Prisoner’s Dilemma

Want to see the inside of a classic Kenneth Franzheim building? Try spending a night in jail.

By Raj Mankad September 30, 2013 Published in the October 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

“You won’t believe me,” I told my cellmate when he asked how I’d ended up in the city jail.

He was still dressed in his pajamas, a handsome, inquisitive man in his thirties. Apparently, he’d gotten a promising call from a woman at around 3 a.m., jumped in the car without changing, and rolled through a stop sign at a deserted intersection. The police hauled him in for outstanding traffic tickets, he said. Now, at noon the next day, he was reclining in the next bunk. It was like we were having a sleepover, and at sleepovers, people get comfortable with one another. So I shared the story of my arrest. 

It was a January afternoon in Houston, the kind where everybody leaves work early if they can. I took off at about four o’clock—I edit an architecture magazine—and decided to take my 6-year-old daughter to practice riding her bike at Lanier, the middle school near our home in Montrose. At the school, while I followed on foot, she rounded a corner, immediately coming upon a new car with tinted windows parked in a bus lane. My daughter swerved, but the edge of her tasseled handlebar glanced the car, leaving an eraser-like smudge on the passenger side, before she continued down the street. I continued too, jogging to keep up, at least until I heard a woman scream: “You scratched my car!”

I turned to see a petite Latina whose anger seemed out of proportion to any damage the bike could have left.

“You could wipe it off,” I said.

She threatened to call the police, phone in hand, each word out of her mouth chased by a string of profanities. We were near a school playground buzzing with kids.

I could have tried to keep the situation from escalating. I could have tried to defuse things by walking back to her car. I could have walked away and spared my daughter a litany of profanity. I could have called the police myself. 

Instead, I danced a little jig, waving my own cell phone around, saying, “Oooh, I’m going to call the police too.”

“You look gay,” she responded.

“Welcome to Montrose,” I said.

That infuriated her. “I’ve lived here 30 years,” she said over and over, interspersing the statement with more profanity.

“I’d like it more if you left,” I replied, which set off a new fusillade. I wanted to get my now-terrified daughter away from this woman, but as we walked back toward home, she began trailing us in her car, so I took a back alley route. Once we arrived, my wife held our daughter while I breathlessly explained what had happened.

Then we heard a terrible banging at the back of the house. My wife poked her head around the kitchen door.

“It’s the police.”

Two HPD officers had tramped through the alley until they’d found a pink bicycle with white tassels. My brown skin, blue Threadless T-shirt, and jeans matched the description of a fleeing suspect that had been relayed across police scanners. Why had I yelled at the woman after damaging her car? they asked. Why had I fled the scene? I tried to be calm and responsive, but the police were dripping with adrenaline, and so was I. 

“I’m trying to figure out whether or not the DA will authorize an arrest,” the policeman told me. I was so confused I didn’t hear him, though my wife did. She tried to talk to them privately. A few minutes later she returned.

“The cop said they have a video of you shaking your butt at the woman.”

Shaking my butt? I thought. I’m so skinny I only wish I had a butt to shake.

Meanwhile, in front of our home, tears streamed down the woman’s face as the lead cop comforted her. 

I was handcuffed and thrust into the back of a squad car. The total lack of upholstery on the seat surprised me. I’m such a teetotaling, straight-laced nerd, I never imagined I’d ever be arrested. And why exactly I was arrested, I wasn’t sure. Where was the part where they read you your Miranda rights and tell you what you’re charged with? 

The squad car pulled up to the Municipal Courts on Lubbock and Riesner Streets, near the downtown terminus of Washington Avenue, a place I’d gone to take care of traffic tickets over the years. On another day, I’d have studied the buildings carefully, but not this time. I didn’t take notice of Kenneth Franzheim’s modernistic design of what was originally called the Police Administration, Corporation Courts, and Jail Building. I didn’t muse over Octavio Medellin’s bas-relief sculpture or its inscription: “Order through Law” and “Justice with Mercy.” I was still in shock.

