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Transcript

Episode 09: Some Time When Everything Has Changed

Note: Serial is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Police Officer

How can you help us do that?

Moderator

What's the solution?

Samaria Rice

How can I help you all do that?

Ira Glass

Previously, on Serial.

Anna

I'm not guilty.

Police Officer

That's fine. That's fine, but you still have to go through this.

Jesse Nickerson

I shouldn't have went through with the situation. I shouldn't have—I shouldn't have went to court.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Wait. You regretting it?

Lisa Rankin

There was a lot of talk that they would check in on him and hope that that means somehow protecting him.

Joshua

It's tomorrow.

Sarah Koenig

Tomorrow?

Joshua

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Why would you have any court dates? Why would you have a court date coming up?

From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's Serial—one courthouse told week by week. I'm Sarah Koenig.

Joshua was correct—the state was trying to invoke his SYO. They wanted to send him to adult prison. The morning after he'd called me, I'd inquired over at the Juvenile Justice Center to see what was what.

Sarah Koenig

So I'm actually at the courthouse right now.

Joshua

Oh, yes?

Sarah Koenig

Yeah. So they're just going to set a date for, I guess, a hearing or the next—whatever is going to happen next. But yeah, how are you doing?

Joshua

Well, I was up all night last night, just thinking. Like my mind was just—I was just thinking about a lot's of stuff last night, that's all.

Sarah Koenig

All I could muster was a solution that, when I was Joshua's age, I always found irritating.

Sarah Koenig

But all right, try to get some sleep. Nothing's going to be better if you don't get sleep. Do I sound like your mother? Sorry. [LAUGHS]

Joshua

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Try to get some sleep, though. I know you're worried. I know you're worried. I know.

Joshua

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

It's not my job to comfort Joshua. Certainly not my job to tell him when to go to bed. But I happen to be the one on the phone right now. Out of all the cases we watched, Joshua's got to me most. I could not fathom that the state would give up on him. After all he'd risked for law enforcement, after all the beat downs he'd absorbed—a nineteen-year-old kid.

I did what I know how to do—I reported out every beat of this sucker, every turn. Spoke to Joshua almost every day, sometimes twice a day, for a year and a half, so that the story of Joshua would exist not for posterity's sake, but for the sake of straight up fairness.

First thing I wanted to know—why Joshua? What was ODYS saying he'd done that made them want to eject him from their facilities and put him into the adult system? I got a copy of the motion to invoke Joshua's SYO. It had been filed by the county prosecutor's office at the request of the juvenile prison, Indian River. The motion claimed that Joshua created a substantial risk to the safety or security of the institution, that despite all the therapeutic programming Joshua had completed, he consistently chooses to make criminal decisions.

Then there was a list of about a dozen specific incidents just from the past six months—assaults, fights, disruptive behaviors. He'd thrown urine on a kid. He'd thrown a remote control at a female guard. He'd smashed a video game console. I'd later find out the incident that triggered the motion to invoke. Apparently, Joshua had put out a hit on another kid, which usually means arranging for other kids to jump someone. The kid wasn't jumped, but still, the prosecutors considered it a serious threat.

I've got to say, I was taken aback by the list. I had that anxious jolt of, hold up, have I completely misunderstood who this person is? The list looked bad. The summary at the end extensive—sixteen fights, six menacing threats, twenty-one disruptive behaviors, et cetera.

But I have another report—an internal ODYS report—that documents every incident involving Joshua, whether as victim or aggressor, for almost all his time in ODYS custody. And when I cross-referenced the request to invoke Joshua's SYO with that internal ODYS report, I realized, oh, these aren't isolated incidents. Many of them are connected.

In the request to invoke, there's an assault—when Joshua hit a kid on February third. What's missing is February second, which you can see on that internal report. February second, that same kid walked up to Joshua at the water fountain and punched him in the face. There were a few sequences like this—tit for tats in which only the tat was included in the request to invoke his SYO. Yes indeed, Joshua did throw pee at a kid on March 27. The day before, the same kid had assaulted Joshua and threw pee on him. A common weapon in juvenile—pee.

I ran the list of Joshua's offenses by people who've either worked in ODYS or worked on behalf of kids inside ODYS. And they said, it's not great, but yeah, for a kid who's been in there three years, it's not exceptional. An ODYS guard who'd known Joshua for a couple of years, she told me, overall, not a troublemaker. Not even on the radar in terms of major threats inside the facility. He gets mad sometimes, she said, but usually for a legitimate reason.

Joshua did throw a video game remote a guard, for instance. Joshua told me that was because the guard discussed his case in front of other kids, saying snitches get stitches. He said she apologized later, and they were cool after that. But there it was in the request to invoke.

Another incident on the list sounded as if Joshua had caused a guard to get hurt during a fight. He said, not accurate. He was trying to defend the guard. The one time I visited Indian River, I met this same guard in passing, and she confirmed it. He was trying to protect me, she said. She called Joshua, honey.

Again, I couldn't interview anyone at ODYS on the record. They don't participate in stories about specific youth. But in a statement, they reiterated that they do investigate allegations of misconduct and take action when necessary.

