In “Jacket: The Trials of a New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney,” Attorney John Hartmann takes the reader into the New Jersey criminal courts, introducing characters and insider details on just about every corner of the justice system. The memoir centers on a client who Hartmann believes might be innocent, and in the excerpt below, he makes his way to the “Workhouse” to meet Nathaniel for the first time.
It was time to pay a visit to Nathaniel Smith at the Mercer County Correction Center.
The Mercer County Correction Center, also known as the Mercer County Workhouse, also known simply as “the county,” is the local jail. The Mercer County Correction Center is not referred to as “The Big House” and is certainly not called “The Poky.” If you refer to it by these antiquated names, correction officers, experienced lawyers, and inmates who have been “guests” at the facility will look at you like you have two heads.
In New Jersey, there are 21 counties. Each county is a separate government entity, which, among other government functions, has responsibility for running the courts. This responsibility includes housing inmates at a county jail, and so each county has its own jail. The standards for these jails vary. Among career criminals, it is generally recognized that the best New Jersey county jail to be housed in is Hunterdon County. The Hunterdon jail is small, clean, and well-run, and doesn’t have a lot of inmates. Hell, I could “build time there,” as some prisoners put it. From what I hear, the worst county jail in the state is the Passaic County Jail in Paterson.
Various types of inmates are housed in county correctional facilities. First, there are the defendants facing State charges, anywhere from drug raps to murder, who can’t make bail. Aside from “going out feet first,” one of two things can happen to them: They can receive a probationary sentence and eventually be released, or they can be sentenced to state prison. Those who receive a state prison sentence are moved from the county correction center into the state prison system and are no longer the county’s concern.
In addition to defendants facing state prison sentences, there are a number of prisoners who are incarcerated at county for relatively minor matters. Some motor vehicle violations can result in jail, for instance, including multiple convictions for driving with a suspended license. Men, and even the occasional woman, who owe child support are locked up and have to wait in jail until they see a judge. There are also a large number of inmates arrested on warrants issued when they failed to appear in municipal court to answer for motor vehicle offenses and minor criminal charges.
It always amazes me how some people simply ignore their requirements to go to court. When they are trying to avoid jail time, I can understand their dilatory ways, but too many just blow court off. Or they may have gone to court, pled guilty, been fined, worked out a payment plan—and then simply not paid, rather than going back to court to explain their financial situation to the judge. They fail to appear or fail to make a payment, and so a warrant is issued and the court suspends their driver’s license.
It always catches up with them. Typically, they’re stopped by the cops while driving, a warrant search is run, and the next thing they know they’re wearing cuffs in the back seat of a state trooper’s Ford. And they always seem to get arrested on a Friday, which means they often can’t bail out until Monday, thereby securing for themselves a wonderful weekend as guests of the Mercer County Workhouse. In many cases, they have warrants (also known as detainers) from other towns in the county, so if they cannot make bail they have to wait, sometimes for a week or even more, to talk to a judge. Some local courts have begun to talk to workhouse inmates via video, but in many cases, it still takes weeks to talk to the judge in order to work out a new payment plan or plead guilty and be released. An even bigger problem arises when they have detainers from other counties or even other states, often Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which is right across the Delaware River. Such a person might get stuck in jail for months, becoming a correctional nomad, transported from county to county while working out legal obligations that have accumulated over the years. It’s shocking the number of people walking around with warrants and even more shocking that it doesn’t seem to bother them. This is why prosecutors and defense attorneys joke that if it weren’t for people doing stupid things, none of us would have jobs.
The Mercer County Workhouse is located in the rural part of the county (yes, there are rural areas in New Jersey) in Hopewell Township. You get there by taking a rather pleasant and historic drive up Route 29, a bucolic two-lane road that hugs the Delaware River. Route 29 runs along the Delaware Canal, which was built in the middle of the 19th century by Irish immigrants. Along the way is Washington Crossing State Park, where General Washington and the Continental Army landed after crossing the Delaware before the Battle of Trenton. As you continue north, you’ll spot a large hill looming over the Pennsylvania side of the river, a stone tower resembling a medieval keep moored on its top. This edifice is Bowman’s Hill Tower, a lookout built during the Revolutionary War. I’ve often driven this road in the late afternoon, and as the sun begins to set and the silhouette of the tower catches my eye, I have the sensation of being in the Scottish highlands, an ocean away from Trenton.
To get to the workhouse, you make a right off Route 29 and drive 200 or so yards up a hill to a large chain-link fence. At the bottom of the hill is the Mercer County Wildlife Center, as well as a large abandoned mill of some sort. You arrive at the gate, where a corrections officer in a booth greets you. He takes a look at your driver’s license and attorney identification card and lets you into the parking lot. Once you drive onto jail property, you may see one of the feral cats that live on the grounds. There is a large family of felines that have made the jail grounds its home. Nobody bothers them, and they appear to be well fed, probably from the prisoners’ leftovers. The Tower of London has its ravens. The Rock of Gibraltar has its monkeys. The Mercer County Workhouse has its cats.
