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Excerpt: 'Courtroom 302'

Cover image from <i>Courtroom 302</i>
Cover image from Courtroom 302

If you want to learn a lot about how American justice operates at a less lofty level, pick up Steven Bogira's Courtroom 302, his fascinating and sobering account of a year spent watching the proceedings in one courtroom in Chicago.

Excerpt from Chapter 1

Every day, Chicago police wagons swing onto the grounds of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse and deposit their cargo at a rear door.

The prisoners being unloaded on this particular evening—January 20, 1998—are here for the usual reasons. They sold cocaine rocks on a corner, until an unmarked car screeched up out of nowhere. They tried to buy heroin from an undercover cop. They pocketed a fifth of booze at a grocery and failed to outrun the security guard. They relieved a pickup truck of its tools and a nosy neighbor called 911.

At the district station, they pulled off their belts and pulled out their laces. They emptied their pockets of combs, cigarettes, matchbooks. They pressed their fingers onto the ink pad, frowned for the camera, and joined the rest of the day's catch in a frigid lockup. They curled up on a metal bench or a concrete floor and waited—midnight, four in the morning, noon—while computers checked their prints for outstanding warrants. They were treated to a baloney-on-white and coffee in a Styrofoam cup. Those with misdemeanor charges and no warrants were given a court date and released. The others were cuffed wrist to wrist and loaded into the large police wagon that swung by the station. The chain of prisoners in the wagon lengthened as the driver made pickups at other stations. The wagon bumped along toward the courthouse at 26th and California.

The Cook County Criminal Courthouse—the biggest and busiest felony courthouse in the nation—sits in a Mexican neighborhood on Chicago's southwest side. It's a boxy limestone structure, seven stories high and seven decades old, with Doric columns, Latin phrases carved into the limestone, and eight sculpted figures above the columns, representing law, justice, liberty, truth, might, love, wisdom, and peace. None of them is visible from the back of a police wagon.

A paunchy, balding white officer is behind the wheel of the first wagon to dip down a ramp and dock at the rear door this evening. He opens the wagon's tail, and a chain of fifteen men, a dozen black and three white, winds its way out. The prisoners are rumpled and rank–the wagon-tossed, wretched refuse of a major American city, arrested on Martin Luther King Day. The driver follows the prisoners to the door, balancing over one shoulder a clear bag holding fifteen smaller clear bags that contain keys, combs, lip salve, cigarettes, lighters, beepers, eyeglasses, belts, shoelaces. In his other hand is a sheaf of arrest reports and rap sheets.

A navy-shirted sheriff's deputy slides open the barred door, and the prisoners file into the courthouse basement. About fifteen hundred prisoners pass through this doorway weekly on their way to a bond hearing—78,000 men and women a year accused of violating the peace and dignity of the State of Illinois.

In thirty courtrooms on floors two through seven, plea deals are fashioned and hearings and trials conducted every weekday. But for most defendants, the first glimpse of the interior of the courthouse is of this cellar.

The cellar holds several dank chambers with cinder-block walls and metal benches bolted to concrete floors. The grimy walls have been decorated here and there by deputies who had a black marker or a tube of Preparation H and time on their hands. WELCOME TO COUNTY—GET SERVED WITH A SMILE reads the script next to a horned and goateed grinning devil on a wall near the entrance. Other greetings: THIS WAY TO THE DANCE, and HEAD FIRST—HIT HERE, and YOU WON'T BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS.

Later tonight the prisoners will be escorted through a tunnel to the quivering elevator that will carry them up to Courtroom 100 for their bond hearings. At evening's end the lucky prisoners who can make bond or who get an "I-bond" (a no-money-down individual-recognizance bond) will walk out of the courthouse's front door. The rest of the prisoners—about two-thirds of them, if this is a typical night—will ride the elevator back downstairs and march through a longer tunnel to jail.