When I put the two reports side by side, what I saw was the raggedy, morally compromised chronicle of a kid at war. Joshua wasn't only a victim, nor was he only a perpetrator. Like a lot of kids inside ODYS, he was both.

The most powerful gang in juvenile prison was after him. He felt like guards couldn't be trusted. Every day, he felt unsafe. So he created alliances where he could, dominated where he could, took advantage where he could, sought protection where he could. That didn't make his behavior right. Then again, ODYS prisons don't really spin on an axis of right and wrong. See previous episode.

The prosecutors offered Joshua a deal. If he didn't fight the bind over and transferred to adult prison, he'd get nine years. If he went forward with the hearing, put up an argument, he could end up with more than that—as many as eighteen years.

Joshua's assigned attorney was a guy named Jim Hofelich. Jim Hofelich hadn't done one of these SYO invocations before—not many people in the county had. Joshua didn't know whether to take the deal.

Sarah Koenig

What's Hofelich telling you?

Joshua

He wants me to fight it. Like he really—like for real, for real. He made it—he's not clear on what he wants to do, either.

Sarah Koenig

But he's inclined to fight it?

Joshua

Yeah. He wants to, yeah. He wants to fight it. Everybody wants me to fight it. Everybody wants me to fight it, but like—

Sarah Koenig

Who's everybody? Who's everybody?

Joshua

I talked to Ms. Turner. Ms. Turner wants me to fight it. My mom wants me to fight it. My uncle—I'll tell you something about my uncle. Uncle says, fight it. Feel me?

Sarah Koenig

Joshua tried to marshal support. He asked some ODYS staff members to write letters to the court on his behalf. He says a few told him they were willing. Joshua's father, who lives in Jamaica, pledged to hire Josh a private attorney. He just needed to arrange for payment.

In the meantime, Indian River declared that it wanted Joshua out now, while they waited for the final hearing on his SYO. The superintendent claimed Joshua was causing an environment of constant response and panic. A court magistrate OK'd the transfer. Joshua was delivered to county jail—adult county jail.

A couple of weeks went by, and I could hear on the phone that Joshua was acclimating to the idea of an adult sentence in adult prison. He compressed the nine years in his head. It'd really be six years, since he'd already spent a few years in ODYS. Probably less than six, if he was granted judicial release. Being in county with all these guys who were getting walloped with big sentences, Joshua had a fresh perspective on the number six.

Joshua

For me, it's a couple of dudes on the unit that got sentenced, one whom got thirteen years. Other one got six to ten. One of them—one, he got sentenced to seventeen years. So I know he would rather be in my shoes than in his right now. So it's like, uh, six years? Oh. Like, they're looking at numbers. Like they looking at—like double digits.

Sarah Koenig

Compared to double digits, he was saying, maybe six was a lucky break.

When Joshua was brought to court the morning of his hearing, he still didn't know what he was going to do. He met with Jim Hofelich, who'd laid out the probable truth that, today, nine years was the best case scenario. Joshua took the deal.

The actual proceeding was hard to stomach. Joshua stood there crying, a few of his umpteen, yes ma'ams barely audible.

Judge 1

And that you have demonstrated by your conduct that rehabilitation during the remaining period of juvenile jurisdiction is unlikely.

Joshua

Yes, ma'am.

Sarah Koenig

At one point, the judge asked someone to fetch Joshua some Kleenex. No one had come to his rescue. His father hadn't hired the private lawyer he said he was going to hire. Joshua's civil attorneys never did file a lawsuit on Joshua's behalf. The Indian River staff, who told Joshua they'd stick up for him, vouch for his progress—not here. I'd learned they'd been firmly reminded—you work for ODYS. While we're at it, where were the FBI agents who'd seem to like Joshua back in 2014 when they told him they'd check on him?

I get it. It was all too messy, too much. All those incidents on the list, the context, the tit for tats, the who started what's—too messy. Jim Hofelich had told me, sure, we could have picked apart three or four of the incidents on that list, explained fights on paper are more intricate than they appear. But then what about the forty other items teetering just behind? They were going to be crushed, Jim Hofelich said, by the sheer volume of incidents.

The one person who had shown up, Joshua's only witness, was Shalah Turner, Joshua's mentor from Freedom School. She said Jim Hofelich had contacted her yesterday. She thought she might be called upon to testify. Ms. Turner was upset. I thought it could be fought, she said.

Shalah Turner

Ah, I really thought it could be fought.

Sarah Koenig

In its letter to invoke Joshua's SYO, ODYS had written that there was no more they could do to rehabilitate Joshua, no additional interventions and treatments that can be attempted. It is unfortunate, they wrote, that he threw away the opportunity he was given. The idea that Joshua is unfixable, Ms. Turner said—

Shalah Turner

That part of it is complete BS.

Sarah Koenig

Ms. Turner isn't some wide-eyed advocate. She's worked with lots of kids in juvenile facilities. Her master's is in public administration with a focus on youth policy. She's from East Cleveland. She has a deep and personal experience with the good and the bad of gangs. She agrees that some of the kids at Indian River aren't ready to come out yet, but they are still works in not quite enough progress.

