Never Speed In Virginia: Lessons From My Three Days In Jail

You never really get a good night's sleep in jail. In the middle of my second night inside, I woke up on the uncomfortable plastic mat in my cell, my neck and back aching. I looked down at my orange jail scrubs and up at the buzzing fluorescent light and thought, "I am here because I drove too fast in a Camaro ZL1."

At that moment, the whole thing seemed pretty funny. As funny as it could have been considering I was in jail for three days, at least.

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I knew I would be in trouble a month earlier, when I blasted the ZL1 down a rural straightaway in Virginia and then saw the state trooper's blue-and-silver Ford Taurus peeking out from the side of the road. I slowed down when I saw him, but his lights came on right away.

The trooper pulled me over and said he had me on radar doing 93 mph in a 55 mph zone. I figured it would be a nasty ticket. It wasn't, because I got nailed in Virginia, a state where the police and the courts take speeding more seriously than possibly anywhere else in America. A fun day in a very powerful car just got a lot less fun.

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On Friday, July 25, my wife dropped me off at the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail in Front Royal. I was escorted inside by a guard, handcuffed, booked, and had my mugshot taken. I was given a set of orange and white striped jail scrubs and a plastic mat and ushered into a big room with two stories of cells on either side. This would be home for the weekend.

I'm not trying to sound like a hardass or anything, but I wasn't scared. I just wanted to get the three days I had been sentenced to over with.

To answer your inevitable questions right away, I didn't get raped (that happens in prison more than jail) I didn't get my ass kicked (that does happen in jail but it didn't happen to me) and I wasn't forced to participate in "inmate fight club" for the sick pleasure of the guards.

None of those fantastical things needed to happen. My jail experience sucked just fine on its own. You might think you can just wait it out, like you're stuck at an airport, but it's not like that at all.

There's nothing nice about being confined somewhere, cut off from the outside world, and totally at the mercy of some bureaucracy who may or may not lose your discharge papers on a whim.

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When I was pulled over during a press drive earlier this summer, I had been living in Washington D.C. for about a year and a half. In that time, I had been warned repeatedly — by ex-Virginia resident Matt Hardigree, by many of our readers, and by a host of other people — that you don't ever speed in Virginia. But I had no clue just how serious the consequences would be. Maybe "serious" isn't the right word. After everything that happened, "ridiculous" seems a little more accurate.

It started out the same way as any other press drive: breakfast, a presentation about how swell things are at Chevrolet these days, a briefing on the prescribed route we'd be driving on, and a warning that cops were out there and that we shouldn't break any laws. Another writer chimed in to say how many points you could get on your license if you were caught speeding in Virginia.

I remember hearing all of this, and noting it. But then I got behind the wheel of the ZL1 later in the day, and we set out on some of the fantastic backroads and rural highways in the Shenandoah Valley.

Let me tell you something about the Camaro ZL1: it is obscenely, unbelievably fast. That supercharged 6.2-liter V8 has just an endless well of power at its disposal. Thrust feels unlimited, like you just turned on a fire hose that sprays horsepower and torque instead of water. It feels like it can outrun anything. It feels like it wants to pick on Lamborghinis at elementary school, stealing their lunch money and shoving their faces in the dirt. In terms of pure acceleration, the ZL1 makes the new Corvette Stingray — certainly no slouch in that department — feel like the piece of shit Honda Civic you drove in college.

"The power is intoxicating," a GM PR man said as he rode shotgun with me. Intoxicating. That was a good way to put it. There were moments, brief but incredibly fast moments, where the power seemed to turn off the rational centers of my brain. With the road clear ahead of us and really no one around, I did a few brief high-speed runs, indulging in the immense power and the supercharger's whine.

When we test a fast car on public roads we have to walk a fine line. We have to see what these cars can do, but aren't supposed to drive dangerously or flagrantly break the law. If we do, we're on the hook for the ticket or the arrest. And I was having a little too much fun in this ZL1.

