At 12:05 every morning, Santa Ana Central Jail releases its first inmates of the day from the Intake and Release Center out to the gates that open up to W. Sixth Street, to free bed space for incoming prisoners.
“As soon as midnight hits we can kick them out the door,” Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Jeffrey Hallock said. “We can release them.”
Reasonable enough, right? But let's all agree midnight isn't exactly the best time for someone to leave jail. So the Weekly visited on two consecutive nights to interview folks who were just leaving jail and get their thoughts on their new-found freedom.
The first person I interview is a woman who requests anonymity. She seems startled but after I identify myself as a Weekly reporter, she loosens her arms from a tight fold and agrees to speak.
The inmate says she was detained for domestic violence, but claims to be innocent. For two days, she says, she wondered about the state of her children.
“What was really hard was not knowing what the hell's going on,” the woman says. To comfort herself and try to make the two days go by quickly, she spent the majority of her time behind bars asleep.
There are three things you can do for free in jail, she explains: sleep, watch television or read. She also had the choice to place collect calls to a relative or friend, but she chose not to do that. After she served her sentence, the guards informed her at about 8:30 p.m. that it was time to leave. She says she doesn't understand why it takes so long to be released.
“We waited too long to get our clothes, we waited too long for everything,” she complains.
Luckily, her phone's battery was still working, so she was able to call someone to pick her up. But she still understands the hardship that inmates who don't have a cell phone (at least one that isn't out of battery) go through after being released.
“[A charged cell phone] is our life line,” the former inmate says. “I didn't know any number but my parent's number–that is it. I didn't know my kid's number–nothing.” She holds up her phone as if she were holding Wonka's Golden Ticket in her hand.
After answering a few questions, she walks away, determined to fight in court and get full custody of her kids. Just because she was in jail, doesn't mean she isn't sane, she insists.
It's 1:25 a.m. Abel Betancourt is released. As I drink my hot coffee, he approaches to ask if I had a phone he could use to call his mom to pick him up. After speaking to his mom, they agree he should walk a block down to meet her after she is done fully waking up.
Betancourt, 19, spent about a week in jail after being arrested for burglary.
“You go to court and they totally fuck you over,” Betancourt says. “They tell you your charges and that's it. You have to wait for another hearing. They keep adding time and then you never really finish your time.”
After not seeing anyone released out the jail gates for an hour, I go home.
I return the night after. It's 1:10 a.m.
“I'M FREE!” John Escobar yells as he walks out the gates.
The 18-year-old was incarcerated for 24 hours for burglary. Escobar didn't attend court. At about 8 in the morning, the Orange Police Department appeared at his house with a search warrant. Although they didn't find anything at his home, he insists, they still arrested him.
“It's just nasty,” Escobar says, describing his time in jail. “There were probably ten men in one small cell just fucking standing next to each other. It's just shit…[they smelled] like shit.”
He had fallen asleep hours after being detained and was awaken by guards, who told him it was time. “I got fucking happy,” he says. “I'm out.”
A few minutes later another inmate, who requested anonymity, talked to me after being locked in jail for two weeks for drug procession. The inmate, 30 years old, had to wait three hours for his release.
Walking outside, the inmate looks content. He has his eyes locked at the sky and seems amused with the trees surrounding us. He says he never realized how beautiful nature was until after he was confined in a small cell without seeing daylight.
Although he looks happy, he can't fight back the anger inside. Now he is looking at the other inmates that were being released the same time.
“It's kind of hard sometimes for these people that don't have money to get a cab or that don't have a ride,” he says. “They have to wait till the morning or just walk home.
“I think they [the sheriffs] make everything longer than they can probably do the job,” he adds.
The male inmate uses his friend's phone, but isn't sure if he should call his wife due to the late time.
During my time outside Central Jail in the witching hour, several people who were just released ask me for a cell phone, or if I know what city they are in. Others just walk away, content with their freedom.