Visiting the workhouse is a bit of an art. You have to know the best time to arrive. During the day, there are shift changes, prisoner counts, and meals served. In theory, an attorney can visit his client whenever he wants, but in reality, if you don’t want to spend three hours locked down in the visiting area, twiddling your thumbs with nothing to do, you have to know how to time the visit. I like to arrive right at 4:00 PM. Shift change is at 3:00 PM., followed by a count that lasts one hour. At 4:00 PM, you still have an hour before dinner is served. Also, it is generally less hectic at this time of day, with fewer people, such as members of the parole board, coming to visit. At most, you may have another attorney or a bail bondsman. The officers who work the evening shift also tend to be more laid back.
After you park, you walk across the parking lot to a ramp that leads into the main pedestrian entrance. This area is the older section of the jail, built in the 1960s. The section attached to it was constructed about 25 years ago. Overall, it’s a rundown facility. The inmates are housed in a number of separate units called “pods,” which are mostly identified by letters of the alphabet. Which pod you’re sent to depends on a number of factors. If you are serving a short sentence, you will be placed in one pod. If you are in protective custody, you will be placed in another pod. If you have been identified as belonging to a gang, usually by your tattoos, you will be placed in yet another pod. If you are charged with a serious offense and have a high bail, you will probably find yourself in A or B pod, located on the lower level of the jail.
All inmates wear the same type of clothing—in Mercer County, an orange jumpsuit with the large letters MCCC printed on the back. The shoes inmates wear, also orange, are more like slippers. Only inmates’ socks are not orange; they’re white tube socks. Civilians visiting the workhouse are prohibited from wearing orange, and those who do are turned back at the gate. A few years ago the owner of a local clothing store came up with the bright idea of selling knock-off prison jumpsuits. The first customer to purchase and wear the orange faux prison garb was immediately picked up by police, who pegged him as an escapee from “the county.” Despite his protestations that he was just trying to make a fashion statement, the young man spent a night in the Trenton lockup and the clothing line lost its bid to become the hit of the fashion season.
As with any other jail, the workhouse is not a pleasant place. It’s overcrowded and has a gang problem. If there is a riot in one of the pods, guards will come in with industrial-sized mace cans attached to large hoses and spray the prisoners indiscriminately, like firemen putting out a five-alarm fire. Due to chronic underfunding, there are almost no social services provided to any of the inmates. The food is terrible. I have been told that half of the recruits who sign up to be corrections officers leave after their first day of training. Most lawyers hate visiting the place.
That said, I’ve never minded visiting the county correction facility. The security is tight, and it is fairly well run. Also, although it houses criminals, most of them are focused on minding their business and getting through what they have to get through. And I’ve learned that inmates are grateful for an attorney visit, because many will go for months without seeing their lawyer. If you want to practice criminal law, you have to be willing to go to a jail; if you do not, you will have no credibility with your client. Nothing is worse than seeing an inmate who is brought over to court, sitting in the “box” (slang for jury box), yelling at his attorney, justifiably, because he hasn’t seen him and is now expected to make a decision on a plea he only heard about two minutes earlier. I made the decision at the beginning of my career never to be on the receiving end of such a tirade. In this line of work, you come to understand why one of the seven (and least emphasized) Corporal Works of Mercy is to visit the incarcerated. Anyone can throw a buck into the poor box in church on Sunday, but few of us are willing to go see people in jail.
When I mention the workhouse to acquaintances, I’m often asked, “Why do they call it the workhouse when there’s so little work going on there?” This is a misconception, for there is actually quite a bit of work that the inmates do. Most inmates, excepting those facing very serious charges, have jobs such as cleaning the pods or other areas of the jail. They may work in the kitchens, cooking and serving food, and even baking. Some inmates are given road detail, which means they are taken in buses to public areas around Mercer County to clean up trash. Working the roads is a plum assignment; not only do you get out into the fresh air, but you earn $10 a day, which is placed on your commissary account. Under the circumstances, the administration does the best it can to try to keep everyone busy on the theory that the more inmates have to do, the less opportunity they have to get into trouble.
As always in a prison, there is an underground economy at which prisoners work very hard. I am continually amazed at the truly ingenious solutions to problems that they come up with. Take, for instance, the need for alcohol when none is readily available. The prisoner’s solution to this problem is called “hooch,” a horrendous jailhouse concoction that is, in the words of the inmate who told me how to make it, “banging-your-head-off-bars bad.”