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Given what I was convicted of, I expected most of the inmates in my section to be people like me, low-level fuckups who drove too fast or didn't pay their child support.

They weren't. Almost everyone I met had been in prison — prison, not jail — at least once. Most were in for drugs or parole and probation violations, serving months-long sentences or awaiting trials. One guy was there because he strangled his girlfriend.

I made friends with one inmate who was about my age. He was an artist, and had a chess set he made out of loose pieces of paper. We played a few games together. He was a heroin addict. I gave him the white thermal sweater I brought in with me when I left. In for a seven month sentence, I figured he needed it more than I did. He was a good guy, just one whose drug habit kept putting him back in jail or on the streets.

I don't say this because I looked down on anyone I met inside. Quite the opposite. After this I feel bad for anyone who has had to experience jail, regardless of what they did. Then again, jail is supposed to suck and there are a plenty of people who deserve to be in there. That's the entire point.

Most everyone I met inside was pretty decent to a jail newbie like me. They were just trying to do their time and get out, the same as I was. Same with the correctional officers I dealt with. Who really wants that job, anyway?

One thing that really drove me nuts is that all everyone talks about in jail is why they're in there, how much time they have left, how their lawyer or a judge screwed them over, how they got framed by their friend, how the bitch lied to the cops and set him up. Their stories got old pretty quickly.

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We missed a left turn off Route 211, so I decided to drive further down the road and loop around. I gunned it again, rowing through the gears, and then backed off when I saw the State Trooper's car parked beside the road. It all happened very quickly, and I'm not joking when I say that — the trooper had me going 93 mph, something instrumented testing at Road & Track says happens in only about seven seconds.

I should be very clear that we were out on some rural, remote back roads. These roads weren't anywhere near schools or towns, and have lots of curves and very little traffic. I did what a lot of us have done — I was in a powerful car in the middle of nowhere, and I opened it up when I thought it was safe and when I thought I could get away with it. Clearly, I didn't.

During the traffic stop the trooper was polite and professional. My passenger the GM rep explained whose car it was and that we were on a media drive. The trooper told me I was going way too fast in a 55 mph zone and he had to charge me with reckless driving. (By the way, telling the cop you're a journalist doesn't get you out of speeding tickets. Quite the opposite, in some cases.)

The trooper also took the time to explain what that meant, legally speaking, to a transplant like me not familiar with the local laws. That was kind of him. I wasn't arrested, I was merely given a summons to appear in court. He didn't impound the ZL1 either, which I'm told he easily could have done.

We were released and allowed to continue the drive, but I didn't put in much seat time after that, riding shotgun with another writer back to the hotel. I wasn't in the mood to drive at all, fast or otherwise.

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I told a handful of friends I would be going to jail for a weekend. All of them were floored, since I apparently don't come off as the jail-going type, and almost every person asked if it would be like Orange Is The New Black. Apparently a softcore porn on Netflix is everyone's sole frame of reference for prison and jail, which is kind of hilarious and sad considering the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. But I digress.

Mostly, jail is boring as sin. There were no books to read. There were no weights to lift. There were no clocks inside either, not that time matters much. They locked us in our cells for at least half the day and we spent the rest of the time milling around a common area or a walled-off half basketball court. The food is barely that, meeting only the minimum amount of state-mandated daily calories and nothing else.

I guess you're supposed to just sit around contemplating what a burden you are to the taxpayers, which was about $104 a day in my case, if you're curious.

My time inside wasn't some horrible, hell-on-earth situation, but it wasn't a pleasant experience. If your only experience with jail is what you've seen on TV or in movies, you don't have a clue how much it sucks. On the plus side, the RSW Regional Jail was a new facility, one that just opened this summer and was nice as far as jails go.

This also meant it had plumbing issues and a staff who didn't know what they were doing yet, which led to a lot of confusion among inmates about exactly when and how they were supposed to be released.