Joshua though? She said he is not one of the ones she most worries about, and he's not one of the ones ODYS should be most worried about. She does not accept that he hasn't progressed. Because to her, Joshua at nineteen, such a far cry from Joshua at sixteen.

Shalah Turner

When he was the hothead, arrogant asshole that Judge Sweeney met at first, that I met at first?

Sarah Koenig

Mm-hm.

Shalah Turner

There's no doubt in my mind that that's when the conversation should have been had.

Sarah Koenig

The conversation of, should we bind him over?

Shalah Turner

Absolutely, because he's becoming a threat to the facility. And he was a child that I thought, could he be rehabilitated?

Sarah Koenig

Oh. So you even had a question at the beginning?

Shalah Turner

I had a complete question, and didn't think that he could.

Sarah Koenig

Ms. Turner said the only fight they had in Freedom School inside the facility, only one—Joshua. His first week in the program, he stood up on a chair and spit on somebody.

Shalah Turner

Like, I mean, just outrageous. Even in conversation with him after that, it was this arrogance to him. It was this haughtiness. And that literally doesn't exist in him anymore.

So to now hear his conversation completely change to, I want to get out of here, I want to be a better person—I'm asking to not be put into these situations. I'm asking to be put on a different unit. A scared child that is crying out saying, this is what I need. I want to get out of this, and you ignored that.

Sarah Koenig

What most disturbed Ms. Turner—that it was Joshua, whose ethics and behavior were being scrutinized and punished. And now no one would look at what the state had done to him.

Shalah Turner

I think Joshua is the best case example of why it's so bogus when we have these expectations for kids to speak up about what's happening in the community, and to testify, and things like that, and we see the ramifications, and how we don't wrap around to protect that. I think the biggest issue isn't that Joshua hasn't held up his end of the bargain, it's that the state hasn't held up theirs. They haven't protected him.

Sarah Koenig

Haven't protected him from the gang he inflamed by testifying for the state.

More, in a minute.

After the hearing, Joshua was taken back to the county lockup. He figured he'd be shipped out to prison within a few days. That's supposed to happen once you're sentenced. Joshua's understanding was that early on a Tuesday or Thursday morning, they were going to drive him from county jail to an intake prison about forty minutes from Cleveland. And from there, they figure out where to put you—what's going to be your home institution.

But a couple of Tuesdays and Thursdays came and went, and Joshua sat in limbo. He wasn't getting either of the two medications he said he'd been prescribed for his brain injury. None of his personal stuff had followed him from Indian River—his papers, and photographs, and notebooks. And also, I need to emphasize county jail sucks. Go Google it—Cuyahoga County jail.

See the headline? Cleveland judge—I will not send people to jail after sixth inmate dies in four months. Granted, that was a post-Joshua headline, but it was true then as well. County is not a place you want to spend even one extra day. Insult to injury, Joshua had no money on his books. He couldn't buy any edible food, or an extra T-shirt, or a normal toothbrush, or minutes on a phone account. Why were they keeping him in county? What did they want with him?

Joshua

Like, I'm just didn't care for nothing. Like I am—

Sarah Koenig

Yeah. I think that's pretty much what's happening. Yeah.

After he'd sat in jail for a month of Tuesdays and Thursdays, I emailed Jim Hofelich to ask, and to nudge, can you explain why Joshua's still in county? His response—Joshua's still in county? Jim Hofelich wasn't Joshua's lawyer anymore, but he said he'd look into it.

Jim discovered a communication breakdown between the juvenile court and the County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail. Administratively, no one knew or seemed to notice, or care, that they didn't know who had jurisdiction over Joshua. But Jim said they'd clear it up. Josh and I developed a new routine—he'd call me and ask, any word from Mr. Hofelich? And I'd say something like—

Sarah Koenig

So apparently now everybody knows what's up, and maybe they'll transfer you.

Joshua

All right. OK, then.

Sarah Koenig

Nope. That was early November. Late November, two months after he'd been sentenced, Joshua was still lousy in county. I'd run out of encouraging reports from the outside.

Sarah Koenig

Somebody at some point has to do something. That's all I know. Somebody at some point will have to do something. They cannot keep you in county jail indefinitely.

Joshua

I don't know what they're doing, man.

Sarah Koenig

The metaphor could not have been clumsier—the government had forgotten about Joshua.

In county jail, Joshua was bored. Sometimes, he'd be cooped in his cell—they all would be—for nearly twenty-four hours straight. But what I noticed was that Joshua wasn't raging. He wasn't getting in fights.

Sarah Koenig

You know, you sound like—you sound pretty good.

Joshua

It's better than Indian River. It's a stress reliever. Like for real, this is a bad situation up here, but it's still better than Indian River, for me. Like, it's a stress reliever

Sarah Koenig

Is it?

Joshua

Like, because it's too much drama down there. It's too much. Like, it's stressful down there.

Sarah Koenig

And so it's less stressful there?