Here is the recipe for proper hooch:
First, take a large plastic container, approximately 6 inches high, 10 inches wide, and 12 inches long, and fill it with water. Next, take whatever fruit you can find, smash it up, and place it in the container. Sprinkle in two cups of sugar that you have accumulated over the weeks by saving what you are given with your morning coffee. Add seven slices of bread that you have rolled up into balls and place them in the jailhouse still. (This provides the yeast.) Seal the container and place it in a garbage bag.
It takes approximately two weeks from this point for fermentation to begin in earnest, though the time will vary depending on how rotten the fruit was when first placed in the container. You have now reached the most dangerous point in the process, for the devilish concoction is highly susceptible to detection by guards who will seize and destroy it, and by prisoners who need to get their drink on. A good strategy is to enlist three or four other inmates to help you move the trash bag around. In another two weeks, open and enjoy your Mercer County “firewater” and hope you live to see another day.
An even more ingenious example of how to work with what you have in prison is tattooing. I was talking to a client once in my office and noticed a tattoo on his right arm of wings with his mother’s name on it. The conversation was starting to lag, so I said, “Hey, I like your tattoo.” He responded, “Thanks, I got it in prison. Do you want to know how they did it?” Of course, my curiosity was aroused, and I responded in the affirmative.
The individual who tattooed my client took a cardboard commissary sheet (given to inmates to keep track of their prison store provisions) and placed toothpaste on one end. He wrapped the sheet around to form a cone, the toothpaste keeping it together. He then placed checker pieces—it didn’t matter if they were red or black— at the bottom of his locker and set the cone above them. Next, he set the checker pieces on fire. After that he placed another commissary sheet on top of the cone. The burning checker pieces created soot that accumulated on the bottom of the overlying sheet.
The next step was to scrape the soot off the sheet. He mixed the soot with a makeshift antiseptic, either toothpaste or shampoo. This was the ink. A staple was sharpened on the concrete cell wall to a fine point, creating a needle. The tat artist then wrapped the needle in string and placed it in the body of a ball point pen (with the ink stick removed). The needle was then dipped in the “prison ink,” and the tattooing began. The job cost my client three ramen noodle soup cups that he purchased from commissary.
Now, don’t think that the jails are full of budding entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, many people are in jail because they are just not that bright. I once had a conversation with a young man that went some- thing like this:
“You have got to get me out of here, man. I am about to become a father. My girlfriend is pregnant, and I’ve been in here 11 months already.”
“Wait a second. You’ve been here 11 months?”
“And your girlfriend is pregnant?”
“And you are about to become a father?”
“Eh … Congratulations. I hope it works out for you.”
We’re not talking rocket scientists here.
On the day I first went to visit Nathaniel Smith at the workhouse, I checked in with an officer sitting at a desk and signed the log book. I handed him my attorney ID and the keys to my car. This is all standard procedure. Cell phones are strictly forbidden, and it is a crime to use a cell phone in any jail in New Jersey. You can only bring in your files and a note pad. Items such as books and newspapers are considered contraband and thus also forbidden. The officer gives you a numbered identification card that you attach to your clothing, usually your lapel if you are wearing a suit. (I’m not particularly superstitious, but the few times I was given the identification number “13” I gave it back and asked for another. The guards probably thought I was crazy, but why tempt fate?)
Once you’ve put on your ID card, the officer “wands” you with a handheld metal detector, then calls Master Control. A steel door is opened remotely, and as it closes behind you, another opens immediately ahead of you. You have now entered the jail. You go through another steel door and walk down a hall, passing the medical unit, the officers’ dining hall, and another metal door with paper covering its window. This is the Internal Affairs office. Ahead on your left is what was originally the inmate dining hall but is now the area where, among other activities, attorneys meet with their clients. A guard is sitting there. You give him your name and the list of clients you want to see, and then you tell him which of eight cubicles you will be waiting in. Unless it’s occupied, I always pick cubicle number four because it’s the farthest away from the guard and provides the most privacy. You then sit and wait for your first client to be brought up.
On this day, I had two clients to see. First the guards brought me a client I’ll call Diary. We discussed his robbery case, and he insisted that he wasn’t involved. In fact, he had an alibi: He claimed he was with his girlfriend when the robbery went down. Who was I to say he wasn’t telling the truth? I explained to him that I had inter- viewed his girlfriend and taken a statement from her, and I had filed a motion to dismiss the case because of the improper way it was presented to the grand jury. I handed him a copy of the papers. After 20 minutes, he seemed satisfied and we wrapped up our conversation. He stood to leave, and as he started walking away, he turned back to me and said, “Hey, Mr. Hartmann, I hear you are representing Mr. Nathaniel Smith.”
I responded, “Yes, I am. News sure travels fast in here.”
“Well, you know, Mr. Hartmann, he’s innocent.”
“That’s what I hear, Diara. And by the way, you’ve also told me
you are innocent.”