"Okay, fifteen desperate criminals," the paunchy officer tells the deputy at the entrance, one of twenty deputies working in the basement this evening. Yawning, the officer hands over the property bag and the paperwork.

The prisoners are directed to a bench in a bullpen down the hall, where they stand as they're told—silently, backs of their legs against the edge of the bench. A second police officer is already at the door, dropping off three bleary-eyed black women. A deputy points them to a nearby bench. They step warily past Blackjack, a German shepherd, and Harley, a Rottweiler, the dogs straining toward them, tugging on the leashes gripped by two deputies.

Meanwhile a deputy in the bullpen at the end of the hall makes his way down the line of fifteen men, unlocking and collecting the handcuffs for the first wagon driver.

"When the cuffs come off, your hands go behind your back," snaps the bull-necked, light-skinned African American deputy who's got the paperwork now. "All right, when you hear your last name, tell me your first name. Powell."


Bullneck stalks over to Powell, a frail black youth in a neon-orange windbreaker. "Is your first name Here, motherf**ker?" the deputy hollers in the startled youth's face.

The prisoners make it through the rest of roll call flawlessly, and then Bullneck directs them to sit. Another wagon arrives, and ten more disheveled males join the first fifteen in the back room. After they're uncuffed and checked in and have taken their seats on one of the benches that line three sides of the chamber, Bullneck welcomes them all to 26th Street.

"You don't scare me," he tells them. "You don't intimidate me. And you sure f**king don't impress me." He informs the prisoners that they'll be going to bond court, and that after that they'll be headed home or to jail. But there's a third place they can end up if they don't follow the rules here, Bullneck warns—the jail hospital.

The rules are simple and not to be questioned, he says—no food, no phone calls, no smoking. "I don't care if you haven't eaten all week or made a phone call all day. It's not my problem." And the cardinal rule: in the hallways, on the elevator, in the courtroom upstairs, a prisoner's hands must remain behind his back. "We don't know you. We don't know what the f**k is on your mind. You come out with your hands swinging, you're gonna get dropped," Bullneck says. "If you forget every other rule I tell you, don't forget the hands-behind-the-back rule."

Bullneck surveys his mute, expressionless subjects.

"Does everybody understand the f**king rules?"

A handful of mumbled yessirs.

"Let me hear that again."

"Yes sir!"

Next Bullneck announces "freebie time," inviting the prisoners to surrender any drugs they've managed to retain despite earlier searches by Chicago police. Nobody gets charged for what they give up now, he promises. But those who think they can sneak something by the deputies should know that Blackjack and Harley will be along presently. And if those dogs sniff a rock, a pinch of blow, or a roach, "you're gonna get bit, and you're gonna get charged." As usual, no one takes advantage of freebie time.

Now Bullneck has the men remove their coats and jackets and toss them onto the floor in the middle of the room. Four deputies wearing black gloves work through the heap of sports team jackets and Salvation Army specials, exploring pockets and kneading collars and waistbands. Meanwhile Bullneck directs the prisoners to pull off their laceless sneakers or workboots, tear out any liners, and hold the shoes upside down by the toes, arms outstretched. The men dutifully comply, and in a moment a ring of stocking-footed men are wordlessly offering up their soles to him.

"And when I tell you to, don't bang 'em like a buncha pussies," Bullneck says. "Bang 'em so anything inside falls out." He studies the group; all eyes are on him.

"Now—bang 'em!"

A host of arms are immediately pumping, beating those shoes and boots together, admirably unpussylike, the stampede echoing off the walls for a quarter of a minute, until Bullneck raises a hand. Nothing but lint has fallen to the concrete.

Next he has the men peel off their socks, extend their legs in front of them, and shake their socks while wiggling their toes. A yeasty odor rises in the room.