The officers took me out of the car and paused in front of a loading dock–like space that connects the Central Jail to the courts. Here’s my last chance to get home to my family tonight, I thought. I’ll say all the things I should have said when they pounded on the back door.

The lead officer looked me in the eyes and talked about knowing the difference between right and wrong. I have an answer for that, I thought, but he cut me off with a question that left me speechless: “How would you feel if someone hit your daughter and drove away?”

The first holding cell was the size of a modest walk-in closet. There, my fellow inmates, mostly black men, took turns revealing what had landed them in jail, like characters in the first act of a bad play.

“Didn’t even let me finish my joint!” a young Pakistani American said through a half grin. Taller and skinnier than me, and a seller of cell phone plans, he was the only other South Asian I would meet that night.

“Unlawful possession of a weapon,” said a handsome, kinky-haired teenager, his melanin count about the same as mine, with a voice deeper and more gravelly than you’d expect for his size. I stared at one of his bulging deltoids, which was tattooed with three buildings of Houston’s skyline—the Bank of America Center was sandwiched between the Heritage Plaza and Wells Fargo Bank Plaza. He talked about how the gun really belonged to his mama, while I thought about his ink. Philip Johnson’s design for The Bank of America Center—the three gables formed by floors that step back like shorter and shorter blocks piled on top of one another—symbolizes the city at its most powerful and reckless, a place of mortgage-backed securities and fuzzy math. 

“I know I’m in for two years minimum because my brother’s in on a 10-year sentence for the same thing,” Unlawful Possession went on. 

The jailers lined us up and led us from intake to the jail proper. It was a short distance shaped by cheap wood partitions covered with decades of dust, like a very sturdy space had been hastily adapted many years ago. We passed a window, the last glimpse of the city. Through it I saw the Houston Aquarium and the lurid glow of its Ferris wheel. If it were morning, though, I might have seen Bank of America Center silhouetted by the sun. The possibility of that view, and its denial, stayed with me. I had the palpable sense of two cities, over-city and underworld. 

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“Raise your hand if you have any necklaces, watches, bracelets, rings … or cock rings,” a jailer barked with a smirk as we waited in another line. I dropped the gold chain I inherited from my grandmother into a plastic baggy and entered the second holding cell, which was about the size of the living room in my two-bedroom apartment. Its walls were bolted with metal painted a Menil gray and lined with benches.

The three phones across from the seatless toilet were so low I had to hunch over in a posture of prayer to get to one. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember my wife’s phone number and began to panic. I closed my eyes, and my fingers dug the sequence out from the reptile part of my brain stem. She told me she had activated every connection we had. We don’t make much money, being writers, but do have friends in high places. A high-profile lawyer, in fact, had already stepped up to post bail, but I was told that because it was a Friday night, I would have to wait for the DA’s skeletal weekend staff to work through a glut of arrests.

One by one, inmates were shifted from the holding cell to the cellblocks. The guy covered with grease. The one coming off a bad high whom the jailers had body-slammed. The Pakistani cell phone seller. Pharaoh. Unlawful Possession.

“The lawyer says you don’t want to get transferred to County,” my wife told me. “And don’t engage with the other inmates.”

“Okay,” I said. “Definitely.”

A man with rotting teeth sat down next to me. He looked like he was either 40 or old enough to be a pharaoh.

“Trespassing?” Unlawful Possession asked him.

“Yeah,” Pharaoh said. Apparently, a woman had called the police to complain about a man smoking by the METRO tracks. “They picked me up but it wasn’t me,” he said.

In my imagining, they had arrested him at the dancing fountains of Main Street Square, where all the old “hot-sheet” hotels (as Mayor White used to call them) are being rehabbed or replaced with gleaming office towers, and where clusters of homeless guys are increasingly squeezed out by laws prohibiting them from lying down and outlawing groups from feeding them. I watched as the man suddenly pulled down his sweat pants and scratched his legs like they were covered with fire ants. 