Joshua

Yeah. That's bad. [LAUGHS]

Sarah Koenig

Being in county jail was a stress reliever. The COs just did their jobs. As far as he could tell, people were nicer to one another, more relaxed with one another, more supportive, he said. He was noticing what I'd noticed in the shift from middle school to high school—just because one person didn't like you, that didn't mean the whole pod was against you. It was something of a revelation to him. Even white people do OK in here, he said.

Joshua

Even the white people—like, the white dudes down here even got—it's like a cool stay down here. It's not like Indian River. Like, a white dude, they got a harsh stay in Indian River. Down here, they're cool.

Sarah Koenig

The other young men I'd spoken to—Lio, Malik, Da'Von, a white kid named Wave—who'd been in both ODYS and then an adult jail, they'd all agreed. Bad as it was, dangerous as it was, it was still better than juvenile. Less stress.

That same feeling—less stress, more relaxed—would stretch out and hold true when Joshua arrived at adult prison. He finally shipped—11.5 weeks after he'd been sentenced—to a place called Allen-Oakwood Correctional in Lima, Ohio. About a three hour drive from Cleveland, so his family couldn't visit. But Joshua was just happy to be sprung from his cell.

Joshua

I keep walking back and forth, just because I can. For real.

Sarah Koenig

Because he'd cooperated, and adult enemies lurked in adult prison, Joshua was put in protective custody. No Heartless Felons on his unit. He wasn't feuding with other inmates or getting into it with COs. Joshua marveled—there were fewer guards, yet the inmates had more freedom. Part of it was maturity, he said. People trying to get home, see their kids.

But the main reason the adult system was better, he said, was because it was harsher. A tighter, less forgiving ship, all around. If you fight or act out—throw urine on a CO, say—severe consequences rained down.

Joshua

Yeah. You see, in juvenile, there's none of that. People running wild. You feel me? And ain't nothing happening. Like, they throw piss on the CO down there, you feel me? Ain't nothing really going to happen. Probably make you stay in your room or your own cell for the rest of the day, and then come out tomorrow.

Sarah Koenig

He was saying, in juvenile, the worst that would happen—you'd be shut up in your room for the day. Try throwing piss in adult prison.

Joshua

Here, you throw piss on the CO, they're going to mace you, send you to the hole. Probably jack your level, and probably give you charges.

Sarah Koenig

Guards here will put their hands on you, he said. They do not play. You could lose your phone calls or your visitation, and you could fester in the hole for months. The hole, especially, major deterrent, he said. In ODYS, the longest you're held in seclusion is four hours. Joshua said, juveniles take advantage of that shit, to the max.

Sarah Koenig

So if you were to propose juvenile justice reforms, it would be that they should be stricter?

Joshua

Right. And not just on the youth, but on the staff, too. You feel me?

Sarah Koenig

County jail was better than juvenile. Adult prison was better than county jail. Harsher punishment was better than lenity. Joshua's world had rotated a full 180. If he'd known what adult prison was going to be like, he said, he would've skipped juvenile. He would have said to those cops and prosecutors back in 2014, just bind me over. I'll take my chances. Cooperation had gotten him nothing, he said. No real benefit.

I said, what about a shorter sentence, though? Three armed robberies in adult court? They'd warned of time in the teens or twenties, even. Ah, he said, look at my co-defendants. Half of them are already out.

Yeah. You run your finger down the list of the thirteen people named in the Cutthroat indictment, a bunch of them got two or three years. Only a few are serving more significant sentences—eleven years, thirteen years. Joshua got nine. I should have just come straight here, he said, instead of having my ass beat in ODYS for three years.

Now, Joshua was in prison, his six years ticking. For my purposes, in terms of plot, his story had ended. But he kept calling, kept calling. And I kept answering. I just took a ten-minute break, in fact, because he called me while I was writing these sentences. I learned day by day what Joshua's life was turning into on the cusp of twenty years old in protective custody.

Joshua

Yeah, I'm in a pod with a whole bunch of ex-police officers, and COs, and lawyer dude with that [INAUDIBLE].

Sarah Koenig

What? [LAUGHS] You're on a pod with former police officers and former COs?

Joshua

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

About sixty people who couldn't mix with the general prison population in a different building across the street—cops, COs, and for reasons I never fully understood, a lot of white supremacists, Aryan Brotherhood. Josh said everyone seemed to get along OK. He was like, yeah, AB. They're cool. I got no problem with them.

Anyways, you kind of had to get along. The unit was too small for anything else. During our phone calls from Indian River, I'd often hear hollering in the background. Now from Allen Correctional, I could hear the soft click of billiard balls. They had a pool table in the day room. Joshua was the youngest on the pod, he said, but he didn't feel like the adults around him were dangerous. And the adults in charge of the prison didn't feel like Joshua was dangerous.

ODYS had tagged Joshua as a gang member. But he said the gang coordinator for the adult prison system had a chat with him, checked out his history, his tattoos, did not tag him as gang affiliated. On a scale of one to five, five being Supermax material, Joshua was designated a level two prisoner.

The sacrifice of being a prisoner in protective custody was the closeness of the unit and the tedium. Joshua says he couldn't take advantage of some of the programs and apprenticeships across the street where GenPop was housed. He was feeling the time—filling the time with people.

