Breathless Over Pantless

Bad things happen in jails. Terrible things. This just wasn’t one of them. When Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell, that was worthy of outrage. That the female defendant who appeared before Louisville Judge Amber Wolf was not wearing pants is at most insignificant, and at worst, no issue at all.

The video of Judge Wolf reacting to a woman in court without pants has gone somewhat viral, which is surprising given that the video is 12 minutes of painful tedium. Keith Lee twitted it at me early, and I watched it, thinking only that Keith owed me 12 minutes of my life back. At the time, it appeared that the woman, who remains unnamed as she should, was in a state of undress that evoked outrage by the judge. Was she naked underneath her long t-shirt? Was she in her panties? It’s never said, but that she wasn’t in pants was clear and, to the judge, wholly unacceptable.

“Excuse me? This is outrageous. Is this for real?” Judge Wolf said upon hearing this from the defense attorney.Footage of the proceeding was captured by the courtroom camera. Wolf continued, “Am I in the Twilight Zone? What is happening?”

“This is completely inhumane and unacceptable,” Wolf told the woman. “I’m sorry you had to go through this.”

In the scheme of completely inhumane things that happen in jails, this wasn’t high on my list. While it seemed as if most people concerned about defendants’ and prisoners’ rights were apoplectic, I just couldn’t get worked up about this.  That someone is mistakenly arrested for an unpaid traffic ticket, that was in fact paid, and forced to undergo a body cavity search outrages me. That someone didn’t get pants was bad, but not as bad as being anally raped without cause.

Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I’m insensitive to feminine modesty. Maybe I’ve seen too many prostitute sweeps in arraignment where women are brought into the courtroom in their various states of undress, which were good enough for them to wear on the street when hawking their wares, but lacked the level of Puritanical modesty they preferred when appearing in court. Happens all the time.

As it turned out, Judge Wolf was mistaken in her understanding of what was happening in her courtroom. The pantless defendant wasn’t naked underneath her t-shirt. She wasn’t brought into the courtroom in her panties, as the video suggested and as Judge Wolf presumably thought.

The woman, who hasn’t been named, was in jail for failing to complete a diversion program for a 2014 shoplifting charge. She was brought to court wearing the same outfit she was arrested in- a long t-shirt that covered her short athletic shorts, making it look as if she had nothing on underneath.

“She did not have jumpsuit pants on, she had the clothes she was wearing when she was arrested,” Metro Corrections said in a statement posted to their Facebook page. “Happens every day. ..tank tops, t-shirts, running short, short dresses, sandals and flip flops….it’s a hot Kentucky summer.”

No pants. Shorts. Would Judge Wolf have broken a sweat had she realized that the woman was wearing shorts, the same ones worn on the street?  It’s hard to believe that would be the case.

The explanation from corrections facility spokesperson Steve Durham was that it is not protocol for jail staff to provide inmates with prison uniforms immediately after they are taken into custody.

This woman was picked up on a warrant for failure to attend a diversion program following a 2014 shoplifting conviction. Not a big deal, but also not a wrongful arrest. When someone is sentenced to a diversion program, not exactly a harsh sentence in the scheme of things, the defendant is properly expected to complete the program. It’s not the sort of deal that you do it if you feel like it. You do it. That was the sentence you agreed to.  This woman didn’t, maybe for a reason, maybe not, but it wasn’t wrong of the police to pull her in on the warrant.

And the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections’ policy of awaiting arraignment before setting an inmate up as a permanent guest is not only reasonable, but typical.

The Louisville Metro Department of Corrections inmates’ handbook states that “prior to assigning inmates to permanent inmate living areas,” the inmates will be given clean jumpsuits and bed linens, but it does not provide any guidelines regarding when the department has to provide such items. The handbook also states that “inmates will receive a hygiene pack upon their assignment to a permanent housing location,” but does not mention whether correctional staff is required to distribute feminine hygiene products to inmates without a permanent assignment.

According to the video, the woman had been in custody for three days before appearing before the court on the bench warrant. That’s not a reflection on corrections, but on the court. Many courts have cut night and weekend arraignments to save money or because they just don’t have enough business to justify keeping a courtroom and judge available. So the person pinched on Friday ends up waiting until Monday to appear before the judge.

Blame the court system for the three days delay, not corrections. She could have been brought to the courthouse five minutes after arrest, but she would have been lonely since there was nobody there. And she still would have been wearing the athletic shorts she decided to put on that day.

