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esus Lucero caught a Greyhound bus from stoner's heaven and wound up here, in the Oklahoma County jail, locked away with the other druggies and deadbeats and waiting for a chance to get out.

Like the rest of them, Lucero has a hard luck tale — absent father, tragic history — but he'll admit that's not why he's incarcerated. He just scooped himself up a big bowl of dumb and then went back for seconds.

"I made a stupid mistake," he says, then adds a bit of explanation. "I'm a big stoner."

In mid-September, Lucero took a bus from Branson, Mo., where he worked as a cook, to Austin, Texas. Marijuana gets cheaper the closer you get to the Mexican border, and his Branson friends had Austin friends who could hook him up with a low-cost pound.

"In Missouri, it's $1,000," Lucero says. "Here (in Oklahoma), I heard $650. In Texas, where I got it, $450. In El Paso, where I'm from, you get it for $250. It all depends where you're at."

He was arrested Sept. 22 on the return leg of his trip. Police nabbed him at the Greyhound station at 427 W Sheridan Ave. He was booked into jail and later charged with marijuana possession with intent to distribute.

He doesn't dispute the possession part of it but insists the pot was for his own use, not for resale. In fact, he claims he blazed through most of an ounce in a single day, all by himself, a consumption rate that, if sustained, would've sent him searching for more in about two weeks.

"I'm just a weed smoker, man," he says. "I don't sell no grass. I don't sell no crystal or nothing like that. I smoke my weed. I'm peaceful."

That much is demonstrably true. By jail standards, he's a good guy. Doesn't fight. Keeps himself clean. When you've got unhappy people living in such close proximity, those things matter.

Oklahoma County jail inmate Jesus Lucero cleans an inmate pod along with a group of jail trusties on Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Oklahoma County jail inmate Jesus Lucero cleans an inmate pod along with a group of jail trusties on Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

Limiting factors

Lucero, 31, is a few inches shy of 6 feet tall and weighs 140 pounds. His blue eyes are shockingly pale and earnest as he apologizes for his stubbly face and head. He hasn't had access to a razor, he says. No dentist, either, although he needs one. His frequent smile is marred by a dead front tooth that sits in his mouth like a granite tombstone. He could've had it taken care of in the outside world — he knows he should've — but he really wanted that weed, and then there was the bus ticket, and ...

Now his life is condensed. There's something pure about jail life, something monastic; it's like becoming a hunger artist or taking a vow of poverty. The myriad distractions available to free citizens don't exist in here, where jailers control when you eat and where you go and how much time you spend there. It's all about limiting options.

Many inmates, at least the guilty ones, need such limits. Their actions outside these walls have proven it. If someone had been riding herd on Lucero, he'd still be whipping up meals at a 5-star Branson restaurant and might be smiling with a glistening fake tooth. Instead, he's a jailhouse trusty cooking Salisbury steak and wondering if he can find a real job when he gets out.

About 10 p.m. each night, Lucero joins a work gang and heads to the kitchen. For eight hours, he prepares fresh gravy, heats chicken patties and makes rice seasoned with chicken stock. The food isn't only for the inmates — who number about 1,300 most nights — but also for the detention officers, who eat for free.

"I take pride in my cooking," he says. "Everybody loves me, because they tell me the food tastes a lot better since I've been here."

At 6 a.m., he returns to his cell. After a couple hours, the guards awaken everyone in his pod for recreation time. How long it lasts depends on the inmates' behavior and the guards' other responsibilities. During this time, Lucero usually cleans up in one of the doorless shower cubicles before hanging out with his new friends, playing spades, talking or reading the Bible. More sleep follows, interrupted by meals and reflection, before he shuffles off to the kitchen again.

It's pretty grim and soulless, but it's better for trusties than the other inmates, who don't have the distraction work provides. For them, boredom is an enemy. With little else to fill the time, thoughts turn to family and friends, court appearances, possible sentences and petty grievances. All the inmates have heard the same stories about jail and prison as the rest of us, and many do the "Stir Crazy" act from the moment they arrive — swelling up and talking big to try to prove they're tough guys.

"Your chances are good of getting in a fight for no reason at all just because you showed up," says Shawn Wear, 42, who is also a trusty. "You don't walk in with a chip on your shoulder, but you have to make sure you stand your ground, even though the fear, you know, the fear is there. ... If you don't feel scared, you're lying."

Wear is the third man in his two-man cell, which measures less than 70 square feet. The cell contains two bunks, leaving Wear to sleep on a thin mat on the concrete floor, close by the stainless steel toilet. He's glib and affable, a scarecrow with wild brown hair, sparkling green eyes and a prominent Adam's apple, so he gets along well with most folks here — but the circumstances are difficult.

"My roommate right now talks to aliens," Wear says. "He's always shadow boxing, and he asked me last night what I think about people who commit murder. I was like, ‘I'm not sleeping tonight.' ... He says a Cyclops brought him here, and he has his own spaceship that goes 800 mph."

The jail is a house of poor decisions. Some are hasty and hot-blooded — stabbing a cheating lover, say, or punching an irritating boss. Most, though, are fairly deliberate, one bad choice leading to another in a toppling domino series of consequences. That's what happened to Lucero, and it's what happened to Wear, too.

A few years back, Wear was picked up on a complaint of driving under the influence after a night out drinking with his friends. ("It was a Jim Beam and Coors Light night," he recalls. "We weren't whiskey people until a few beers were gone, and then we were bulletproof.") He refused to take a breath test, and his license was suspended. He could've attended a series of DUI classes and gotten his license back, but he didn't. In late September, Midwest City police caught him driving without a license and insurance, among other things, and now he's here.

"Oh man, it just ... it just never ends," he says. "It's not hard to make a mistake. It really isn't. It's just a bad choice, that's all it is. I wasn't doing anything to anybody. It was just a bad choice to get in that vehicle."

Legitimate gripes

Like most inmates, Wear and Lucero complain about conditions at the jail. Lucero says his cell has no running water. Wear says he's had to do without his prescription medications. Both gripe about inattentive guards and short rec periods.

"Not getting out enough? That's a staffing issue," says Jail Administrator Jack Herron. "I'm not going to argue with that. We're getting them out about five hours a day. The ideal would be to let them out all the time."

Herron isn't surprised by the complaints. He has plenty himself. Herron spent 20 years working at federal prisons before joining the jail staff last year, shortly after a Justice Department report derided the jail as an overcrowded, dirty, violent place with inadequate inmate supervision and "unconscionable" medical neglect. The report echoed what inmates and workers already knew: The jail is as troubled as any repeat offender.

An Oklahoma County detention officer escorts an inmate to his cell.
Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman

County officials have been trying to rehabilitate the jail for years, with limited success at best. Detention officers earn little but risk much, so turnover is high. The building is poorly designed, creating security hazards and forcing cramped housing conditions.

"It's a nice office building," Herron says, "but it's not a jail. It's bad enough for the inmates; it's even harder for the staff."

If nothing else, though, the jail is a good place for inmates to consider the future. After a couple weeks here, Lucero says he has learned his lesson. Getting high isn't worth living in a place like this. When he gets out, he claims, he'll never spark up another joint.

"I already did my partying," he says. "I think it's time to grow up, and that's it. I'm tired of this, man. I'm not coming back."

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