"All right, everybody stand up!" Bullneck bellows. "Turn around, grab some wall!" The four gloved deputies commence the pat-downs. It's not a penetrating search: anyone willing to tuck a cocaine rock up his butt will get away with it for now, but those who end up going to jail had better smoke up that rock in the jail bullpens before the strip-search there. Blackjack and Harley are mainly showpieces, Bullneck's warning about the dogs' impending sniff-search an empty threat. The deputies are checking for weapons now more than drugs. They don't trust the pat-downs of Chicago's finest; prisoners have arrived here with knives in their pockets, the deputies claim. (Chicago cops "couldn't find their *ss with both hands," one deputy says.)

A skinny Hispanic man awaiting his search foolishly peeks over his shoulder. The boss here tonight, the white-shirted Sergeant London Thomas, who's been watching the pat-downs from just outside the bullpen, is at the skinny man's side in an instant. "What the f**k're you staring at me for?" Thomas roars in the man's ear. "Face the f**king wall!

"Everybody should be staring at the wall," Thomas growls. "Ain't nothing behind you but an *ss-kicking."

"This guy's got a ring on that don't come off," a deputy says. "Guess we'll just have to lop off a finger."

"What's with you?" asks another deputy, of the trembling middle-aged man he's searching.

"I have MS," the man mumbles.

"Oh, he has PMS," the deputy announces, to his comrades' snickers.

There's a method to the deputies' malice, Sergeant Thomas says later: it's to let the prisoners know immediately who's in charge in the courthouse. "Control is something we cannot relinquish," the sergeant says. "If we did that, we'd be f**ked up right away. Extremely." The twenty or so deputies who work a bond court shift are watching at least sixty and sometimes more than a hundred prisoners. The deputies carry no weapons, to eliminate the risk of a prisoner seizing one. "We're armed with gloves, handcuffs, and attitude," Thomas says.

But the deputies' tone also expresses their sentiments about the prisoners. Those marched into the basement are cloaked in the presumption of innocence—in theory. The prevailing wisdom down here, however, is: if they're so innocent, why'd they arrive in handcuffs?

"We get the dregs of humanity here," says Lieutenant John Hopkins, tonight's watch commander in the courthouse. "If these people moved in next door to you, your lawn would die."

Hopkins believes in the golden rule. Treat the prisoners respectfully, he instructs his deputies, and don't get rough if you're not provoked. But some of his deputies are a little too eager to do unto others, he concedes, believing "that the only justice is at the end of a good right cross." Hopkins doesn't spend much time in the basement, allowing Sergeant Thomas to run the show down here most evenings. Hopkins says an occupational hazard of his job as watch commander is "the stiff neck you can get from looking the other way."

Sergeant Thomas, a tall, muscular African American, says the deputies threaten violence a lot more than they deliver it. Every now and then, though, certain prisoners require "a little—positive reinforcement," he says with a chuckle.

When the deputies have finished their pat-downs and the prisoners have been allowed to retrieve their coats from the pile, Thomas strides to the center of the group—the head coach with the final pregame chat, now that his assistant has warmed up the team. "I want to have a nice, quiet night," he tells the prisoners. "I want to get done, have a drink, and go home. Gentlemen, your situation's f**ked up enough as it is. You don't need it any more f**ked up."

It's time to move these first twenty-five men to a bullpen around the corner to make room for another batch at the door. Bullneck instructs his prisoners to follow another deputy down the hall–single file, hands behind their backs, of course. Shoves and shouts from Bullneck and his colleagues chase the line of prisoners on their way: "Get the f**k going!" "Keep moving, d**khead!"

A different deputy gives the welcoming speech to the second bedraggled collection, reminding these men "what a f**ked-up bunch of smelly motherf**kers" they are. There's never a lack of volunteers among the deputies for the honor of delivering the welcoming talk, with each succeeding speaker trying to outbadass the last one. "Some of 'em get off on it more than others," Sergeant Thomas says.

