. Williams, found Junior guilty of murder and sentenced him to twenty-five years in the penitentiary. Sheriffs’ deputies immediately handcuffed the newly convicted man and led him from the courtroom through a set of heavy wooden doors at the rear of the room.

Two hours later, Vernon stood outside on the sidewalk, pulling a few drags on a Lucky Strike, watching as two burly deputies helped his boy into an unmarked car to take him to the state prison in Rocky Creek.

Vernon spent the rest of the day in his grassless backyard, sitting in an old rickety kitchen chair drinking cheap beer and wondering what he’d done that caused Junior to do the things he did.

Vernon felt guilty for not driving to “The Creek” to see Junior, but something had always come up—overtime at the mill, the truck needed new brakes, the roof needed replacing. Those things took time and before he knew it weeks had turned into months and months into years.

Needless to say, Vernon was more than a little nervous about seeing Junior. Three years was a long time. His heart pounded and thumped against the inside of his chest as the car turned from the main highway onto the narrow blacktop leading to the penitentiary.

The sight of the gleaming razor wire atop the double fences caused his throat to tighten. He hoped his boy was all right. He’d heard every horrible prison story there was to tell. But Junior was tough. He’d never allow anyone to do him harm. Of that he was firmly convinced. Still …

Hundreds of men behind the fences were engaged in all sorts of activities. They paused from their weight-lifting, jogging, handball, bocce ball, and basketball, trying to get a glimpse inside the passing vehicle.

He wondered how his son was going to react to seeing him today. He wondered if anyone had even told him he was coming.

At least this visit would be a long one.

Two six packs of beer. An argument over a stupid football game. One thing led to another and out came the hunting knife. A few months later Vernon found himself standing in the same upstairs courtroom, in the very spot where Vernon, Jr. once stood, facing Judge James. T. Williams.

Judge Williams, by the way, remembered Vernon, Jr’s case and made a point to mention it during the tongue-lashing he delivered to the elder Vernon during a lengthly and fiery pre-sentencing statement.

Vernon tried to be strong but his knees nearly buckled when he heard the judge hand down his sentence—twenty-five years to life.

It’s really true, Vernon thought as the unmarked sheriff’s car pulled into the prison sally port, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The apple doesn’t fall far

It’s not been your day. First, the wife called to say the toilet won’t flush, the dog dug up the neighbor’s prized rose bush, and the principal suspended your oldest kid for drinking a beer in the restroom.

On your way home you stop at a buddy’s house to shoot the breeze and maybe pick up a small bag of pot to help shed the day’s troubles from your mind. Then, just as your pal pulls a quarter ounce from his 42-pound stash, the police kick in the front door. It’s a raid and you’re handcuffed and hauled downtown. Who knew your friend had been on the narcotics cops’ radar for the better part of a year?

Stick cuffs

One of the officers, McColdhands, according to his nametag, was a nice enough guy. He didn’t push or shove and he spoke to you in a nice way. No yelling or cursing. But he did snap the cuffs around your wrists, and he didn’t read you your rights (you later learned that’s not necessary because he didn’t ask any questions about your involvement in illegal activity).

Despite his cordial demeanor, you still hate his a** with a passion. After all, he just took away your freedom, right? Yeah, sure, it’s his fault, along with the other officers who busied themselves digging through drawers and closets and the refrigerator and the toilet tank.

Handcuffed eyes

But who knew good old Billy Buck, your friend since high school, had so much dope in the house? And all that cash? One of the cops said there was at least a hundred-thousand. Still …

After waiting in the backseat of a locked police car for what seemed like an eternity, Officer McColdhands slipped in behind the wheel, said some sort of gobbledygook into a radio microphone, and off you went to, well …

Welcome to jail.

Points to note:

  • You have no right to privacy while in jail.
  • Showering and shaving times and days are limited in most jails.
  • Telephone calls may be monitored and/or recorded.
  • Watching television is a privilege, not a right.
  • Visitation is a privilege, not a right.
  • Telephone use is a privilege, not a right.
  • Some jails charge inmates a modest daily housing fee.
  • Some jails charge a small fee for medical care.
  • Most jails and prisons have libraries, and some of the books there are YOURS!
  • Jail and prison are not the same.

Corridor inside an old county jail

A jail is typically operated by a county or city government. Jails house:

  • People who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or sentencing.
  • People who have been convicted of a misdemeanor offense and are serving a sentence of (typically) less than 1 year.
  • People who have been sentenced to prison—a sentence of one year or more—and are awaiting transfer to a state facility (prison).

*As always, laws and policies in your area my differ from those in another part of the country. For example, see Gina’s comment below.