One by one, inmates were shifted from the holding cell to the cellblocks. The guy covered with grease. The one coming off a bad high whom the jailers had body-slammed. The Pakistani cell phone seller. Pharaoh. Unlawful Possession. 

I was the only one remaining, alone until the next wave of arrests. It could have been midnight. There was no way to know. I used the toilet and read the walls covered with incomplete phrases scratched into the paint—“Jesus love…” and “Fu…” Someone managed to carve OCCUPY right by the door. If only I’d been arrested for something righteous, I thought. Like Gandhi! 

Finally, a jailer appeared. “I told you an hour ago to go to the elevator,” he said.

The September 1952 issue of Architectural Record featured six pages of photographs, plans, and descriptions of Houston’s then-new police headquarters, courthouse, and jail complex. The national attention was not unusual for a project by an architect like Kenneth Franzheim, who was also known for his work in Manhattan and Washington, DC. For his design, Franzheim broke from the Texas tradition of courthouses ornamented with columns, arches, and cupolas. Given that, the seven-story complex easily could have appeared daunting and sterile. But instead of designing the kind of intimidating monolith often associated with modernism, he broke the building into boxes of differing heights adjoining a main tower, and carefully detailed the facades. The building achieves a sense of civility, human scale, and sensitivity to context by way of the bas-relief sculpture. Carefully proportioned aluminum windows, doors, and trim articulate the Texas granite and limestone cladding. 

The slightly out-of-date style, more like early 20th-century design than mid-century modern, was intended to send a signal: Houston was an efficiently managed city. Franzheim’s champion and major patron was Jesse H. Jones, the politician and philanthropist, a man keenly aware of how racial conflicts were negatively affecting the business climate of other cities. He was determined that Houston would avoid that fate. Not surprisingly, then, Franzheim’s clean-lined design projected the image of a forward-looking city where everything was well under control. 

In the ’50s, Houston was growing by leaps and bounds. It was a time when Frank Sharp was figuring out how to build houses in Sharpstown at a record-setting pace, when the bayous were being straightened and lined with concrete, when the Gulf Freeway began marching through neighborhoods deemed blighted and paved over part of the interurban rail to Galveston. 

Today, the police, court, and jail complex seems like a kind of fulcrum between the old and new city. The old—where neighbors encountered one another on smaller roads, on sidewalks and buses—encouraged people from different backgrounds and races to mingle on the way to school and work. Neighborhoods, while admittedly separated by race and class, butted right up against one another in a way that is less common today. The new city would be fortified and atomized, managed and safe. We would live adjacent to one another but not as neighbors. And you can see that transformation by taking in the moat of parking lots surrounding Franzheim’s buildings. The era of car-based isolation had begun. 

As I perused the old Architectural Record article, I kept tracing my fingers along the plans in hopes of reminding myself of my own path through the jail. No such luck. There were typed-out labels for various zones—“gambling,” “morals,” and “delinquent girls”—the ambition to impose order on a messy world. There was no label for what I’d gone through, however. The drawings looked rational, but the actual experience of being in the jail had felt labyrinthine. Each spot was cramped and, at the same time, a world of its own, a zone with its own finely-tuned intimacy.

Take, for instance, the tiny spot in the hallway where five of us sat on short benches clustered near the elevator. In the plan, the space is drawn with clean, right-angled lines—an efficient transit node. “Stairs and elevators are the vertical elements connecting the plans,” reads the caption. 

“Man, I love my crack,” said a bony man with gray hair and half his teeth missing, waiting for his elevator ride. “Soon as I get out, you know what I’m going to do? I got a Mexican who sets me up. Get me some crack.”

The three other men waiting at the elevator slapped their thighs, tilted their heads back, and laughed. One was a stout man wearing sleek, jewel-toned clothes meant for a night of revelry at the club. Another was a teenager, and the third a middle-aged man in hospital scrubs.

“I like to take my lady out to a bar at CityCentre,” Reveler said. “They have these big torches outside this wine bar. Big gas flames. It sets the mood. It’s really nice and classy. You got to pay for it, though. Eight dollars a glass. One night we got so drunk—”

“—Where is this?” Scrubs asked.