A prisoner at the entrance complains of dizziness. He fell and hit his head shortly before his arrest, he tells Thomas. Thomas surveys the man's head for cuts or swelling, finds none. Almost every night the sergeant has to do a diagnosis such as this. Anyone who insists he needs medical care will be taken to nearby St. Anthony Hospital–Holy Tony's, as the deputies call it. But Thomas discourages the trips when he's not convinced of the need. He knows some of the prisoners are merely trying to postpone their date with jail. The regulations require two deputies to accompany each prisoner who goes to the hospital, so Thomas would be shorthanded fast if he granted every request. There's paperwork involved as well. The prisoners aren't likely to expire in court, and in a couple of hours they'll either be the jail hospital's concern or, if they bond out, not the county's problem at all. Thus Thomas is often like the detective who persuades a suspect he doesn't really need a lawyer. For tonight's dizzy prisoner, he invokes one of his standard fabrications: "I can send you to the hospital if you want. But the officer who drove you here? He's got to drive you to the hospital. And then you got to ride all the way back here with him." Dizzy or not, the prisoner gets Thomas's hint about the peril of being alone in the custody of an aggravated cop, and he decides to forgo medical aid.

The initial group of prisoners is occupying one of three bullpens down another hallway. The benches are full, the overflow on the floor. Soon the second group comes marching single file down the corridor and fills the middle bullpen. Thomas tells everybody that standing isn't allowed. Fights in the bullpens were common when Thomas began working bond court three years ago—there were more "gangbangers" (gang members) being arrested then, he says. The fights led to the rule against standing, the idea being that it's harder to throw a punch while sitting. The prohibition probably isn't needed anymore, Thomas says, because the prisoners these days are mostly a docile bunch of addicts and small-time dealers. But rules are rules, and so when Thomas spots a man standing in bullpen two, he strides immediately over to him and booms, "What the f**k you doing standing in my bullpen? Do I have to chain you to the floor to get you to sit down?" The man quickly drops to the floor.

When more prisoners come down the hall, Thomas splits them between bullpens one and two, jamming those chambers, the men shoulder to shoulder on the benches and the floor. The female prisoners are being held in an anteroom near the basement entrance. Thomas wishes he could put some of the men in bullpen three, but it's occupied by the juveniles—the kiddie criminals, as the deputies call them. Most juveniles charged with delinquency are tried at the juvenile court two miles northeast of here. But thirteen- to sixteen-year-olds facing adult charges—murder, rape, armed robbery, drug dealing near a school—are bused here from the detention center next to the juvenile court for their court dates. A dozen of them who had court appearances here earlier today are on the benches of bullpen three, chatting quietly, waiting for the bus to return them to the detention center. The bus, as usual, is late. Thomas will be happier when the juveniles are gone, not just because it'll free up another bullpen but also because of what pests the kiddie criminals can be, with their godawful whining. "It's 'What time's the bus coming?'" Thomas says. "'Can I get something to eat?'"

Thomas calls his adult prisoners out to the hallway one at a time and with a black marker prints a three-digit number on the back of each prisoner's hand, and the same number on each prisoner's property bag. Many of the prisoners already have a number scrawled on one arm, a memento from the district station. Those who end up going to jail tonight will get further markings on their hands or arms as they're assigned to a division, a tier, and a cell. The bullpens are quiet while Thomas does his numbering. Some of the prisoners are dozing; others are studying the floor or the back of the head of the prisoner in front of them. Most of the adult prisoners have been through this before, and those who haven't catch on quickly, understanding that remaining silent is not a right now but an expectation.

There's always a slow learner, however. Tonight it's a balding white man, who hails a deputy passing in the hallway, telling him he's got a question. Thomas overhears, drops the hand of the prisoner he's numbering, rushes into the bullpen, and sticks his nose menacingly in the balding man's ruddy face: "Excuse me—why am I about to beat the piss outta you?" The prisoner averts his eyes and says nothing more. Thomas returns to the hallway.

Excerpted with permission from Random House, Knopf. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Bogira