Joshua's intensely social. He has a talent for gathering people, pulling people towards him, including people who can help him out, like me. I'd do him small favors—favors that a reporter shouldn't really do—connecting him to the outside world, mostly via three-way phone calls. My most immediate benefit to Joshua was that, unlike most of the people in his life, I could afford an endless supply of Global Tel Link minutes.

Sarah Koenig

All right, what's the number?

Joshua

216—

Sarah Koenig

Uh-huh.

Joshua wanted contact, continual contact, usually with family. I became the operator.

Sarah Koenig

Hey, Joshua?

Joshua

Yeah, hello?

Sarah Koenig

Your granddad's on the phone.

Joshua

Hello?

Joshua's Grandfather

Hey, grandson.

Sarah Koenig

Joshua's troubles aren't news to his family, obviously. Incarceration isn't news to them either. Even so, it's heavy information when it comes.

Joshua

Grandad, what's up?

Joshua's Grandfather

What's up, man?

Joshua

Man, I'm going to prison.

Joshua's Grandfather

I heard, man. Man, Josh. Man, you're breaking my heart, Josh. Your dad told me what happened, you know?

Joshua

What happened—oh, can't even—oh, man.

Sarah Koenig

Joshua lived with his grandfather for a year, when he was about twelve.

Joshua's Grandfather

Well, you're safe still, huh? You're safe, right?

Joshua

Yeah, I'm good for right now.

Sarah Koenig

Joshua's relatives said it was OK to use these recordings. His family's huge. He's got relatives all over Cleveland, also in Florida, California, Jamaica.

Woman 4

That is funny.

Joshua

[LAUGHS]

Sarah Koenig

His little niece, his great grandmother, his aunts and cousins, his parents, his sisters, his daughter—in every call, he tells them he loves them. And they say it back.

Girl 1

She's going to sleep.

Mother

Say I love you.

Girl

I love you.

Joshua

I love you, too, baby. Put mommy on the phone.

Sarah Koenig

When Josh was four, his father was arrested by the DEA for conspiracy to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana in the United States. He got a long sentence in federal prison. His mother went to prison a couple of years later.

Once both of them were locked up, what happened was what you might imagine would happen to a kid longing for his absent parents—he floated from house to house, miserable. Probably the most stable person in his life is his grandmother. She was his legal guardian, and he lived with her for long stretches growing up.

Joshua's Grandmother

Uh-huh. I put you in the back seat, remember?

Joshua

Yeah.

Joshua's Grandmother

Yeah. And I was driving out the yard. Yeah. Shut up.

Joshua

[INAUDIBLE] one time was the only time.

Joshua's Grandmother

Man, I can drive.

Sarah Koenig

By the time he was thirteen, Joshua began to ping at the juvenile court, initially for petty stuff—being unruly, fighting at school. Then it got more serious. At fourteen, he was caught for strong armed robbery. He and some friends mugged a guy they knew. Joshua was sent to an ODYS residential facility. He escaped—climbed over a wall with a friend and called his sister from a gas station payphone. She drove out to collect him.

Once he was home, Heartless Felons, drug dealing, guns, some robberies. When he held up the two BPs and the Popeyes, he was fifteen. Just after he turned sixteen, his baby daughter was born. And two months later, the FBI came to get him.

Joshua's Mother

Hello?

Joshua

Hello?

Joshua's Mother

Hey, son.

Joshua

Hey, Mommy. Happy Birthday.

Joshua's Mother

Thank you. Your mommy's forty years old. That's old.

Joshua

[LAUGHS]

Sarah Koenig

Sometimes in the calls, it feels like the master clock of Joshua's immediate family is the criminal justice system itself—a continual pulse of court dates, and visitation forms, and commissary money.

Joshua's Mother

Hey, we come down there to drop some money off, and they said I didn't have no ID. And they wouldn't let your mother leave the money. So I've got to get some ID and bring it back. She going to have to bring it back to you.

Sarah Koenig

Joshua knew I was recording these calls. Occasionally, we'd discuss the content afterwards, debrief about his relationships. He's open like that, strikingly so. And he knew I was rooting for him. And so sometimes, he'd call me just to call me.

Joshua

What's up?

Sarah Koenig

Not too much. I'm recording. I don't know why—in case you have something fascinating to tell me.

Joshua

I do have something fascinating to tell you.

Sarah Koenig

What?

Joshua

I got my GED.

Sarah Koenig

What?

Joshua

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

No way. Really?

Joshua

Yeah. I got it last thing on Friday.

Sarah Koenig

He was relieved. Joshua had wrestled with the language arts portion of his GED twice before. A former ODYS guard who knew Joshua as a younger teenager had described him as impressionable—the kind of person who'll do good if he's around good, do bad if he's around bad.

Adult prison is filled by and large with adult criminals. I kept an antenna up for signs that Joshua might be listing toward darkness. Sometimes, I'd hear a hard blade of anger in his voice. He started swearing more on the phone, but I couldn't really tell what that meant. Maybe he was just more comfortable with me. Maybe he was just in a bad mood.