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I should probably explain why going into Virginia to have fun in a car is a bad idea in the first place. See, they're crazy about speeding there. Really, really crazy. Speed limits are set absurdly low, 45 mph on some highways. Radar detectors are illegal, and cops have devices to detect them. And if you get caught going over 80 mph at all, that's automatically a reckless driving charge.

Reckless driving is not a traffic citation, it's a criminal charge, and a Class One misdemeanor at that. That means it's the highest level of misdemeanor you can be charged with in Virginia, right below a felony. The maximum penalty for a reckless driving conviction is a $2,500 fine, a six month driver's license suspension, and up to a year in jail.

See what I mean when I told you it's serious? They hand it out like it's Halloween candy, too. You drive 20 mph over the limit, it's reckless driving. They even charge you with it for failing to properly signal, or when you're found to be at fault in a car wreck. I've heard of some cases where people get 30 days in jail if they speed over 100 mph.

Other Class One misdemeanors in Virginia include animal cruelty, sexual battery, and aiming a firearm at someone. This is how the state regards people who drive over 80 mph.

I do think Virginia's speed laws are absurdly harsh, especially as a native of Texas where 80 mph is an almost universally accepted highway speed by most drivers and where a toll road just outside of Austin lets you go 85 mph. There, this probably would have been a really expensive speeding ticket; maybe even one I could get dismissed with defensive driving. I covered the courts for a long time when I was a newspaper reporter in Austin, and I was floored to learn Virginia actually sends people to jail just for speeding.

But that doesn't excuse what I did. I came into Virginia and broke their laws; I drove way too fast. This is my fault and no one else's. (Well, maybe the ZL1's.) This wasn't one of those moments where I got nailed going 5 mph over in some ridiculously low section of a county designed only for revenue collection; how could I justify going 93 in a 55 when I went to court, I wondered?

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I didn't go out of my way to tell the other inmates I was jailed for speeding, but I told the truth when I was asked. And when I did, they were stunned. One guy, given to lengthy rants about how screwed up he thought the local justice system was, pointed to me and screamed "AND WHY THE FUCK IS HE IN HERE?"

On Saturday morning I went up to the lead officer in our pod and asked to make a phone call to let my wife know when I was getting out. He asked what I was in for. I told him speeding, and he couldn't believe it.

"They sent you to jail for speeding?" he asked me. "What county did you get nailed in?"

"Rappahannock," I said.

"Oh yeah, that makes sense," he told me. He picked up the phone to call someone else and get my code to make a phone call.

"I got a guy in here for speeding," he said to the voice on the other end of the line. "For going 30 over the limit or something. Can you believe that shit?"

My three days inside felt a lot longer than that. Maybe it was the tight spaces or the lack of fresh air or the always-on fluorescent lighting, but after a while it started to bring out my weirdest, most irrational fears. What if my wife has a car crash on the way to come get me? What if one of my parents has a heart attack while I'm stuck in here? What if they lose my paperwork and I'm stuck inside for weeks?

Yeah. I know all of that sounds stupid now. At the time I did my best to tune these thoughts out and keep my mind right.

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I did the smart thing when I got back home and hired a lawyer, a local one recommended to me by a friend of Matt's because he was friendly with the local prosecutors. I told him what happened, as well as the fact that I had no prior criminal record and an almost entirely clean driving record in Texas. I hadn't gotten so much as a parking ticket in years.

My lawyer's goal was to broker a deal with the prosecutor that would keep me out of too much trouble. In some cases people charged with reckless driving are able to get the charge downgraded to improper driving, which is essentially a traffic ticket. It's what I hoped would happen to me.

"I think we have a good chance of keeping you out of jail, and almost as good a chance of you not losing your license," my attorney told me. That's not how things ended up, though.

A few weeks later my lawyer met with the prosecutor. He told me Rappahannock County, where I was cited, has a new judge who doesn't take kindly to speeders. The old judge had a Porsche and a sense of humor, he said; this new one didn't, and he's yelled at the prosecutor before for cutting "sweetheart" deals for people who go over 90. Even if my lawyer and the prosecutor had worked out a deal with light penalties, the judge was likely to reject it.

