It turns out, I am not that good a judge of people.

I am sitting at my breakfast table drinking from my favorite coffee cup. It is an attractive large white mug with a deep blue interior. It holds twice as much as a regular mug, which means I do not have to keep getting up for more coffee.

It also has a very imposing logo on the side of a muscular, mean-looking man bending jail bars surrounded by the company name: Bad Boys Bail Bonds. It’s a great company name — all that alliteration, not to mention the pop culture reference. They give out great mugs, which have their phone number (the memorable 1-800-BAIL-OUT). The mug makes me feel sort of bad-ass, although anyone who goes by the Santa Clara County Courthouse on a given day would likely have one as well.

I have never had the need to use Bad Boy, but I know that, if the need arises, I know their number. Fortunately, no one in my family has ever been in trouble with the law.

I got the Bad Boy mug when went down to the courthouse for a sentencing hearing for a friend of mine. Bad Boy representatives were passing out tchotkes to everyone who passed by. After refusing keychains and several attempts to give me a mug, I finally reneged and took one. I’m glad I did — I wish I had grabbed two. I mean if Bad Boy is willing to give them out…

The mug, then, is a memento of my friend, J. He is a wonderful person, or at least he has been in the more than a year that I have known him. He is funny, smart, gentle, compassionate and, in all my dealings with him at least, principled.

He is also currently serving seventeen years in prison, courtesy of the State of California.

I don’t know what he did other than according to both him and his mother the charges stem from crimes when he was a teenager.  (He is currently in his early thirties.) He also told me that there “strikes” involved, which of course would result in sentence enhancements.

He is at peace with the result.  He had turned himself into the authorities, had expressed remorse for his actions.  (He might have received a shorter sentence, except that the judge, a former prosecutor married to a current prosecutor announced to him the intention to give him very significant time.) He said that the guilt for whatever it was (he has still not told me about the circumstances) had gotten too great for him to live with. Another friend, more cynical than I am, told me that he probably turned himself in because the authorities were about to catch up with him anyway.

Whatever he did must have been very serious for them to have been looking for him so long.  There are a few crimes in California which carry no statute of limitations (fleeing from justice is one of them; murder is another).  I could look it up — which would require me to do some legwork — or pay any one of the myriad of Internet sites which do criminal background checks.

I haven’t yet.  It will irreparably change how I view J.  Homicide would be difficult for me to accept.  If he were to have committed rape or sexual assault of a  minor, I would never be able to write to him again, let alone visit him in jail. In the end, I don’t want to know.

People do stupid crap as teenagers.  People get involved in situations that spiral out of their control.  Teenagers act before they think, and sometimes act criminally. I recognize this.  I also know that people change — the person I was when I was fifteen was a pretty horrible young lady.

I want to think of J as I know him now.  The letters I get from him show a man at peace with himself and his circumstances.  No confusion, no protestations of innocence, only descriptions of what his life is like and what he is doing to improve himself while inside bars. (This includes getting clean of a serious over-the-counter drug addiction which I did not know he had.) An occasional joke about prison life.

I, on the other hand, am confused and grieving.  I do not have a window into every soul I am friends with, but this?  Something heinous enough to result in a man being put away for a of his life? How could I have had no inkling that something was so wrong? (Not to mention the drugs.  When I visited him in jail while he was awaiting sentencing, after he had detoxed, he looked five years younger and clearer-eyed than I had ever seen him.  I am really naive not to have seen that he had problems there.)

This is not the first time that I have been wrong about someone, but it is by far the most serious.  (Usually it is people who disappear when they find out about my disabilities or some of the other circumstances of my life.) I question my ability to judge others.  Am I so desperate for human contact that I will come to be friends with anyone who shows a willingness to care about me?

I am crying as I write this.  I am on thin ice here.  I do not know if I am self-centeredly crying for myself, or crying for J.  Some of both, I think:  they are tears of fear for my grip on the world as well as pain and confusion, and fear for J.

All I can do for my friend is what I have been doing: responding to his occasional letters, and visiting him if I can.  I saw him when he was in County Jail; unfortunately, he is currently in Southern California. (At least he is in a mild-medium security prison.) If he gets reassigned to a facility within one or two hours of me, I plan on seeing him.  Oddly, I find myself praying for him. I pray that he is able to continue to be at peace with himself, and that he is not hurt: prisons can be dangerous places.

I still count him as a friend.  (At least one other person who knew about his arrest and jail has cut him loose completely.)  I do not know if that makes me loyal or stupid, and maybe it doesn’t really matter.

He is a friend.  Whatever he has done, and without minimizing the circumstances which resulted in his incarceration, he has good in him.  I am choosing to remember that, and hold on.

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2 Responses to It turns out, I am not that good a judge of people.

  1. Resident Shrink says:

    I think your second-to-last sentence – “Whatever he has done, and without minimizing the circumstances which resulted in his incarceration, he has good in him” – is likely a more apt one than your lead in – “It turns out, I am not that good a judge of people.” People are not all-good or all-bad, and I’m sure that the good you saw in him was real and true.

    Personality is not always a sound indicator of past actions. I have worked in the murderers-and-rapists unit of a psychiatric hospital, and the people who lived there did not present as monstrous – lots of them came across as polite, insightful, innocent-seeming, sweet. Some of them suffered from illnesses which had lead to really unfortunate impulsive actions at some point in their life.

    And it is also true that some people get sentenced to prison in the wake of society’s failings – like the teen who kills an abusive parent, or the abused spouse who fires warning shots at their abuser, or the person who was described at breakfast this morning who got put away with 3 strikes after shoplifting due to hunger. Or the meth addict who was simply trying to work 16 hours a day at their construction job to feed their family. Lots of good people have been in jail… MLK, Mandela. If your instincts told you that your friend is a good person, then I would go with that.

  2. Carol T. says:

    Not sure you need to judge. If you like someone, you like someone.

    I have used Bad Boys… lol. I love them. Ask for Janet, if you ever need them.


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