Fred Colton was waking from being what felt like a long, heavy sleep. He felt extremely tired, but what woke him up was the overwhelming smell of old clothes and urine and, in a dreamy state, wondered why his bed stunk so and felt harder than usual.
“Maybe Claudia noticed the stink too,” Fred thought.of his wife as he opened his eyes. “Wait a second, I’m not on my bed. Where am I?”
“Get up, scumbags, get up!”, a booming, forceful voice roared with echo through the space in the long hallway.
Fred jumped confused, but suddenly realized where he was in the dark.
“Sh*t, I’m in the Harris County jail.”
When the lights came on, Fred (not his real name) saw about 20 men in bright orange jumpsuits of various races, shapes and ages groaning and emerging from metal bunk beds.
Two jail deputies enter the large concrete room and Fred doesn’t know why they’re waking them up at this forsaken hour. He doesn’t know if it’s early morning or late at night; all he can see is darkness outside a high small railed window.
“God, I just want to go home to my wife and kids,” he murmured in desperation.
But Fred isn’t there for having committed a crime and he doesn’t even have a criminal background.
Photo by Don Juan Corzo
Fred, a Houstonian transplant from Kentucky, is an architect by profession working for a renowned firm and attends church at least twice a month.
In November 19th, 2007 he was driving back home in the afternoon after a meeting with a prospective client. He was hungry and was eager to see his family after spending the past few days working long hours for a work related project.
He briefly glanced at a Houston police patrol unit near the intersection of Newcastle and Southwest Freeway but paid no mind. Then, he turned to see the traffic light turn yellow on his street but decided to run it before it turned red.
In matter of seconds the squad car was behind his Lexus SUV with its flashing lights on. After giving him a traffic ticket for running a red light, the officer made him wait for about 30 minutes because Fred was told, to his surprise, he had a warrant for his arrest.
“It’s a fine you never paid for a traffic violation in 2003,” the patrolman explained to him.
Either out of sympathy or pity, the officer, a Hispanic, let him make a quick call from his cell phone to Claudia and allowed the tow truck to drop his vehicle at his home in the Memorial area, instead of the car pound.
The officer handcuffed a humiliated Fred and put him in the back seat of the unit and his wrists hurt through his ride to the city jail. The cuffs felt very tight, but he said nothing while sinking in a feeling of despair and fear because of the abject situation he was in.
Two tall black police officers “welcomed” him into the municipal facility for booking at the south location on Mykawa Rd.
Just as with other arrested suspects in the entry room, the officers patted him down and searched him with off-white plastic gloves, similar to the ones used in procedures at hospitals.
Fred still couldn’t believe what he was going through while the officers grabbed him all over his body and clothes to see if he had any weapons or drugs.
He didn’t even have a weapon for protection at his own home and in his 38 years of age, and it was a distant recollection when he tried smoking weed a couple of times in his teenage years.
The distraught man made collect calls to his parents and his wife when they locked him up in a cell with individuals with signs of a hard life who bore tattoos on their arms and reeked of alcohol or sweat.
Fred identified with the clean cut guy without approaching him who seemed like someone who would be in his social circles in any other circumstances. The men inside the cold concrete room chatted casually as if they were waiting for the bus on the street or having a picnic in the park.
“What’s up? No, just hanging, locked up, you know the drill,” Fred answered when one of the tough-looking guys addressed him, in an attempt to fit in with the group of suspects. He even bit his tongue and swallowed his pride when aggressive or taunting comments were directed to him to avoid problems.
Fred spent most of the night standing, waiting for his family to come and bail him out. Late into the night, he was just hoping to get at least a clean corner to sleep on and was resisting lying down on the cold floor like others already had in the cell.
He got neither. The light of a new day came with the news from one of the guards that he was going to be transferred to the Harris County Jail.
“If you don’t get out of here before they send you to county [jail], you’ll be locked up longer because you have to go through another booking process,” a scruffy-looking man who’d been arrested for a DWI told Fred. And just as an ominous warning comes, that’s just what happened .