On the positive side, Joshua had become friends with an ex-cop on the protective custody unit, a big guy who, Joshua laughingly told me, was making his huge muscles even huger, working out all the time. This ex-cop—Denayne Dixon from East Cleveland, from Jesse Nickerson's case, the officer who'd taken Jesse to the park and pleaded guilty to a couple felonies as a result.

Joshua really liked Denayne. They knew people in common. And Denayne liked Joshua. He's funny and charismatic, Denayne told me. Feels like having a little brother around.

I was interested in Denayne's assessment. Once Joshua got out, did he think Joshua could have an OK future? One that didn't include perpetual incarceration?

Denayne Dixon

Right now at this point, no.

Sarah Koenig

Because why?

Denayne Dixon

I mean, it's all he knows—the streets and something he's in to, and all the negativity. That's all he knows. And that's all he knows to return to.

Sarah Koenig

I hated this answer. Because Joshua was bound over, he would now have an adult felony record. Joshua knew that would wreak the most long-term damage to his prospects once he got out. Tattoos began creeping back onto his hands, and neck, and face—all the places he'd had them removed before.

I spent many phone calls looking up people on the internet for Joshua—people he knew from Cleveland who were in county jail. What were their charges, he was asking. Are they going to trial? Or else he'd ask about people who'd already been sentenced—how long did they get? Which institution? Can you give me the inmate number? Tell me the zip code again. He was writing to them, making contact.

But some of the people he was having me look up, their cases sounded terrible. A premeditated murder—somebody shot and then burned in a car. I asked him, what are you doing?

Joshua

Look. To me, no matter what the situation is, what you did, what your past is, I'm not here to judge nobody. Like, nobody is perfect. Everybody in this world made bad choices before. It's whether they got caught for them, or not.

And then it gives you a thing like, people like that might not ever get out of prison. And so, they might be there for a long time. So eventually, people need good friends. You feel me? Or somebody just to tell them—just to tell them, hey, like, ain't nobody forgetting about them, or something. You feel me? Sometimes, somebody needs a good friend to keep their hopes up.

Sarah Koenig

Right.

Joshua

Everybody don't have to feel like shit.

Sarah Koenig

He was being kind. And I understood he was trying to give other people what he himself needed—a reminder that he wasn't a piece of shit, that he was forgivable, redeemable. He was taking a position far more humane than the one the criminal justice system had taken with him. So I had to think for a minute about why I was getting angry. I realized this community of inmates he was stitching together was worrying me for when he got out.

Sarah Koenig

So I think my—the reaction I'm having is like, could you just please stay the fuck away from some criminals for a while so that you have a chance of not falling back into that world? And I think that's why I'm having this reaction, which isn't fair to you.

Joshua

It seems like they're the people that understand me the most, sometimes, you feel me? So that's why—and it's like it's not that—like, these are the only type dudes I've been around my whole life. You feel me? So these are the only type dudes I've been around, so I mean, it's hard.

Sarah Koenig

It's tempting to think that all of this—prison and punishment—leads somewhere, that there's a goal we can point to. People who commit crimes, maybe if they turn their lives around, a civic reward awaits them back home. But for someone like Joshua, it's hard to imagine what that reward would be.

Ms. Turner had told me the young men she's worked with inside the prisons, kids who've been able to crack open their feelings, make themselves vulnerable, she's watched many of them come home and then crumble because they're back in violent neighborhoods where they need armor to survive. She told me, the most successful ones, I hate to say, the ones that are communicating that they actually feel joy, are the ones who went back to the streets.

Joshua knew. He'd said it to me many times—his only chance of survival was to never go back to Cleveland. If he returned home, he was going to end up hurting someone or getting hurt. He'd end up right back at the Justice Center.

The year we were in Cleveland—2017—more than 13,000 felony cases moved through the Justice Center. Brutalist tower downtown, twenty-six stories high. Hundreds of people coming in every day, wound up, emotional.

Woman On Tv

And this is the famous GG Juice. And this is the famous [INAUDIBLE] that contains the GG Juice.

Sarah Koenig

Maybe watching a little TV will help them relax. That was the idea when the court had TVs installed in the waiting areas near the courtrooms. On the fifteenth floor, an older woman's weeping. She retreats into the ladies room. I can hear her howling in there. She comes back out, still crying. A young man, maybe it's her son, is folded over, head in his hands. Right above them—

Woman On Tv

Just top it off with a touch of vodka. Cheers, kiddo!

Sarah Koenig

The Food Network. That's the courthouse soundtrack—clean kitchens, cupboards well-stocked.

The administrative judge auditioned other options—the news, too upsetting. History Channel—and boom, there was something about the Nazis and the concentration camps. He thought of Animal Planet, cartoon channel. In the end, the most reliably soothing—Food Network. It does lull you. You forget for a moment how much is happening all over this building.

Judge

Sir, do you have an attorney or the means to hire an attorney?

Defendant

No, I don't.