The best plea deal I got was a fine of about $400 with court costs, a 10-day suspension of my license in Virginia, and three days in jail. The judge has an option of giving one day in jail for every mile an hour over 90 mph, and he would exercise it here.

So I took the plea, but I was pretty despondent over the outcome for weeks. The fees and license suspension weren't a big deal, but I was alternately livid and depressed that I'd be going to jail, even for a short stay. I didn't hurt anyone, or kill anyone, or sell drugs, or drive drunk, or beat my wife, or steal; I was going to jail because I drove too fast in a car.

I would have much rather done community service, volunteered at a library or a food bank, or paid a larger fine to avoid jail, but that wasn't in the cards with this judge. I sped in the wrong county in the wrong state.

Oh well. Don't break the law next time, I guess.

The best news of all this was that I wasn't fired. Matt said the last thing you'll ever get fired for at Jalopnik is speeding. It's just an occupational hazard for us. And when I emailed Gawker's editorial director Joel Johnson to apologize, he replied saying, "I don't give a fuck," and added that he found the matter "hilarious." So I had that going for me.

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My lowest point came Sunday when I was set to be released. I could barely sleep the night before because I was so happy to get out of there. But when the release time came and went, I told the guard in my area I needed to be let out. He called a supervisor and then told me one person was on the list to be released that day — and it wasn't me. My best bet would be to wait until Monday and take it up with an office that wasn't open on Sunday, he said.

Then a few other inmates told me that this happens all the time, that the new jail frequently had paperwork mishaps when it came to release dates. One former inmate was supposed to be in for four days and ended up staying two weeks by mistake.

I can tell you that this was just about the lowest emotional point of my entire life. You get one free phone call in there and otherwise you're totally isolated. I didn't put money into my commissary fund or my phone account because I planned on a short stay, so what the hell was I going to do? How long would I really be in there? How could I make arrangements to get out?

And then about an hour later that same guard came to me and said "George, pack your stuff. You're being released." I didn't ask questions.

Last-minute crises aside, the experience wasn't that bad. If you keep your mouth shut, keep your head down and don't start any trouble, you can get through jail just fine. I can't imagine serving months or years in there like some of my fellow inmates, or like millions of Americans do in prison every day. A three-day sentence was nothing compared to what some go through.

It was great incentive not to screw up ever again, that's for sure. I'm never going back.

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I'm not happy that I went to jail and I'm also regretful that I put myself in this position in the first place. Frankly, I'm pretty ashamed of the whole ordeal. But I'm writing this piece because at Jalopnik we believe in being transparent and owning up to our mistakes. If we crash a press car, we write about it. And if we go to jail because we were stupid in car, we write about that, too.

I'm also writing to apologize to you all. I made the website I love look bad, and I made my profession look bad. I try to hold myself to a high standard and I fell short of those aspirations. I made a mistake, but I feel like I more than paid for it.

And I'm also writing this, perhaps more than anything else, as a warning to everyone who reads it: Do not speed in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Do not go 20 mph over the speed limit, and do not exceed 80 mph when you're there. Ever. Virginia's cops and courts aren't fucking around when it comes to speed. The state has some of the most beautiful roads and rural scenery in America, but if you're going to hoon there, do it in a Miata or an Austin-Healey or a Fiat 500 Abarth or something, not a car with any actual power. Or better yet, take it to the track. Take your fast car to Summit Point or VIR. I wish I had done that instead.

I'm moving back to Texas soon. My radar detector will be a permanent fixture on my dash where it belongs, but I've lowered my speeds considerably. Once it's over I look forward to not going back to Virginia or D.C. — why I don't like that city is a story for another day — for a long time. But I'll never forget my time there, especially because the extra points on my license, the increased cost of my car insurance, and the fact that I now have a criminal record, won't ever let me.

Just do not speed in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Art credit Jim Cooke