Ever wonder if that sword Lady Justice holds is there to stick you between the ribs?
In the joint, a writ writer can't always write his own ticket.
In the joint, a writ writer can't always write his own ticket.
Writ Writer by Steve Gregory
“I need a writ.” The inmate spoke as he stood over the spot where the writ writer squatted during afternoon outdoor time, his back against the chain link fence surrounding the exercise yard, a place where for a few minutes in the afternoon in summer an angle of the cell block shaded him from the direct rays of the blazing sun. Six feet and stocky, the inmate had a buzz cut and facial tattoos.
The writ writer had a Winston going, half a dozen crushed out in the dust next to the wall. The writ writer was thin and wiry, with a fringe of white hair and granny glasses. Some inmates called him The Professor. The writ writer’s crimes, forgery and money laundering, had earned him an LWOP gig thanks to a three strikes law enacted by a legislature responsive to the irrational fears of nervous soccer moms. The writ writer thought the inmate looked like a white Mike Tyson.
“Where you at?” the writ writer asked. He spoke in a rich, rasping bass that belied his size. “Whadda you mean?”
“Where are you in the court process?”
“Lost my appeal. Thought I had a shot.”
“Did the court appoint a lawyer for you?”
“Yeah, they did.” The inmate stubbed a toe of his black prison-issue shoes into the dirt two feet away from where the writ writer squatted. “We still lost. Court said didn’t matter if the judge was wrong. Didn’t make no difference.”
“Harmless error, they called it. Am I right?”
“Yeah, you right. You sound like a lawyer, dude.”
The writ writer looked up, and the men’s eyes met for the first time. “I’m not a lawyer. I’m a writ writer. A lawyer has been to law school. A writ writer has been to the penitentiary.”
The writ writer took a last drag, blew out the smoke beyond the knees of the white Mike Tyson, and crushed out his cigarette. He could see that the inmate held in his right hand a thick bundle of papers secured by a single rubber band. “So you already appealed,” he said. “Did your appellate lawyer argue that your trial representation was ineffective?”
“What? You mean that I had a shitty lawyer? Nah, nah, don’t think so.”
“Okay,” the writ writer said. “What you need is called a Rule 32 Petition.”
“Don’t care what they call it. Need to get back to T-Town, see my kid a little bit.”
The writ writer nodded. Many of the inmates for whom he drafted petitions for collateral or extraordinary relief did not expect to prevail in court. They simply wanted a trip on a white prison van, one ankle cuffed to a ring in the floor, back to their home counties so their people would have an opportunity to visit them in jail. For this reason, inmates referred to the writ writer’s work as trip tickets. “Boy or girl?”
“Boy. Little boy four year old. I seen him three times. Don’t know his Daddy at all.”
The writ writer nodded. “Okay. What are you in for?”
“Sucks, man. But I mean, what’s the beef?”
“Attempted murder, armed robbery, some other crap they made up.”
“You must have had some priors.”
“Couple of little things, burglary, another robbery.”
“But this last one, was that your third conviction?”
The inmate nodded. “Third time, yeah.”
“Was your trial lawyer appointed?”
“Public defender.” The inmate looked down. “Never once called me by my name. Don’t think he remembered it.”
The writ writer nodded. “They have too many cases. Did you have a different lawyer on appeal?”
“Yeah. That guy, he was appointed. Seemed like he done okay, but he never come to see me.”
“They never do. It’s all on the papers. You got your papers with you?”
The inmate offered the bundle of documents to the writ writer. The pages were worn, curled, and slightly soiled.
The writ writer sighed. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll take a look and see what I can do.” The writ writer hefted the bundle of documents and looked at the first page. The inmate stood without moving. The writ writer looked up. “Come back to see me here tomorrow, okay? I’ll take care of your stuff.”
“All right,” the inmate said. He started to turn away then turned back to the wall. “How you squat like that so long, old man like you? Don’t it hurt your knees?”
The writ writer worked a tiny piece of tobacco out of his mouth with his tongue, then spat. “It hurts some,” he admitted. “You get my age, if you're lucky, you figure out how to live at peace with your aches and pains.”
The inmate turned away toward the yard. “In the morning,” he said.
“Yeah,” the writ writer said, lighting another Winston. Break time was almost over. He stood and finished the cigarette, then followed the other inmates back into the cell block.
The writ writer carried the inmate’s materials to the cellblock dormitory he shared with a hundred other inmates and placed them on his bunk, a crude structure of undressed two-by-fours and a four-inch-thick mattress. Because of his work, unlike most prisoners, he knew the name of almost every other man in the dorm. Sitting cross-legged at one end of the bunk, he separated the documents into trial and appellate materials: the trial transcript and post-trial motions in one stack, and in another, appellate briefs and the opinions of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the state Supreme Court, a one-page per curiam opinion affirming the inmate’s conviction. The writ writer left the documents there while he went to the dining hall with the rest of the cell block for dinner.