They chained him like a common criminal along with about a dozen inmates and the officers loaded them together into an armored van that drove them to Harris County jail around 9 in the morning.
Things got worse in the county jail. The treatment of inmates was more severe and even abusive.
“Take all of your clothes off, maggots and hold your underwear and socks with your hands extended in front of you!” yelled with disdain one of the tall, muscular jail guards, who were mostly anglos.
Fred was in a line of the newly arrived detainees in one of the processing rooms with everyone’s clothes thrown on the floor in a pile.
A thirty-something, shaggy-haired, bearded Hispanic man with a rather frail appearance and who looked intimidated and scared had not extended his arms all the way perhaps out of confusion or fear.
One of the guards strode with angry haste towards the tiny man and when Fred expected him to scold the prisoner harshly, instead, the massive guard slapped him hard making a loud sound and making him fall backwards against the concrete wall.
With a side of his cheek turning red despite his brown skin, he got up slowly trembling with a look of terror in his eyes.
“Didn’t you hear what we told you to do, you piece of sh*t? Do what we tell you now!” yelled the guard with anger while other guards were snickering and making comments to each other.
Lunch came early, and just like in the city jail the food was cold and disgusting like the bologna sandwich or the boiled egg with the green yolk and a juice or milk box. But Fred had to eat the grub anyway. Hunger doesn’t wait.
Later on, after they had taken his mug shot and fingerprinted him for records, Fred was waiting his turn to use the phone to call-collect his family and he saw a man in his late 20s crying like a child. He overheard him telling his wife between sobs, he was facing 20 years in prison for drug dealing charges.
These were just some of the situations Fred witnessed that accosted his mind and soul during his brief but hard time in jail.
A bitter experience
The most overwhelming moment for Fred came when they made him take off his clothes, take a bath with a pressure hose to have him put on an orange jumpsuit that had the words “COUNTY JAIL” printed in bold black letters in the back.
”When they gave me that jail outfit, I felt like I was never going to leave that place,” Fred later told his family after he got out.
The jail attendants told his parents when they came to the downtown station that Fred couldn’t be bailed out unless he saw a judge first.
“My whole case was a fine for a traffic violation my wife forgot to pay for and I see guys bailed out faster for having committed a real crime against society,” Fred complained about to detention officers the two days he was locked up.
“Fredrick Colton, you’re getting out!” shouted one black bald-headed guard who escorted detainees in and out of the block every three hours or so.
He was able to finally change into his own clothes which looked defiled and alien but felt good on his skin again. Feeling drained, Fred still had to sit around for hours in a waiting tank filled with men on their way out like him. He met a few fellows who were leaving after many hours for minor offenses like public intoxication as well as others who were getting out after completing longer sentences in prisons for more serious crimes.
Just like on the way in, he lay on the cold concrete floor to try to nap for a while.
The poor man finally got out the 21st of November in the afternoon and Molly, his mother, picked him up after she waited around for hours at the station. His eyes welled up with tears when he saw his mom and they hugged. When Molly dropped him off at home, he didn’t want his wife and children to hug him. Fred took a hot shower for a long time to clean the scum off his body and wistfully the bitter memory off his mind.
The next day he was sitting on the floor somewhere in the house during the Thanksgiving celebration with his family and friends. It struck him as odd that he was sitting in a posture similar to the one he had held for hours while locked up, but he was now in more pleasant surroundings.
“It’s so unfair what they did to you, honey; to treat you as if you were a criminal,” said Claudia as she sat next to him.
“Yeah, you’re right, but that’s how the system works,” Fred said. “For every dozen of rotten apples trashed, a good one will fall through in the task.”
This is the true account of a Houston man's experience in the local jail during the time former Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas was still in charge of the HCS Office. His name was changed by request to "save him from embarrassment" and to protect his identity.