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Mired in a Misguided and Corrupt Criminal Justice System

The Surreal Story of My Brother’s Arrest

by A Sister

Editor’s note: The grammatical mistake in the article’s first paragraph is entirely unlike the author, a normally punctilious writer and thinker, and is retained as evidence of how much the event that occasioned the piece upset her.

On Tuesday my 19-year-old brother was arrested at home and taken to jail, two days before Thanksgiving and over a year after the incident for which he is facing two felony charges occurred. In September 2012, him and three friends were attempting to concentrate THC from marijuana into Hash Oil by solvent extraction with butane. The butane canister that my brother was holding combusted and his body set aflame in the explosion. After he stopped, dropped and rolled to put himself out, he was rushed to the ER where his skinless torso and arms were cleaned and wrapped in bandages. Doctors said that 55 percent of his body was covered in third degree burns, and he was lucky that his face, airways, and lower body were intact. He was transferred to the burn unit at UC Davis Medical Center and over the next two months surgeons removed skin from his lower body and patched it over the spots where his skin was completely lost. The procedures were painful. I watched him suffer.

Every morning his bandages had to be cut away and his wounds had to be cleaned and re-bandaged. This was also incredibly painful. During wound care, my brother always had the nurses play Bob Marley. They all told him they liked being assigned to him for best because he made an effort to make the most difficult parts of caring for him more pleasant for everyone. I learned that our skin is our bodies’ principal defense against the outside world. My brother was very susceptible to MRSA and all kinds of deadly infections, and every time we entered his ICU we had to sterilize and put on gowns and gloves in order to protect him from whatever germs we might bring in. After his skin grafts, he had to have special surgeries to release the skin where it contracted around his joints. My brother said the recovery from these surgeries was the most painful. The surgeons cut the still-healing skin around the joints to release the tight spots, called “contractures,” and then patched them over with more skin taken from elsewhere on the body in small strips. It’s important to do lots of physical therapy after this procedure in order to keep the skin from retightening, but it hurts. Patients always want to curl up in a little ball, the nurses said, because that’s the way it hurts the least, but you have to move around and stretch in order to save yourself from more pain later. Once while I was visiting, a physical therapist came into the room to work with my brother. He was crying from pain and frustration and I was crying too. I remember she told him that he must say to himself over and over, “The position of comfort is the position of contracture.”

He is still due for one more of these surgeries on his right shoulder, where over the course of the healing period the new skin has contracted and caused him to hold his shoulder up tightly to his neck. His scars are purple and hot red, and the skin that was stretched across his upper body is textured with a chain-link fence pattern. He complains that it itches. Large portions of it are inflamed and are raised up in visible agitation. His body is deformed and he is embarrassed to take his shirt off. He was popular in high school and received just as much attention as any good-looking teenage boy with a charming personality could expect. He fears he won’t have girlfriends now.

Within a year of being released from the hospital, my brother earned his GED. He was just beginning his senior year in high school when the accident happened. He got his driver’s license, and a job working as a sales clerk at a clothing store. He managed to completely wean himself from his pain medication — all opiates — even though he still has pain. We didn’t think he’d be arrested despite the criminal nature of what he was doing when the explosion happened. Nobody ever excused his behavior, including him. Instead of pleading “Why me?” with the gods, he always owned that he very likely caused the explosion himself as a novice dealing with a highly flammable gas in a very unstable and risky way. He maintains that the incident in which the accident occurred was the first time he ever attempted that kind of experiment, though he smoked weed regularly. He says that he didn’t know how to do it properly and he didn’t take enough precaution. He was being careless, unwise and overbold. He was uninformed and unpracticed. His ignorance was his undoing.

Tuesday he was locked in a jail cell for his mistake. He told my mother in a brief phone call that he thinks the place is sketchy. He’s gotten a few weird looks, but he says his cellmate seems nice. None of us had any idea this was going to happen today, although we suspected something was coming when he was suspended from his job a few weeks ago after his employer did a background check and found that he had a few unresolved felony charges on file. But nobody from law enforcement ever contacted him. Nothing was sent in the mail. His bail is now set at $100,000, which I’m told means we’d have to pay $10,000 to get him out. He’s staying in. He’s really upset he wasn’t with us for Thanksgiving. He imagines how awkward it was for the whole family gathered at the dinner table with him in jail.

It’s extremely awkward for me, for one, because Thanksgiving is about giving thanks. However that message has been corrupted by commercials, corporate football, or phony American history, I think the notion of taking a day off to give thanks over a big meal with your loved ones is basically a good idea. Reflection is good, and rejoicing is good. But when your brother was been unexpectedly jailed two days before the holiday it’s difficult to see what’s so special about being thankful. When really shitty, unfair and evil things are happening in the world it doesn’t make any sense to sit down and be thankful for what you have like it’s some kind of compensation. It’s completely beside the point from the awful affairs underway. Your grandmother will tell you, “Be thankful for what you do have, be thankful for your health,” etc, but all of that recognition is irrelevant to fixing what is absolutely wrong. Being thankful is not a remedy.

My brother is guilty but I don’t think he deserves to be put in jail now or ever—not at the hands of our present criminal justice system, which is totally misguided and corrupt. He’s only 19 years old and he’s in a prison cell. Which asshole’s idea was it to lock him up before a holiday—the beginning of a four day weekend for the court, at that—after just sitting on the case for a year without a word? He has a hearing on Monday to calendar his trial, but he’s in jail indefinitely unless something miraculous happens. If he gets convicted it will count as time served, but he could get up to seven years.

The author is a 21-year-old humanities student on the West Coast of the United States awakening to the rottenness in her society. Her identity is withheld to protect her brother in court. The piece’s editor, Alexander Reed Kelly of Truthdig.com, attests the story is true.