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Smile! You're going to jail

TAMPA

On March 13, a few minutes after 9 p.m., inmate No. 08016457 walked toward a bright corner of the booking room at Orient Road Jail and stepped onto a pair of blue footprints painted on the floor.

She slipped her finger in an electronic box that scanned her print and matched it with personal information in the jail's database:

Name: Stephanie Ragusa

Employer: Martinez Middle School

Age: 29

Charges: Lewd or lascivious battery, felony, times five.

The woman accused of having sex with a 14-year-old boy looked into the lens of a camera mounted between white lights and did something puzzling.

She smiled.

The smile wasn't shy, or subtle. She beamed big and toothy, her lips parted, the lines in her cheeks forming parentheses around an A+ grin. Her left eyebrow was slightly cocked, her forehead barely wrinkled, and she wore a look you'd expect to see on a drunk accountant at the bar if he were, say, complimenting your eyes.

The portrait made the TV news, then the papers, and a simple curiosity lodged in the minds of those who saw it:

She's smiling?

What you don't know: 233 people were arrested that same Thursday in March, and 33 of them smiled for their mug shot.

Thirty-three.

That means 14 percent of those who had been handcuffed and frisked and were now on line to be fitted with jumpsuits and led to cells and fed turkey-bologna sandwiches — 14 percent of these people managed an expression associated with joy.

But why?

The booking room at Orient Road Jail is a kind of purgatory between mistakes and judgment. It is secured behind thick glass and heavy doors that buzz and click. It smells of feet sometimes, and sometimes beer. Some 72,000 people file through here each year. Guilty or innocent, they leave digital evidence of their visit.

Robert Cuadrado," a deputy calls over the loudspeaker. "Robert Cuadrado to fingerprints."

A man steps out of the fold.

"Stand on the blue feet," the deputy says.

"Here?" the man asks. "Okay."

"Look straight ahead," the deputy says and the man does.

For a second his expression is blank. Then . . .

Cuadrado was urinating at
a Burger King when the bail bondsman found him. He owed on a bond from last month, when he was busted on a domestic violence charge. His mug shot then was decidedly more serious. Unbuttoned shirt, sad mouth, dead eyes.

Not this time.

"You gotta make the best out of the situation," says Cuadrado, 39, still smiling. "What am I going to do? Get angry? Come in here and be mad and yell? That does no good."

Were it not for the jumpsuits, pat-downs and occasional fistfights, booking would resemble a waiting room in a city hospital, maybe a Greyhound station. Some people are scabbed or bleeding, some are drunk, some wear clothes torn asunder.

Those who protest are escorted to one of the holding rooms, where they shout in vain and breathe steam onto the glass. The others sit in chairs or talk on the telephones or pace until they are called to be photographed.

Sadness comes easy here because it feels like the end of the line, like a cattle call of broken lives. That's why it's striking on the outside to see smiles on the inside.

Edward Copeland," a deputy calls over the loudspeaker.

A big bald man steps up, talking loudly and smelling of booze. He was arrested earlier on a warrant out of Sarasota for failure to pay an open container ticket two years ago.

"I was so drunk I didn't remember getting a ticket," he says.

Fate has smiled on Copeland: The shift sergeant waives his $50 bond.

He still must stand for a photo.

"Look straight ahead for me," says Deputy Clinton Leapley, working the camera. "Smile because the sergeant's being nice to you."

Copeland obliges.

"Hot dog!" he says.

His image, like all the others, is captured in a fraction of a second and posted to the Sheriff's Office Web site, where several things can happen.

1. The portrait can linger unnoticed, lost pixels in a giant database.

2. It can wind up in a convenience store mug shot tabloid, such as Who's in Jail? or Cellmates. These sell at a steady clip for $1 each.

3. If the crime is right — a bank robbery, say — the picture could go in the newspapers or on television.

4. If the right person notices an arresting image, the mug could be forever linked to sites such as thesmokinggun.com. The same is true if the inmate is wearing an ironic T-shirt. "I'd rather be fishing," for instance. Or a list of "Things not to say to a cop." Both of those have turned up on Hillsborough inmates.

These facts are not lost on those posing for mug shots.

When Terry Todd turned herself in to serve 10 days on a court order for driving with no license, she happened to be wearing this shirt:

"It's not funny," she says after her photo is taken. "There's nothing cute about this. It's very embarrassing."

She is hoping her image remains hidden among the thousands on the sheriff's Web site, even if the mug shot portion of the site logs 99,228 visits on the day she's booked.

Others aren't as shy.

Jennifer Farmbry turned herself in on a DUI charge wearing lip gloss and a black top that revealed the top of a tattoo between her breasts.

When a deputy asked the 20-year-old to step on the blue feet, she paused.

"Hold on," she said, primping. "I want to take a good picture."

Farmbry knew she was going to turn herself in, so her friends held a "Jennifer's-Going-To-Jail" party the night before. Now, she says, they're all waiting for her mug shot to hit the Internet "to see what I look like in here."

"My friends are crazy," she says.

Asked why she smiled, she says she had time to think about her booking photo. Time to plan.

"I didn't want a mug shot-looking mug shot," she says.

Watch long enough and you learn the nuances of booking photos. A solid 50 percent of the women fix their hair or check their reflections in the bulletproof glass before stepping in front of the camera. Men who want to appear tough cock their heads to one side.

The reasons for the smiles aren't as clear, though a smiling trend does exist.

"A lot of them are repeat offenders," says Deputy Augusto Santos, 33, who has been shooting mug shots for several years. "They come in and say, 'I didn't like the first one. Gotta make this one better.' "

"Most of the guys smiling are younger," says Deputy Leapley. "A lot of them are showing off their grills. They get their photo taken, and they run over to the phones and call their friends and say 'Hey, I'm an Internet star. Check it out.' "

In that way, there seems to be some confusion about fame and notoriety — all they're seeking is 15 minutes of recognition.

"It has a lot to do with people's attitudes when they're in jail," says Deputy Constance Boyd, 45, who has spent eight years in booking. "Most of them are depressed when they get here. It's going to cost them a lot of money to get out.

"But some of them don't seem to mind."

"It's jail," says Leapley. "It's not the end of the world."

In 1892, Charles Darwin suggested that facial expressions don't just indicate an emotion, but actually contribute to the emotion itself. Facial expressions aren't more important than memories or thoughts, he wrote, but they can cause an emotional response.

The theory has been tested and retested. In the early 1990s, researchers found that simply prompting people to smile made them happy.

If that theory holds true in jail, maybe smiles are about survival.

I've hit the bottom, and I'm going to pull myself up, starting with my face.

"Rafael Garcia," a deputy calls over the loudspeaker.

A young man steps forward and stands on the blue feet. He doesn't need instructions because he has done this eight times before. He was arrested this time for driving with a suspended license.

"Same stupid things," he says. "I'm the dummy who never learns."

He steps in front of the camera. He has never smiled in a booking photo before. It doesn't look like he will this time either.

"You going to smile or not?" the deputy asks.

Sometimes that's all it takes.

"There's no reason to have a bad attitude," Garcia says. "Might as well smile."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Smile! You're going to jail 05/30/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2008 6:16pm]

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