From Chapter 11 – The System
The evening of January 21, 2006, was a festive Saturday night in Seattle. The next day the Seahawks were scheduled to play the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game. If they won, the team would reach the Super Bowl for the first time in its thirty-year history. The clubs downtown were crowded with people getting a start on the next day’s merriment.
The parking lot next to Déjà Vu, a strip club near the entrance to the Pike Place Market, one of Seattle’s top tourist attractions, was packed with cars and people. At 11 p.m., Myran was wandering among them. He had on a black baseball hat, a black jacket and black jeans. Two undercover cops standing in front of the strip joint – a garish, brightly-lit place with a pink-and-black color-scheme and a logo of two crossed female legs in fishnet stockings on the wall next to the door – saw Myran talking to a man sitting in an SUV.
As Myran walked away from the vehicle, one of the cops approached him.
“Anything going on?” he asked Myran.
“What are you looking for?”
“Who you with?”
The cop pointed at his partner.
Myran asked who had the money. The cop said his friend did.
“I’ll take you to it, but one of you has to wait here,” Myran said. The cop said he would stay behind, and Myran walked off with his partner.
The pair headed two blocks east on Pike Street. When they got to Third Avenue, Myran told the cop to hold on. He walked over to a man standing near a bus stop, who called over a girl who was waiting inside the shelter. The three conferred, and the girl walked back to the bus shelter. When she returned, she handed a baggie of crack cocaine to Myran. Myran returned to the officer, handed him the drugs, and accepted $40.
The man and girl who had given Myran the drugs headed north up Third Avenue before a team of cops sprang on them, putting them face down on the sidewalk and handcuffing them. Myran, who had walked in the other direction, turned around, saw them and took off running. A bus happened to stop and Myran climbed on. For a moment, he thought he was in the clear, until he saw that several police officers had boarded behind him. Myran took the two $20 bills out of his pocket and held them out. “Here’s your marked money,” he said.
This was far from Myran’s first arrest. A little more than a year earlier, he’d been busted in similar circumstances. An undercover female officer had approached Myran and asked him for some “cream.” Myran told her he had to make a phone call. He then gave the officer his driver’s license and a $5 bill to hold while he went off. When he came back several minutes later, he handed the officer .1 grams of crack cocaine, street value $20. The officer gave him a marked $20 bill. The arrest team moved in a few minutes later.
It was a little different this time. The girl who had supplied the crack was searched and found to be carrying 11 grams of cocaine. She was only sixteen years old. The cops booked Myran for Violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act and Using a Minor as a Drug Courier. The girl’s involvement, whether Myran knew her or not, raised the seriousness of the alleged crime to a Level III drug offense, the highest in the state of Washington. As the cops booked him into the King County jail that night, Myran was facing the prospect of a decade in prison.
As you drive through downtown Seattle on Interstate 5, the King County Correctional Facility is just west of the freeway. A twelve-story concrete building coated with beige paint, it could be easily mistaken for a parking garage. At any one time, there are about 1,350 prisoners inside. The main entrance is on Fifth Avenue. When prisoners need to appear in King County Court, they walk through a windowless skybridge that spans from the jail, over the top of the King County administration building across the street, and into the courthouse, which takes up the block between Third and Fourth Avenues.
After the day that Damian and I ran into Myran on the street, it had seemed just a matter of time before he was picked up. The areas where he tended to hang out – downtown near the Pike Place Market and a little bit north up in Belltown – are the targets of constant stings by the narcotics police. For someone involved in the lowest level of the cocaine trade, they are the most obvious places to go to turn a quick deal. If you sell drugs in those areas, it is almost guaranteed you will be caught before too long.
The first time I visit Myran in jail, on a Saturday morning, the bored-looking King County deputy at the entrance half-heartedly inspects my bag while I pass through a metal detector. I learn over the course of several visits, through comments made by some of the guards and short conversations with the families of other prisoners – something about waiting around in a jail seems to make people talkative – that everyone assumes I’m a lawyer.
To get to the visitors’ waiting area, you walk up one flight of stairs from the entrance. To the right, as you enter the room, is a Formica shelf stacked with pink forms. You take a golf-pencil and fill in your name, your address, the name of the prisoner you want to visit, and your relationship to the prisoner. The first time I go to see Myran, I puzzle for a minute over what to put down. I consider “Basketball Teammate” but then decide against it, wondering how I would explain it if the guard asked me. “Acquaintance” doesn’t seem to capture it, either. Finally, I write “Friend.”
After you’ve finished the form, you walk up to the guard’s booth, which runs across one side of the room but is sealed off with bullet-proof glass. The guards in the visitors’ area wear forest-green uniforms with gold trim that look very much like the outfits worn by National Park Rangers. You speak through a small, round stainless steel grille set in the glass and slide your form and driver’s license through a slot at the bottom. The guard verifies the name on your license against what you have written on the slip, checks to make sure the prisoner you want to see has visiting hours, and then puts the form in a pneumatic tube and sends it up to the floor where your prisoner is being held. Then you wait on one of a line of bolted-together green plastic chairs. The people in the room are mostly women – mothers with young children who laugh and crash around the waiting area, women in skirts and cleavage-baring tops, old ladies who sit quietly with hands folded in their laps.
A few minutes before 10:30 in the morning, the guard motions to everyone in the waiting room that it’s OK to get on the elevator and go up to our designated floors. I exit on the tenth, into a small, gray-carpeted, triangular-shaped area. Directly in front of the elevators is a line of booths, painted – for some reason – aquamarine. Thick glass divides the prisoners’ area from where the visitors sit. Each side has a heavy black plastic phone connected to the wall by a cord wrapped in a flexible stainless-steel sheath. A small window to the far right lets in light. To the far left of the elevator, you can walk up to a window and peer into the jail. Directly in front is a circular control-room, shielded from the rest of the jail by bulletproof glass, at which a guard sits at monitors. He presses a button and his amplified voice, crackly and a bit distorted, sounds through a speaker in the waiting area: “They’ll be out in a minute, folks.”
Most visitors take a spot in one of the booths to wait. I hang back, standing near the wall. Before long, three prisoners – a black guy with cornrows, a young white guy who speaks in Russian with an older man I assume is his father, and a Latino man in his twenties – show up. They wear red jail outfits that look like pajamas and flip-flops. The guard punches another button and the door between the jail and their side of the visiting area slides open. They walk in and take their places in the booths across from their visitors. A minute later, another black man arrives and goes into a booth.
I am beginning to wonder if Myran is coming when he walks in front of the control room. He’s a bit under six feet tall, thin, light-skinned, and his head is shaved bald. He wears small, rimless rectangular glasses. When he sees me, he breaks into a smile and begins to energetically wave with his right hand. In his left hand, he carries an extremely large Bible, about five inches thick and bound in soft black leather.
He points to a booth and we sit down across from each other. The first thing I notice is that the bloat that was in his face when Damian and I saw him on the street is gone. His eyes look sharp. He is smiling. He looks just about the same as he did as a kid.
We both pick up the phone. “Hey, it’s good to see you,” he says.