“Over by the Beltway and I-10,” I said. I might have added that CityCentre was designed by the local office of Gensler, a global architecture firm, and that it employed a more contemporary palette than some of the other lifestyle centers in the area, namely Sugar Land Town Square and Town Center in The Woodlands. But though some are plastered with faux-Deco chevrons and others with Mediterranean arches, all share a love of “public” promenades that are actually private streets and effectively discourage the presence of Crackhead and his ilk. You need a car to get to CityCentre, and the money to eat at high-end restaurants to feel that you belong there. 

“What you drink there?” Crackhead asked.

“Ain’t nothing you heard of. Ain’t no King Cobra.”

Crackhead laughed. 

The elevator was itself a holding cell, with bars separating the inmates from the jailer operating the buttons. We exited into a hallway lined with 14-by-6-foot cells, each with four metal bunks covered with thin vinyl pads and polyester blankets. Up and down the floor, and in the bunk below me, men retched all night long, though whether from nerves or drug withdrawal or jailhouse germs I have no idea. The flushes of the toilets were as loud as cannons. With the rushing air of the fans, the sounds of the retching and flushing and clanging doors, I felt like I was on a ship crossing the Atlantic.

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Maybe if Orange is the New Black had already become a cultural touchstone, I wouldn’t have been so surprised by everything. I knew the breakfast would consist of unidentifiable gelatinous lumps that a spoon would not penetrate and that conditions would be overcrowded, but I didn’t expect to be packed with 40 men into a space that seemed designed for no more than 15, forcing some to eat on the floor right next to the toilet while other men used it. 

The elevator was itself a holding cell, with bars separating the inmates from the jailer operating the buttons. We exited into a hallway lined with 14-by-6-foot cells, each with four metal bunks covered with thin vinyl pads and polyester blankets. 

A middle-aged man held court in the center of the room. “I’ve been in prison in California, Illinois, and Texas,” he said, “and there isn’t one other major city in the country that locks people up for no good reason the way Harris County does,” he said. Soon inmates were asking the sage for his advice.

“I got aggravated assault,” said a man with broad shoulders and gold grills. “My sister filed a report, said I tried to choke her, but we’ve been fighting our whole lives.”

“Call your mother and ask her to talk to your sister,” Sage advised. “Your mother’s got to ask your sister if she really wants her brother locked up for years.”

The next postulant was an ex-felon who said he’d been leaving Houston Community College on his bike when a cop stopped him for not having a light, and then arrested him for an outstanding warrant in Brenham County. “I’ve never even been to Brenham,” the man said.

“Could be that someone’s writing bad checks in your name or something like that,” Sage said. “Brenham has to send someone to pick you up within 24 hours. Your 24 might be up, though, and right when you think you’re good, they’ll have someone to transfer you.”

Sage then deconstructed the prison-industrial complex for his audience. In professorial tones, he explained that in Texas, some prisons are privately owned, that they accept prisoners from around the country, and that the industry lobbies for stiff sentencing. 

Dawn had come. A line of inmates started the journey to Harris County Jail, a hulking mass at the confluence of Buffalo and White Oak bayous. There, one washes oneself in full view of jailers, puts on a jumpsuit, and mingles with the convicted.

“Change is on the way,” the jailer said with a grin.

After breakfast, I finally met my cellmate Pajamas, who had arrived late in the night. When his name was called out and he was transferred to County, I felt truly alone for the first time. Every emotion I’d held back since being handcuffed began to flood over me, even as I tried to make sense of my predicament. 

My story didn’t seem any more absurd than those of my fellow inmates, other than my being middle-class and highly educated, I suppose. Maybe it was different, though. Maybe I am different. Maybe it isn’t fair to connect my own wrong-place, wrong-time experience with that of a homeless guy smoking on the tracks. But we did indeed share something, and as a result, we shared the same cells and sat shoulder-to-shoulder, at least for one night. An overwhelming number of us had been hauled in for breaching the unspoken politics of space, rather than for, say, committing serious criminal acts.