Defendants at arraignment often appear before the court in clothing that they wouldn’t pick out if they knew that’s where they would end up. Nobody cares. Judges understand. There is no comparison with what lawyers are expected to wear in court, and it’s no breach of decorum. Everyone gets it that they were nabbed on the street and didn’t select their “going to court” outfit. No judge holds it against them.

So did this reflect the finest hour of the legal system? Of course not. It would certainly have been far more accommodating to have provided the woman with pants upon her request. But in the scheme of outrages perpetrated by the jails, by the system, against defendants, this doesn’t register. Save the outrage for when it’s warranted. Don’t worry, there will be a new video to get your blood boiling any minute now.

14 thoughts on “Breathless Over Pantless

  1. Mark C

    When I saw the write up and video, my thoughts were very similar. a) she’s got shorts on… and that’s an issue why? b) why did it take 3 days to get to arraignment?

    The ‘no feminine hygiene products’ bit perked my ears up. There are certain biological realities when housing adult women for more than a couple hours depending on where they are in their monthly cycle. The attorney bringing it up suggests the defendant was close to or having her period. Not sure why Judge Wolf didn’t focus on that bit. It’s not up there with being beaten or raped, but it feels too close to causing someone to break toilet training.

    1. SHG Post author

      I assume, since nothing was specifically described, that “feminine hygiene products” meant tampons. From what I’ve read, they’re ubiquitous in the jail. While she wasn’t given her own personal kit, there were plenty to be had. Whether or not this is so, I can’t say, but to the extent it was discussed at all, it was a bit too euphemistic to rely on. If something is going to raise hackles, then it has to be express. Vagaries don’t cut it for me.

  2. Neil

    No broken windows or broken bullets theory of policing for jails?

    ‘When small offenses are ignored, tolerated, they lend themselves to an atmosphere where the basic social norms, from a lack of courtesy toward each other to petty destruction, is a way of life.’

      1. John Barleycorn

        Don’t worry Neil, the esteemed one is just pissed off that little boy Bill Bratton is appearing out of uniform, in nicer suits than the esteemed one owns, as he does his farewell media tour.

  3. Mark C

    One of the benefits of reading your thoughts on topics is introduction and practice in thinking… especially about how we do and don’t use language.

    In my own personal and professional life I tend to be too accepting of euphemism from others, and too ready to similarly euthanize my own language.

    Thanks for taking the time to illuminate that point. Greatly appreciated!

  4. Rick Horowitz

    The first story I read, as far as I recall, had indicated her clothes had been taken away AND she had been refused pants (and hygiene products). At least that’s what I thought, but now I wonder if I read with blinders on like people sometimes do when they accept the later-released statements of corrections officers.

    That said, if that’s what it takes to get a judge upset about jails, I’m in favor. Of course, here, if someone is picked up on Monday, they won’t see a court before Wednesday, if then. And a Friday pickup means Tuesday court.

    1. SHG Post author

      If judges get upset about trivia, they won’t be taken seriously and their concerns will be dismissed. When something serious happens, they will be ineffectual as the “judge who cried wolf.” I don’t want judges to be ignored or taken as wolf-criers. Do you?

      1. angrychiatty

        Yes. I want judges to get upset when it appears that prisoners are not being treated properly, even if its “trivial.” Obviously its a hell of a lot better when something trivial actually happened, as opposed to here, where nothing improper at all happened. But, as a general principle, maybe, just maybe, and just once in a while, a DOC representative wont do some dickhead thing to a prisoner because in his head, he will roll his eyes and say “I better not do this because if Judge Wolf hears about it she is going to make a big fucking deal about it.” Remember when Robert DeNiro’s character went to bitch out the head chef in the movie Casino concerning the number of blueberries in his muffin? He said “I need them to know I’m watching all the time, and there is no detail I won’t miss.” Now I know you’ll snort with derision at the comparison because god knows that the judges in general miss/don’t care about most details affecting prisoners, whether large or small. But the basic idea is there.
        [puts flame suit on]

        1. SHG Post author

          Putting aside my point that this wasn’t “bad” to begin with, there is a wide gap between approving of trivial bad things and making a federal case out of the tissue box running dry. There may come a day when that’s the worst thing that happens in jail, and I hope that day comes, but until then, pick your battles. This isn’t a movie. This isn’t a casino. This isn’t your Utopia.

          There’s a limit to how much capital a judge has to spend on screaming at corrections. It’s better to spend it wisely. You may not like this reality, but it may save someone’s life.

  5. John Barleycorn

    So are you saying Facebook is rather long form for department of corrections, corrections?

    1. SHG Post author

      They don’t use social media, people bitch. They use social media, people bitch. They kill innocent people, people bitch. No matter what corrections does, it’s wrong.

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