It was Sam’s last day with Bail Out Oklahoma, and he felt both relieved and somber walking down the corridor leading to C7 the final time. Ralph the Roach, the long dead and desiccated unofficial mascot of the jail’s visitation area remained unmolested in his final resting place on the carpet where he’d lain for going on three months. And the floor near Ralph still bore a large amoebic damp spot, moldering and covered in sheetrock confetti sloughing off the leaking ceiling above. The rundown state of things upstairs in visitation existed in stark contrast with the spotlessly polished floors and freshly painted walls of David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center’s main lobby below.
As was his habit, Sam counted the patterns of sunlight kaleidoscoped through the hallway windows down onto the floor. In the morning the figures began as perfect squares, gradually morphing into increasingly elongated diamonds, then becoming thin blades before finally disappearing altogether as the day wore on. Having spent so many hours at the jail over the course of these last dozen months, he could almost tell how long he’d been in the pods by reading these accidental sundials.
In the year Sam had worked at BOO, he’d posted bail for around 300 incarcerated Tulsans, to the tune of just over $1,000,000 in bonds. Of these clients, he had lost 4 post-release to overdoses and a couple to homicide. And roughly 75 had been reincarcerated, some on new charges but most for falling behind on their court-ordered restitution payments. In his time bailing people out, he’d learned two things: (1) If society would prioritize reducing poverty and providing resources for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues, our jails would largely be emptied. (2) Because the rich and powerful don’t give a shit about poor and sick people, our jails will never be emptied. And so, facing what felt like a sisyphean task, Sam was returning to his former role as a high school social studies teacher. If nothing else, he hoped to help young people understand, navigate and, when necessary, resist the authoritarian systems that would increasingly seek to dominate their lives.
Most days, it took the lead CO in C7 several minutes before he began to place interviewees in the no-contact visitation chambers, so Sam was able to practice breathing exercises while counting gobs of old gum smeared into the carpet. A muffled mashup of laughter and screams of the incarcerated and threats from guards provided the space’s sonic backdrop, a faint smell of weed inexplicably in the air.
Sam sat back against the wall, such that he could simultaneously view both rows of ballistic glass windows, eight in total. He breathed in four counts, held his breath for five, exhaled for six, then again held for five. As he repeated the “box,” he scanned his side of the stainless steel window frames for new graffiti, but saw little aside from “Fuck 12” and “IM SORRY,” etched in using a belt buckle or the bevel of a ring. The window of one of the closet-sized rooms displayed a gentler message: a fresh pair of raspberry red lips stamped in between hand prints mirrored on each side of the glass. He figured this mimicry of physical affection likely explained the strongly worded warning against inappropriate behavior by visitors he’d seen posted at the front desk.
Gradually, the clanking of cell doors opening and the chime of jangling keys announced the new candidate’s approach. The CO, after peeking in to confirm a guest was present, led an orange-jumpsuited captive into one of the rooms before closing the door behind him.
Sam nodded in greeting. “I’m Sam, with Bail Out Oklahoma. I’d like to ask you a few questions in hopes of being able to bail you out in the next few days.”
The man appeared to be 60 or so, but could have been considerably younger, his face gaunt and creased from long exposure to the elements, with whiskered, concave cheeks parted by scabrous lips drawn tightly closed. Self-shorn, graying hair betrayed a ragged and unhealed scalp wound delivered by a rock, stick or bootheel.
“Post my bond? I don’t got any money.”
“That’s okay, my organization will pay the full amount, if we’re able to. You won’t owe us anything. I just ask that you work with us to get back to court so you stay out of jail and we get our money back. Can you please confirm your name?”
“BOO’s a funny name for an outfit that works with people in the pokey. I’m Charles Dixon.”
Sam plugged the name into the jail’s database on his laptop and pulled up the booking info. Mr. Dixon’s mugshot captured the hangdog look of a spirit ground down by neglect both self-inflicted and societal, with a wild pageboy framing yellowed, downcast eyes shadowed by deep sockets. The charges: trespassing and 3rd degree arson, for a total bond amount of $7,000. Details from the PC affidavit indicated Mr. Dixon’s charges stemmed from his efforts to keep warm in a long-abandoned warehouse up in Dawson during the recent, deadly bitter cold spell that saw at least two people freeze to death. Nothing more than a pallet or two and some trash was burned, but the cops were compelled to act by an urgent call from the district’s busybody, NIMBY- minded council member.
Sam knew BOO would almost certainly reject the bailout, due to the bond amount and Mr. Dixon’s homelessness. Underneath the nonprofit’s polished messaging around liberation and justice existed a devastating and unacknowledged indifference towards the unsheltered.
“Ok, Mr. Dixon, I’d like to ask some questions to see if I can get you out of here.”
“Alright. Let’s boogie.”
“Please confirm your birthdate.”
“December 24, 1975.”
“Oh, a Christmas Eve baby! Was that a good or bad thing, having your birthday so near Christmas?
Mr. Dixon shrugged. “I dunno. Truth be told, my folks weren’t exactly the best at keeping up with holidays. Guess you could say they were equal opportunity when it came to forgetting about my and Baby Jesus’s birthdays. So, do you think you can get me out of here?”
“I’m going to do what I can. Do you have a phone number where I can reach you?”
“Nah, mine just got stolen.”
“If I bail you out, we’ll get you a new phone. But before I can do that, I need to be able to reach a couple people you stay in touch with on the outside.”
“Man, I don’t have anyone like that. I pretty much stay to myself.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Dixon, but I have to be able to speak to at least one person with whom you’re in regular contact. Bail Out Oklahoma needs a few ways to get you court reminders and offer services like transportation to appointments.”