When he returned, during the four hours before the lights were extinguished, he read every word of the transcript, the post-trial documents, and the appellate proceedings through twice. At lights out, he placed the documents on the floor underneath his bunk and laced his hands behind his head, staring up in the semi-darkness at the underside of the bunk above him, occupied by a young black man from Gadsden serving a life sentence for manslaughter. After thirty minutes the writ writer sighed, turned over, and tried to sleep. But the absence of darkness and the constant noise of a hundred men tossing and turning on iron-hot sheets, men snoring, passing gas, screaming themselves awake from nightmares, the incessant drone of the industrial fans the prison used in place of air conditioning in a vain effort to combat the oppressive heat of south Alabama, made getting a night’s sleep as rare as a kind word.
It rained in the morning, and the writ writer stayed inside the dorm instead of going outside during the morning break. A few minutes after the start of break, the Tyson look-alike walked into the room and approached the writ writer’s bunk. He stood a distance away for a moment. The writ writer looked up and waved him over.
“Can you help me?” the inmate said. “You going to get me a ticket?”
The writ writer shook his head and picked up one of the two number 2 pencils he used to make notes and draft pleadings, holding it like a cigarette between his first two fingers, stained so yellow they matched the color of the pencil. “I can’t help you,” he said. “Usually, grounds are left over from an appeal so I can file a Rule 32 petition. But your appellate lawyer did argue ineffective assistance of counsel in your appeal, and the appellate courts ruled against you on that issue. On all issues,” he added. “There’s just — I don’t see any grounds here. I could file something, but it would just be bullshit. I can’t do that,” he said.
The inmate stared. “You gotta be shittin’ me. I need to see that boy. I thought, you wrote a writ, I’d get a trip. Guaranteed, I heard.”
The writ writer shrugged. “Not always,” he said. “If I send up a boilerplate motion without grounds, where the ineffective assistance of counsel argument was heard on appeal, the court will just deny the motion without a hearing. Sorry.”
The inmate made a fist and pounded it on the writ writer’s bed frame. The guard lounging near the door took a quick step toward the writ writer’s bunk, but not before the inmate could jerk the pencil out of the writ writer’s hand and snap it between his fingers. The writ writer regarded the inmate calmly while two guards grabbed the inmate and pulled him away, one guard pulling out a billy club and tapping it against the inmate’s left leg near the knee.
Two days later, the writ writer squatted again at his favorite post in the yard, smoking another Winston while he leaned back against the chain link fence, rocking slightly on his feet against the slight sag of the fence.
The inmate with the Mike Tyson tattoos detached himself from a group of men gathered around a weight bench and approached until he loomed menacingly over the writ writer. A few other prisoners in the yard drifted toward the two men, most of them breaking away from some type of weight training.
The inmate reached inside his left shirt sleeve and pulled out a small object. He held it like a knife, and the writ writer saw the inmate had made a small weapon out of a pencil stub and some type of blade, possibly a part from a disposable razor.
The man moved a step closer. The writ writer looked up at the inmate with stoic calm. No fellow inmate had ever attacked the writ writer physically, his position in the prisoner hierarchy secure: he was the writ writer.
“They told me I’d get a trip ticket. I guess everybody gets one but me. Never gonna see that boy now. Here for life. I oughta cut your throat,” he said. “But that wouldn’t get me to T-Town, would it?” the inmate was saying. He held the little weapon out almost like a tiny sword; other inmates were coming fast toward them now, but then the inmate’s elbow bent and he placed the blade against his right carotid artery. “How about this way?” he said, and he jabbed himself hard, slicing down at the same time. Blood spurted out of the neck like a leak from a high-pressure hose, shooting past the writ writer, a few drops splashing him but the main stream going over his head and through the chain link fence and against the wall on the other side, turning the white-painted concrete crimson. The writ writer pivoted away to his right to escape the torrent, and the inmate staggered and then fell, the blood now spurting straight down into the sparse grass and dirt.
Guards surrounded the fallen inmate, radios crackled, and after a couple of minutes an EMT team appeared from another building somewhere on the prison grounds, a building the men in the yard could not and never would see. Exercise and other activities on the yard had ceased; inmates stood in groups telling each other what they’d seen, and soon guards ushered everyone back inside.
The writ writer sat cross-legged on his bunk staring out into the dormitory without seeing. A few minutes passed, and another inmate for whom the writ writer had drafted Rule 32 petitions and a couple of appellate briefs, a fifty-year-old Creole man from Mobile County, walked over and squatted. “I heard he didn’t make it,” he said.
The writ writer blinked. “Sliced the carotid open right in front of me.”
“I saw it,” the other inmate said. “Guess he got that trip ticket after all.”
The writ writer nodded slowly. “Indeed he did. He got the ticket for the trip we’re all going to take.”
“You’re right about that,” the other man said.
“You’re right about that,” the other man said.