Going From Drunk at the Bar to Behind Bars - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Going From Drunk at the Bar to Behind Bars

Going From Drunk at the Bar to Behind Bars

By Sammy Hill


Drinking and driving still sucks.

By Sammy Hill

Yeah, I know.

Driving Under the Influence” is quite possibly the lamest response to the question “What are you in for?” But just a few years ago, I found myself in county lockup at the Los Angeles Central Men’s Jail for that very reason. It’s all about geography, really. In high school, when friends got thrown in the drunk tank for a night, it was a small-town jail. In a city whose population stretches into the millions, the town jail is a minimum-maximum-security prison. 

But my DUI was confirmed via police station Breathalyzer. If you know you’re drunk, choose to take the Breathalyzer at the police station. The extra time might decrease your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) by some fraction of a percent that won’t matter if you’re over the legal limit but could matter when it’s time to appear in court. 

A kid in the cell with me threatened a guard’s life as he walked by, and he followed that up by saying he didn’t feel safe alone with me in “the gay cell.”

So, shortly after blowing nearly twice the legal limit, 0.14, I was taken to jail. The officer who brought me in took pity on me, I guess. I mean, after I gave him my phone, wallet, belt and shoelaces, he told the guard who admitted me to “take it easy.” Presumably on me. Which seemed to mean that I didn’t need to have my anus searched for contraband. In a prison voted one of the 10 worst in the United States, with a population north of 17,000 inmates, my anus was clearly one of the most trustworthy and respectable ones in the joint. 

But due to the time of my arrest, the booking process started at the end of one day’s shift and couldn’t be completed until the following day’s shift. Also, jails like to process DUIs as a group. I was beholden to the rest of my fellow drunkards when it came to snaking our way through the system. If one guy held up the group with a booking issue or an attitude problem, the rest of us suffered. 


Initially I was told I could be released in six hours. But six hours turned into days. And days. This was partially because of bullshit administrative procedures that must be followed, and partially because we spent a while in lockdown when an inmate went missing. The lockdown was how I learned I was being held in a protective cell for homosexual inmates.

A kid in the cell with me threatened a guard’s life as he walked by, and he followed that up by saying he didn’t feel safe alone with me in “the gay cell.” At no point during my admission or booking was I ever questioned about my sexual orientation, so you can imagine my confusion when I heard this. 

On my second day in jail, the DUIs were moved to a tiny holding cell together. It was roughly 20′ x 20′ with benches around the perimeter and a toilet in the back. There was a phone in the cell, but it was broken. I only talked to one kid in the cell, about how we were probably going to get fired from our jobs for not showing up and not having a chance to call in sick. One of the other guys with us immediately walked to the toilet, grabbed the only roll of toilet paper we had and used it as a pillow for the next 12 hours. In prison, this is what is known as a “dick move.” 

Hours later, a tall uniformed guard and a short, neatly dressed woman came to update us on our release. In doing so, the woman asked for me by name. 

“Your friends are here waiting for you,” she said. 

“Oh. So … I can go?” 

“No,” she said matter-of-factly. “They’re just waiting for you.” 

“Great,” I said. “Thank you for that completely useless piece of information.” My lack of joy seemed to upset her. 

Do you want to get out of here? Don’t look at anyone. Don’t talk to anyone. Stand still and look at your card, and your card only. You got that?

A guard

Prisons of this size release all those who are eligible in batches, so before I was finally let go, they shoved 25 more inmates in the tiny cell with us. Mine was the first name called when it came time to leave the cell. I was told to follow the yellow line painted on the floor, keeping one shoulder touching the wall at all times. Because I was first in line, I could hear the two guards who were escorting us chatting with one another. 

“We’ve got to get the two specials before we go,” one said. 

“Specials?” I thought to myself. 

The guard retreated down the hall to a different cell. Loudly, and very slowly, he began to speak to whoever was inside. 

“Listen carefully. We’re going to leave now. You know how this goes, right? When I say walk, you walk. When I say stop, you stop. Do you remember what you do when you stop? Do you have your cards? Do you want to get out of here? Don’t look at anyone. Don’t talk to anyone. Stand still and look at your card, and your card only. You got that?” 

What the fuck is a “special”? 

We walked to a large room with guards at computer terminals who granted us our official release. In this room I finally got to see what makes “specials” so special. They were last to enter. I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive, but the one closest to me looked like former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau with Down syndrome. Instead of sitting on the benches with the rest of us, the two specials stood with their toes and their foreheads touching the wall.

Almost in unison, they raised index cards from their sides and held them in the tiny space between their eyes and the wall. On each card was drawn a smiley face in black marker. The two stood motionless, eyes trained on the smiley faces. Behind them, one of the guards at his computer shot them the most disdainful look I’ve ever seen. He turned to his coworker, motioned in their direction and shook his head, disgusted. 

If any good came from my incarceration, it was that the extra time I spent in jail helped me in court. The prosecutor wanted me to face tougher penalties because there was a minor traffic accident involved in my DUI. Instead, the judge softened my sentence based on time served. The lockdown, the bureaucratic red tape, the broken phone in the tiny cell, the specials, all helped me receive reduced fines, fewer mandatory AA meetings and fewer classes. My driver’s license was only suspended for 30 days.

Oh, and I can’t travel to Canada until 2028. That sucks. You should have heard me try to wriggle my way out of a business trip to Canada last year without telling my boss I omitted my criminal history during the hiring process. That shit made a prison lockdown feel like a cakewalk.

*Sammy Hill is a pseudonym.

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