This requirement led to the denial of assistance for too many potential clients, creating as it did a cruel catch-22: The chronically homeless live on the streets precisely because the bonds connecting them to loved ones have been severed, oftentimes due to suffering inflicted on them by those same people. And so, because they’ve been driven into a life characterized by self-preservatory isolation, BOO leaves them imprisoned, where they are certain to be further traumatized. Sam hated the policy’s lack of compassion and his role as its enforcer, so ending his time at BOO was much more sweet than bitter.
Mr. Dixon shook his head, hope draining from his rheumy eyes.
“You can try my sister, but she don’t like me. We haven’t talked in a long while.”
“Okay, what’s that number?”
Mr. Dixon raised his hand, a crooked and tobacco-stained index finger shakily poking at imagined phone buttons in the air in front of him.
“918…325…6024. No, that’s not it. Lemme see. Try 918…352…6240. It’s been a long time. I can’t really remember the exact numbers. Her name is Crystal.”
“Thank you. I’ll give Crystal a call after I leave the jail.” Even though Sam knew at this point Mr. Dixon’s bailout prospects were a lost cause, he continued with the interview on the off chance another name or phone number would surface within his memory.
“How long have you been experiencing homelessness?”
“Oh, since my teens off and on. My parents weren’t too keen on my lifestyle, so I moved out when I was in high school. But most recently, my longtime boyfriend and I split up and I fell behind on bills, then Covid hit and everything just sort of fell apart.”
“Mr. Dixon, I’m sorry to hear that. The past few years have been really disruptive for a lot of people, especially for those who were already struggling. Do you ever stay at any of the area shelters?”
“That’s alright. Our relationship was pretty rocky and he got pretty mean, so it was better for me that he left. I’ve tried John 3:16 and the Salvation Army, but they have too many rules. They look down on gays, and they won’t let me drink. Plus, it’s dangerous downtown. Cops are always messin’ with us, and I got stabbed pretty bad by some drunk asshole a couple years ago. Opened me up from here to here. I tell people it’s my C-section scar. Since then, I’ve tried to keep to myself and stay out of trouble. I don’t fuck with nobody, and mostly nobody fucks with me.”
“Speaking of that, have you had your head checked by medical?”
“Like ‘cause I’m crazy or for this?” he grinned, pointing to the weepy bloom on his head. “Nah, it’s no big deal. Happened when I was sleeping the day or so before I got thrown in here. Someone come up and kicked me in the head, then stole my shoes and phone. They coulda just taken my shit without tryin’ to cave in my skull. But it’ll be fine. Besides, medical would just give me a bandaid and some aspirin. They keep all the good drugs for themselves.”
“Do you have any physical or mental health-related disabilities?”
“I’ve had Hep-C for years, but I don’t keep up with it. I’d guess between that and my drinking, my liver is pretty well fucked. As for mental health, I suspect someone could say I’m depressed and anxious. But who ain’t these days? I’m in pretty decent shape overall, and complaining don’t do no good anyway.”
“You’ve mentioned drinking a couple of times. Aside from alcohol, do you struggle with any other substances?”
This time, his smile widened to expose vacant gums interrupted only by a few teeth like tombstones listing and broken. “Well, I don’t really see me struggling with substances. We generally get along just fine. If you’re asking if I need rehab or whatever, that’s a hard pass. That shit is all that keeps me going most days, and detoxing would probably kill me.”
“Are you worried about that in here?”
Another decayed smile. “Let me put it this way–where there’s a will, there’s a way. Medical doesn’t have all the good drugs. Matter of fact, I’ve seen two ODs in here the past week. Scary stuff, but that’s how it goes, especially with fentanyl. I try to stay away from that shit, but it finds its way to folks who aren’t necessarily looking for it.”
“Fair enough. I understand humans cope with loss and trauma in all kinds of ways. But if you do decide you’d like to try some sort of treatment, we can help set that up.”
“I’ll let you know. But first things first: I need to get up outta here. Can you help me?”
“I’m gonna do what I can, but unless Crystal can confirm she’ll help me keep tabs on you, I won’t be able to move forward with bailing you out. Are you sure you don’t remember any other names or numbers I can try?”
“Like I already told you, I don’t know nobody who can vouch for me. So, I guess that’s it.”
“I’m afraid so. I’m sorry, Mr. Dixon. I wish I could do something for you.”
“Hey man, it’s not your fault. This ain’t my first turkey shoot. I’ll take a plea deal, serve a little time. Hopefully they reduce that bullshit arson charge. It’s not like I was trying to burn the fuckin’ place down. I might be stupid, but I’m not that stupid. What’s your name again?”
“Thanks for coming to talk to me, Sam. I don’t get many visitors, so feel free to visit me when you come to talk to other people. Looks like I’ll be here a while.”
Sam lied, “I’ll try to check in on you again sometime. And if you think of someone who can act as a contact for you, we’ll see what we can do.”
“I appreciate that, Sam. I guess I’ll see you later on.” And with that, Mr. Dixon offered up his closed fist and the two mimed a goodbye bump, their twinned knuckles smudging the glass.
Mr. Dixon rose and pushed the doorbell to indicate he was ready to return to C7.
With a buzz, the door popped open and he shuffled back into the din.
Sam sat back in his chair, the familiar sense of failure creeping over him. But he then remembered that his supervisor had blocked off the rest of the afternoon on her calendar for “focus time,” which Sam knew was code for “weekly massage or mani-pedi time.” He quickly logged back into SalesForce, moved Mr. Dixon’s intake record from “disqualified” to the “approved” column, then emailed finance the funds request. By the time BOO caught on to what he’d done, Mr. Dixon would be free. “Fuck it, they can’t fire me.”