Let’s read another chapter in Sandy Wall’s book

Editor’s Note: Retired SWAT Sgt. Sandy Wall has penned a memoir, The Long Road Home, which was inspired by the years of thinking Wall did after a day of duty while driving home to his Fort Bend County residence. Sometimes the story of the day was – as the book’s blurb states “exciting, dangerous, funny and sometimes brutal” in the world of a big-city cop. Wall uses fictitious characters instead of the real ones. This chapter takes us to the jail. The main character is Andy Wallace, AKA Sandy Wall.

The First Day in Jail

Driving downtown for his first day in ‘the hole’ had Andy filled with anxiety.  The hole was a slang term for the central jail, and it would be Andy’s home for the next six months.  Beginning with his first days at the Academy, he heard numerous tales about the escapades within those concrete walls. Then, his first time taking a prisoner to central, he witnessed a fight break out between a prisoner and two jail intake officers.  Now, it was Andy’s turn to find out what fighting for a living was like.  Entering the jail, Andy was greeted by a giant of a man named Sergeant Cook.  While shaking hands, Andy was amazed when he noticed Cook’s hands were twice his size.  He couldn’t help but wonder how many times his fists had been used to bring a prisoner to his knees.  Cook was strictly business and a career jail guy, so he worked there full time.  Andy couldn’t understand why anyone would prefer working in the jail instead of patrolling the streets, but Cook wasn’t alone. Several officers and supervisors were assigned to the jail full time.  Andy saw them more as glorified security officers than real cops, and now he was one of them.

Cook directed Andy to take his gun belt off, secure it behind the front counter, and report to the Lieutenant’s office.  Lt. Lehia was a soft spoken, intelligent man with impeccable English who didn’t use southern slang.  Although he was a rather large man, he wasn’t intimidating.  By the way, he carried himself, you knew he was educated.  Andy’s initial impression was that Lehia was more like an English professor than a jail Lieutenant.  Lehia invested time in getting to know all the officers who worked for him and asked Andy to sit down in his office as he inquired about Andy’s background.   After exchanging small talk for a few minutes, Lehia got around to the real reason for the meeting.

“I know what you have heard about the jail, but it’s not true. We don’t kick ass and take names down here. If you have that attitude, you will not last long.” Even though the speech seemed like something he recited to all the new guys, Andy nodded in agreement.  It seemed like a formality and Lehia’s attempt to dial back young officers.

Then, Lehia said something that stuck,

“Many of the wine-o’s in the drunk tank are Vietnam veterans.  They have been fighting all their lives and are still proud people.  When they arrive here in a drunken state, they are combative.  All of them have been wounded from the war in one way or another, and some even have metal plates in their heads.  One good punch from a young man like you, and they’re dead.  You kill one of them, and you’ll be brought up on charges like those HPD officers you’ve been reading about.”

Lehia was referring to the five Houston officers arrested and charged for brutalizing a prisoner in their custody.  The body of prisoner Joe Campos Torres, a former Marine, was found floatng in Buffalo Bayou.  The idea of being accused of murder sent chills down Andy’s spine.  Suddenly they heard a loud commotion. “FIGHT!”  Lehia sprang to his feet and sprinted past Andy like a gifted athlete without saying a word.  Witnessing him run out the door in a flash, Andy was startled by the quickness of such a large man.  Although he was unsure of precisely what, Andy figured he should do something, so he got up and followed.  Down the narrow corridor, a stack of blue uniforms on the concrete floor struggled with a prisoner at the bottom of the pile.  The struggle was becoming violent.  Someone from within the pile screamed, “LET GO!”.  Fellow prisoners in the drunk tank were shouting encouragement to the inmate. Now that they knew a fight was underway, Andy expected Lehia to slow down, but he continued full blast into the pile of humanity.  Andy was impressed by how the Lieutenant engaged without hesitation. Lehia ran straight into the physical altercation and started pulling their arms and legs apart to get to the core of the melee.  The prisoner was not giving up, and he continued cursing and kicking.  When more jail officers hurried passed Andy to help, he felt like a spectator to a barroom brawl.  Even though he wanted to jump in and help, he remembered the speech that Lehia had just given him moments ago.  This situation only added to the confusion because Lehia had just said there would be no ‘kicking ass,’ yet he was in the middle of an enormous ass-kicking contest.

The fight lasted about thirty seconds, and they had the suspect cuffed.  Lehia stood up, brushed off his pants, and walked past Andy without saying a word while adjusting his hair back in place.  The prisoner was ushered off to a single-holding cell, bleeding from a head wound and cursing as though he was still looking for a fight.  Andy quietly followed Lehia back to his office, still shocked.  Lehia stood at his desk for a few seconds, gathering himself.  Waiting for Lehia to address what they had just witnessed, Andy sat down without saying anything.  Lehia stood there long enough to catch his breath, sat down, and then started telling Andy about his assignment.  He reviewed the daily expectations, but Andy was having difficulty focusing.  His mind couldn’t help but drift back to Lehia telling him they ‘don’t fight in the jail,’ then, seconds later, he jumped into a massive brawl.  Once Lehia finished his orientation, he asked if he had any questions. “No, sir,” Andy replied. Lehia never mentioned the fight. Instead, he stood up, shook Andy’s hand, and said, “Welcome aboard.” Andy returned the smile and realized this would be an interesting six months.