At last, I was called out of the cellblock. I readied myself either to be released or transferred to County. No one told me what to expect. Instead, they took me to another holding cell and seated me with eight or so other men. A black teenager played comic. He looked at a white guy in a Ralph Lauren jacket and asked, “Where do you live, the Heights?”

“Not exactly the Heights,” he said. “More like North Shepherd.”

Everyone laughed.

“What, that’s like where the mansions are half-size?” Comic asked.

Then he turned to me. He looked me up and down, trying to make sense of my loafers, my brown skin, my incipient beard, my T-shirt, my ripped jeans. Unlike Ralph Lauren or Piper in Orange Is the New Black, I mostly passed, or at least looked inconspicuous. 

“You look like you going to blow this building up,” Comic said.

Again, laughter. I kept quiet.

“Where do you live?” Comic asked.


“Where’s that?” he asked.

In the middle of everything, I wanted to tell him, the one place in town that ought to belong to everybody. With its foot traffic and relative lack of freeway intrusion, its oddball mix of high and low, its history of counterculture, its neighborhoods that flow one into the next without clear lines of demarcation, Montrose should be the place where all the isolation ends and neighborliness prevails: where people of every stripe can meet on the street and actually talk to each other. But what Montrose really is, or at least was on a Friday in January, is a place where two people—a woman with a smudged car and a man whose daughter’s pink bicycle made that smudge—can live in close proximity and still fail utterly at being neighbors.

At about two in the afternoon on Saturday, some 20 hours after the arrest, I was handed my gold necklace and shown out the door. For a moment, I just stood outside in the crisp winter air, staring at the edge of the Historic Sixth Ward. I’d avoided being chained and loaded into the back of a van without any seats, bouncing around as it crossed over Buffalo Bayou, under I-45, past the Houston Aquarium and the Houston Ballet, and then across the bayou again to County. Instead, my wife picked me up. 

A week after the arrest, I had a reunion of sorts with Pajamas at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, a tower completed in 2001 on Franklin Street. 

“Do you know which floor I’m supposed to go to?” he asked, looking dapper in a shirt and tie, but also somewhat panicked. The public elevators are notoriously inadequate, and if you don’t arrive on time to court you may forfeit your bond. Yet the court summons doesn’t even tell you what floor to go to. 

I knew to go to the seventh floor because I’d been given explicit instructions by my pro-bono lawyer from his River Oaks office overlooking Memorial Park. It was at the same meeting that he looked me in the eyes and said in a fine Texas drawl, “This is an outrage! I am strongly of the opinion that your case does not rise to the level of a criminal offense. And I know the Texas Penal Code because I helped write it!” 

While I waited for the court session to begin, I looked out to the east from the floor-to-ceiling windows at the end of the hallway. From that vantage, the neighborhoods resemble little forested islands isolated by huge highways, rail yards, and refineries, more a conglomeration of spaces than a city, where people squeeze in between industrial machines. In the foreground, though, you can see new towers clustered around Discovery Green, a hopeful place that seems to belong to everyone even though it is not managed by the city.

If I could have looked to the west, I would have seen the Franzheim-designed Central Jail, still gamely squatting on its prime site amid Houston’s hot real estate market. Part of me wants to see the building complex scraped from the earth. What would it become instead, though? Just another high-end lifestyle center with luxury condos and Class A offices, I fear. Another, more hopeful, part of me wants the complex to be rehabilitated, and creatively so, offering a mix of affordable and luxury housing. I imagine a pedestrian-oriented place with open, welcoming streets, where enough people walk around that nobody in particular, whether homeless or hooded, seems all that threatening. I want a city less afraid of itself.

In court, my lawyer’s associate waited until enough of the other cases cleared that the judge didn’t seem harried. Then he requested a hearing of the evidence. The DA’s junior lawyer, who looked embarrassed, approached the bench. There was some mumbling. My lawyer walked back to me with a form that said “no PC.”  No probable cause. The charges were dropped.

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