Diara smiled and said, “I know I did, Mr. Hartmann, but this guy really is innocent. Everyone knows it. Have a nice day and thanks for coming up to see me. Don’t forget to call my mom and tell her I’m okay.”
“I will, Diara, as soon as I get out of here.”
Nathaniel Smith was next on my list. I was already intrigued by his case, and Diara’s comments had further piqued my interest. I was looking forward to meeting Nathaniel, and having spoken to the prosecutor that morning, I had some good news for him: In light of his having served three years in jail, and given the general weakness of the case and the fact that the detective who’d arrested him now worked for Homeland Security—makes me feel so safe—and would be difficult to bring back for another trial, the prosecution was willing to offer him time served. All he had to do was plead guilty to a theft charge, and he would be out in a matter of days. I could get him into court by the end of the week, and by the weekend, he could be watching the Eagles–Giants game with his family and friends, drinking a cold one. This was very good news, and I couldn’t wait to share it with him.
And, yet, I couldn’t just walk up to him and say, “Hi Mr. Smith, I’m your court-appointed attorney. Plead guilty and get out of jail.” That would be bush league, and from what I’d learned already about my client, he would be hesitant about pleading guilty. Instead, I would talk about the case. I would explain the options and possible outcomes. I would promise to fight this thing to the bitter end if he wanted me to. On the other hand, he might plead willingly. Having been in this situation before, I knew that some clients—even those who have insisted on their innocence—will say anything for a ticket out of the Mercer County Correction Center. (Hell, some would admit to being the gunman on the Grassy Knoll if it would get them out of jail.) I had no idea what position Nathaniel Smith might take on this, but if necessary, I was ready to give him what defense attorneys call the “Come to Jesus” talk. I had given it a lot, I was good at it, and today I was going to bring it. If I ran into resistance, I had already thought of the ultimate closing line: “Hey, you can’t fight the man. You gave it a shot and lost. You ate three years for nothing. You want justice? Well, wait until you die, because you sure aren’t going to get it here.”
If that sounds cynical, well maybe it is. On the other hand, unless you have spent three years in jail, or three days for that matter, you’d better not judge anyone’s motives for copping a plea. Most people would rather field-test bombs than spend time in jail, and I expected Nathaniel to be no different. Furthermore, while the case against him was weak, he had been convicted once by a jury. They had heard the evidence and found him guilty, and from what I heard, they weren’t even out that long. Maybe he really was guilty. In any case, if Nathaniel wanted to plead guilty to get out of jail, I wasn’t going to stand in his way.
I sat in cubicle number four thinking about what I was going to say. My file and notes were spread out on the bolted-down table. Most lawyers sit facing the entrance of the cubicle, with their backs to the wall. Not me; I always sit with my back to the entrance, facing the wall. I do this for a reason. When I first started practicing, an experienced public defender told me never to allow a client to get between you and the exit. Some prisoners have serious mental issues, and though it is rare, clients may become violent after hearing bad news. If they start acting up, you want to be able to make a quick exit. I’ve never had to put this advice to the test, but I am grateful that it was given to me and I try to pass it along to other attorneys, especially women.
Nathaniel was brought to my cubicle. I stood up and shook his hand and introduced myself. I was immediately struck by how tall he was. I knew from the record that he stood six foot four, but in person he seemed even taller. He was thin as a rail. He sat down, and we started to talk. I briefly explained my qualifications and why I was representing him. He sat quietly, pensively, taking it all in. I soon realized that he was just a little different—I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something refreshingly unusual about him. He comported himself with a certain dignity that is rarely found behind prison walls.
I reviewed the case with Nathaniel, and then he filled me in on his side of the story. I told him what I thought of his previous defense and how I would do things differently. He remained very calm. Throughout our conversation, he frequently quoted from the Bible; rather than referring to his incarceration as being “in prison,” he called it his “bondage.” That was a first. It was becoming clear that my “Come to Jesus” talk wasn’t going to work. We discussed the possibility of his getting out on bail. Unfortunately, he didn’t have two nickels to rub together and nobody else in his family had any money either. He told me that nobody called him Nathaniel and asked me to call him Nate.
Finally, after about 45 minutes, I decided to tell him the State’s plea offer.
“Look, Nate, I believe you when you say you’re innocent. And I am not telling you this in order for you to plead guilty because I will do whatever you want. But as your lawyer, I am obliged to tell you that I spoke with the prosecutor this morning, and, if you agree to plead guilty, I can get you out of jail by the end of the week.”
“Well,” Nate responded thoughtfully, “that’s a mighty good offer if you are guilty, but I am not guilty and I am not pleading guilty.”
Usually, at this point, I would have taken another shot at the plea, but not here, not with Nate. He wasn’t budging. He wasn’t guilty and he wasn’t pleading, no way, no how. At that moment, I knew we were going to trial.