Sarah Koenig

In the space of a year, all those thousands of cases begin here, in the arraignment room. Crucial decisions are made in the arraignment room. The judge chooses your lawyer, if you can't afford one—you can't, usually—assigns your case to a courtroom, reviews your bond.

Judge

Bond is set at $10,000 cash, surety, or property.

Sarah Koenig

Adjusted up or down, if he wants. Keeps you in jail, or lets you out.

Judge

Have you received your indictment, read it, and understood it?

Defendant

Yeah, but didn't really quite understand it.

Sarah Koenig

Didn't really quite understand it. Dozens of people are waiting their turn with this judge. The bailiff is at the ready, big pile of case folders.

Judge

I'm going to ask you if you understand what the charge means, not the facts.

Defendant

I've been arrested since then. [INAUDIBLE]

Sarah Koenig

Asking questions slows the rhythm.

Judge

Do you know what the charge is?

Defendant

[INAUDIBLE]

Judge

So you understand what the charge is?

Sarah Koenig

Arraignment is the Justice Center's intake valve. The rush of cases, now processed, they all whoosh upstairs into courtrooms.

Judge

Has anyone made any promises or threats in order to induce you to change your plea?

Sarah Koenig

Up on twenty-one, they're teeing up the three words that will button closed many thousands of plea bargains this year.

Female Judge

Knowingly.

Male Judge

Voluntarily.

Female Judge

Intelligently.

Female Judge

In a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent fashion.

Male Judge

And I want to be sure you're doing this voluntarily.

Female Judge

And voluntarily.

Female Judge

Knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made.

Sarah Koenig

A few floors down, Judge Daniel Gaul—just re-elected, by the way—tells a defendant to pull up his pants. The guy's been in jail, doesn't have a belt.

Judge Gaul

Pull them up.

Defendant

[INAUDIBLE], Your Honor.

Judge Gaul

Pull them up.

Defendant

What?

Judge Gaul

Pull your trousers up.

Lawyer

And the case is yours. You can decide—

Sarah Koenig

Nineteenth floor a trial's just beginning—jury selection. The jury pool, all white, save for one woman, who's black. She works in IT at a law firm. The defense attorney starts asking her questions. She stops him.

Potential Juror

I think I have to go full disclosure here. I am not emotionally ready to participate in our legal system. I have so much personal disappointment—

Lawyer

OK.

Potential Juror

—in the inequities in our systems.

Lawyer

OK.

Sarah Koenig

Ground floor, in the hallway outside the doors to the county jail a crowd is waiting for a man named Evin King to walk out. He spent twenty-two years in prison for a murder he didn't do. People are singing, crying. Then they see him, exonerated.

[CHEERS]

[APPLAUSE]

Man

Commander of the rifle squad, prepare to honor your fallen comrades.

Sarah Koenig

Outside on the street, police officers from all over the county and the state march in the annual memorial parade.

Man

Detail! Attention!

Sarah Koenig

Honoring two local police officers who died during the past year in the line of duty—separate incidents, but both hit by cars while working on the highway.

[GUN SALUTE]

[TAPS ON HORN]

Back up on eighteen, in Judge O'Donnell's courtroom, a sentencing. The brother of a murdered woman gives a statement. He talks quietly, angrily, for a few minutes. Says he's glad the defendant is going to suffer every day in prison.

Brother

I'm just thankful that [INAUDIBLE] who you are.

Sarah Koenig

It seems like maybe he's winding down, and then he launches himself like a missile at the defendant.

[SOUNDS OF A SCUFFLE]

Another sentencing for a triple murder in a barbershop. It's a capital case. The courtroom's crammed. Relatives of the victims and of the defendant fill the gallery. The media is set up in the jury box with their cameras and microphones.

A man named Alvin Wright comes forward. He was a victim in the case. He'd been cutting someone's hair when shooting exploded the shop. He saw people he knew get killed. Alvin Wright had testified for the prosecution at trial. And now, just before the judge issues her final decision whether she's going to sentence the defendant, who is twenty-one, to death, Alvin Wright addresses the court.

Alvin Wright

The whole situation is fucked up.

Judge

It's a court of law. I mean, use different words.

Alvin Wright

I mean, this is what I'm dealing with, though.

Sarah Koenig

The judge tells him it's a court of law. There's different words. Go ahead.

Alvin Wright

I mean, the situation is messed up. It's a messed up situation, man. Do I agree with putting him down like a dog? No. That's just me. Can't nobody win. You putting him down, we don't get nobody back. Nothing.

It's just like we just keep losing. Just black people, period. We just keep losing. You've got all these white people right here, they're looking at us like we're in the zoo. And this is real shit. Like we're in a zoo.

Judge

Mr. Wright, I don't—

Alvin Wright

No, no. I'm just looking at the big picture of it, like look at this, and look at this. That's life. We've got to do better than that.

Judge

Mr. Wright, thank you.

Sarah Koenig

The best kept secret in the Justice Center is in the lobby. It's tucked between two pillars near the elevators. Looks like a wheel you might see at a raffle or a bingo game, but it functions as a suggestion box. You can send kites to the staff. The administrative judge will get them—he's got the key.

