I learned how to time travel in jail, laid out on my back on an uncomfortable bed inside a padded room. I wasn’t crazy but I saw no reason to convince anyone at County otherwise. The worst part of jail–don’t get me wrong, it’s all bad–is other prisoners. The food sucks, the solitude is a bitch, and the guards are assholes–but they’re not going to rape you.  So when I made my one phone call and found out this time I wasn’t going to be bailed out for a while, the first thing I did was get myself on suicide watch. Suicide watch is solitary confinement in the psych ward. No belts or shoelaces, but no cellmate, either.

Well, not getting raped is good, and if that’s all you need, then more power to you. However, I was breaking apart on the inside from boredom. Not even the manageable, you’ve got to kill time before something good or worthwhile happens. No, it was the bad kind, the worst kind, the jail kind, the dark malaise of there not being anything to do en route to either more boredom or something worse altogether.

There I was in the county lockup with no end in sight. I had on this long blue tunic made triple-thick out of some material specifically designed to keep jailbirds from killing themselves. Underneath I was stark naked. I lay flat in my bed with my eyes closed hoping to sleep but knowing that even if I slept the best sleep of my life for fourteen hours I’d just be waking up to more jail. It was hell. When you say that, people chuckle and say “Jail is supposed to be hell.” Really? Try it.

No, I wasn’t in for murder or rape. I wasn’t in for theft of someone else’s property or arson. I had never touched a single drug or drop of alcohol. I hadn’t assaulted anyone or harmed anyone else in any other way.  If I sound bitter…well yeah. I wasn’t a danger to society. I was a nineteen-year-old kid and they had me locked in a cage surrounded by guards, Texas guards, and they’re the worst kind.

“Shouldn’t have broken the law,” was the response I’d gotten when I complained that the feeling had been out of my right hand for over an hour due to the steel cuffs clamped down on my wrists. “I’m just doing my job,” was how they explained themselves as they looked up my ass, hosed me down, and deloused me.

If you just lie still long enough in a room with no windows, no outside movement, it becomes like a sensory deprivation chamber. Time begins to speed up or slow down on its own clock. If you can just relax enough your mind can slip off into a dreamlike state and if you concentrate just right…then nothing. You’re still in jail and you’re still locked up and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“Why didn’t I just pay that ticket on time? How did I let this escalate?” You go over it time and again in your mind. I imagine murderers, frauds, all criminals do it when they’re lying in their cell. They tell themselves that if they just had it to do over again they never would have committed their crime in the first place. I know I did.

I concentrated, begged and pleaded to any god or alien who might have been listening, “Just let me go back in time and not argue about the ticket.” I wouldn’t call internal affairs and complain that I’d been profiled and mistreated by the cops. I knew better now. I was wiser. I knew now that the cops, the judges, internal affairs, and the DAs are all friends with one another. They go to each other’s weddings and funerals. They were a united front presented against the rest of us. It wasn’t fair but at that moment I didn’t care. I just wanted to be let out of the dark hole they’d all played a part in throwing me into.

I concentrated with everything I could muster. I called to mind every new-age “belief imparts reality” guide I’d ever seen. They all told me if you wanted something more than anything then you’d get it. But the trick was that you had to really want it. That’s why it always fails when real people try to wish for things. They tell you that you must not have really wanted it deep down.

Well, I really wanted out of jail. I really wanted to travel back in time and stop myself from ever getting into this mess. I hoped and I focused and again nothing happened. I didn’t go back in time. I wasn’t suddenly blinked out of my cell to freedom. All that happened was more hours ticked by and then a day and then another day before some friends got up the cash to bail me out. God bless them.

This all happened ten years ago but it’s taken me about that long to realize that it did work. All that mental focus did impart reality. I did time travel–but not in the way I’d wanted or expected. Knock on some wood for me, but I’ve never been back to jail.

And several times, on the verge of committing some crime, I’ll suddenly, just for a second, feel myself back in that cell, I’m tasting the cold slimy food, I’m standing bent over naked with a guard looking up my ass. I’m humiliated, I’m powerless.  I feel the despondence as real as if I were still there. I can smell the sweat from the ruddy-faced guards as they mock me. The air tastes stale and in that moment one thought repeats itself like a deep baseline in my brain, “If I could just warn myself not to do that…” And like that, whatever gain I expect the crime to pay out seems like a paltry sum. I shudder and reflect on just how close I came to going back to that hell.

Jail can’t teach you much, but if you’re determined enough it’ll teach you that you can reach into the future just enough to shake yourself out of a bad idea.


Photo by marine_perez (Prison cells) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.