After hanging around this building for a year, I have many suggestions, just off the top of my head. I'd say, go minimalist. Don't pile six charges onto a single crime when one charge will do. Don't overcharge to force a guilty plea. Don't lock anyone up, unless they're demonstrably violent. Admit that police officers lie under oath. Get out of the punishment business and turn toward the urgent problem of fairness.

Keep obsessive track of who exactly is being charged with what crime, how their sentence shakes out, and what their life looks like in three years or five years. Take note of the color of their skin and how much money they make. And don't shove what you learn in a drawer and forget about it. Don't be insensibly tempted, as Charles Dickens wrote, into a loose way of letting bad things alone to take their own bad course.

Cops, prosecutors, judges, lawyers—call out the colleagues who degrade your profession. Pay assigned attorneys and public defenders at least twice as much as you're paying them now. Judges, stop choosing assigned attorneys. Citizens, mix up the bench. Stop electing judges countywide. And overall, slowdown. Doubt yourselves.

And I know how corny this sounds, but imagine that every person in the elevator car is part of your own family and reflect on the far reaching pain of prosecution. Also don't tape anyone's mouth shut in court—that happened. And consider getting rid of the grand jury.

I could cram that wheel to bursting. But if I'm only allowed one suggestion, I'd say, let's all accept that something's gone wrong. Let's make that our premise.

Many times during our reporting in Cleveland when I'd ask about problems or reforms, someone would throw out, well, let's remember, we have the best system in the world. County prosecutor Michael O'Malley said it to me—I just think people need to realize we have the best criminal justice system in the world. The people who operate that system know about the warts, and they concede we can always improve. But generally, they're not chomping for an overhaul, the kind of extreme makeover that the data is screaming at us to undertake.

We've all heard the stats—that we here in the United States imprison a vastly higher percentage of our population than any other country in the world. We are number one. The numbers are well-documented, wildly out of whack, and unprecedented in our history.

Also well-documented—inequity. Every joint in the skeleton of our criminal justice system is greased by racial discrimination. Compared to white people who've committed the same crime and who have similar criminal histories, black people and other people of color are arrested more often. They're charged more harshly, given higher bails, offered worse plea deals. They're handed longer prison sentences, and their probation is more often revoked.

These numbers aren't floating above us in the sky. They're alive all over the country. We looked at studies from New York City, and Alabama, and Wisconsin, and Iowa's sixth district, and Hampton Roads, Virginia, and Harris County, Texas. It's everywhere, in all our courthouses.

Reporters often hear that we only report the bad stories. We exaggerate and sensationalize, especially when it comes to law enforcement or wonky prosecutions. But we didn't go to Cleveland and sift through hundreds of cases looking for the most egregious injustices we could find. We didn't have to. The ordinary ones told us everything we needed to know.

Serial is produced by Julie Snyder, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Ben Calhoun, and me, with additional reporting by Ida Lieszkovszky. Editing on this episode from Ira Glass and Nancy Updike. Tape transcription by Robin Smith. Whitney Dangerfield is our digital editor. Research and fact-checking by Ben Phelan. Sound design and mix by Stowe Nelson. Music clearance by Anthony Roman. Seth Lind is our director of operations.

The Serial staff includes Emily Condon, Julie Whitaker, Cassie Howley, Frances Swanson, and Matt Tierney. Our music is by Adam Dorn and Hal Willner, with additional music from Matt McGinley. Our theme song is by Nick Thorburn, and remixed by Adam Dorn.

This is our final episode this season, so we have some special thank yous. Our tape loggers, Valerie Caesar, Beth Card, Michal Richter, Sarah Stodder, and Meredith Francis. Thanks to the entire staff at the Cuyahoga County Criminal Justice Center. Thanks to Ed Ferenc, Kevin Bringman, Jillian Echart, Joe Buckley, Ryan Miday, and Kathleen Caffrey.

At the juvenile courthouse, thanks to Mary Davidson and Gregory Moore.

Thanks also to Kimberly Henderson, Elise Bergerson, Sarah Adams, Bennett Epstein, Lisa Noller, Melissa Georges, Eyal Gutentag, Itai Sutker, Ryan Iynegar, Kaveh Motamed, Christina Hagner, Anet Navi, AdResults Media, Keisha Ladson, Angela Ladson, Ian Friedman, Kevin Kilbain, Addison Riley, Tom Shaughnessey, Eric Norton, Wendy Feinn, Danny Tirfagnaheu, the Ohio Highway Patrol, and Amy Gifford at the Stark County Clerk of Courts.

Also a personal thanks to Jeff Melman, Ben Schreier, and Arlene Richman.

And a huge thanks to Rich Orris, who builds and manages our fantastic website. The talented team at Moth Studio did the animation and illustration for this episode, and it is great. You can check it out on our website at serialpodcast.org. That is serialpodcast.org, where you can also sign up for our email newsletter.

Occasionally we'll take the show on the road and hold events at theaters and universities. So if you're interested, sign up for our newsletter, and we'll send you the details for those and for our next season and new projects. Again, you can sign up at serialpodcast.org.

Serial is a production of This American Life and WBEZ Chicago.

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