I could barely hear the words over the heavy metal music filling the car; “Everyone has bad days, I’m not going to hold that against you.”
With the gate to the county detention center lifting with thunderous clanks, poorly timed to the baseline of the metal, and my right arm numb (I had to sit on it to fit into the aggressively small back seat with my hands cuffed behind my back), I asked my arresting officer what he meant. With a small upbeat in his voice, he replied, “I’m going to look at your driving record, if I think that it was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I will help you out with the charge.” As an afterthought, he added, “You have been respectful.”
Standing in booking, answering a shortened list of questions – during my first stay in a different county jail last December I had answered a list of questions that took an hour to get though – and listening to the officer radio HQ asking for “the suspect’s RAP sheet”, I wondered if I had been respectful enough.
Just less than an hour before, I was stopped for going 39mph in a 30mph zone. Ethics of driving above the speed limit aside, I expected to have to pay my fine and attempt to cover up my shame from my mother by heading to the courthouse to pay the inevitable fine with some cash I was planning to deposit. I guessed I wouldn’t be eating out much that week, and after handing the officer my license and registration, I began wondering if I had taken my anxiety medication that morning.
Glancing into my rear-view mirror, I realized I could feel my heart beating; another patrol car had just pulled off the road. Attempting to brace myself for what I knew the next steps would be, I watched the officer open his door and talk towards my car. I thought about the paperwork I kept in my glovebox in the event of this exact situation, and I waited for him to ask me, as cops usually will, if I knew what my offense was, wondering if I wanted to admit guilt from the start.
“Sir, turn off the vehicle and get out of your car.”
That wasn’t a question. I complied.
“You are driving with a suspended license.” He must have been reacting to my confused expression.
“I just got this cleared up I thou..”
“Hands against the car.”
I bumbled through an attempt to explain how I had just gotten my license re-instated; during a similar encounter last December I learned that I was driving with a suspended license – ultimately my fault for failure to pay a fine, and my fault for being unaware of it. I don’t dispute that.
“Do you have any objects that would poke or prod me?”
Unfortunate, but as the officer who was currently frisking me down would soon assure me, we all have bad days sometimes. I continued my attempt to explain. In December I stayed the night in jail, saw a judge, paid all my fines old and new, paid to have my license re-instated, applied for a restricted license during the additional period of suspended driving mandated by law for conviction of driving under suspension, and
“Hands behind your back.”
And, according to the worker at the DMV that I had spoken with in mid-March, I was able to drive as normal now that my additional suspension period had ended almost three weeks prior.
“Turn around.” I saw at least three additional cops in a semi-circle, maybe five yards from me, watching with their hands on their holsters. After a short conversation with HQ over his radio, the original officer told me that I probably did not pay a fine that I was suppose to, and that I would need someone to come pick up my car.
From the back seat of the patrol car I recounted the full story once more for the officer, my uncle and grandmother standing on either side of the door. I had “been respectful” so the officer had allowed me to speak with my family before taking me to the detention center.
After half a day in a holding cell, I was informed at my bond hearing that “sometimes mistakes happen at the DMV.” I learned the worker at the DMV had misinformed me about not having to pay a fine, mistaking a fee I paid in December as the fee I would eventually have to pay. A simple mistake fixed by a payment, with some time in jail added for a reminder that getting from one place to another is a privilege granted by the state.
Yet as much as I feel my stay in the county detention center likely cost the state more than the monetary fee I had to pay in the end, it is what I witnessed in that cell that motivated this post.
Henry, my cellmate in December, was a black man in his early forties. In the morning, before I saw a judge, we talked for several hours about his mother and daughter and how he was on his way to see his family for Christmas (I was first arrested on December 27th).
From Florida, he was in South Carolina in route to a town a few over from where he was locked up. He told me he was picked up outside of a gas station down the road when another man was causing a commotion and the store owner called the police. By his account, the store owner did not speak complete english, and was unable to properly explain to the police the man he had called about was not Henry. Henry was in the parking lot listening to music from his car, and he admitted to me he was not drunk but had a beer, though he was not trying to drive anywhere. He was waiting to meet with someone when the officers arrived on the scene. Due to how things played out, he ended up in jail, no way to contact anyone, with a bail he couldn’t post without access to money. After being released on PR, before leaving my cell for the final time, he wrote down information so I could contact his sister to let his family know why he had not shown up days before when they had expected him.
I reached out to his sister as he had asked and she was worried that she had not heard from him in almost a week. I did not attempt to verify the story of his arrest, although I have no reason to doubt his account; as much as one may think the story sounds like a makeshift rationalization, I was just arrested while explaining my innocence to four cops who didn’t seem interested in my set of facts either.
And yet, it seemed the similarities in our cases ended after our arrests. At my first bond hearing my judge told me that because someone from my family had showed up early that morning she would release me to them. My second bond hearing ended with the judge looking at my mother and saying that because our families knew each other they would let me go.
I had privileges the system didn’t seem fit to apply to Henry.
I spent mere hours in a holding cell last week; in December I was in overnight and long enough to eat breakfast. Both times, I was released on a PR bond because my parents were there to vouch for me financially, because “my family and your family are friends”, because I was “respectful” to the officers arresting me.
Because I am a white male.
I’m not ignorant of my surroundings; both times I was arrested in small towns. Less than a mile down the road from the detention center, both the confederate battle flag and the South Carolina Secession flag fly in someone’s yard. Just a few miles from my house another confederate flag flies, opposite a trailer with a large wooden cross in the front yard. My town was host of the last official meeting of the Confederate Government before Lee’s surrender, and a shop on the main street proudly flies confederate standards every day.
It’s not that anyone I encountered during my arrests and time in jail said or did anything overtly “racist” that I saw; it’s simply a cultural norm. I look like the people on the outside of the system, not the inside. The responding patrol officers were all white males (between my two encounters I had seen at least nine officers). My bond judges were white. By my anecdotal account, Correction Officers in the jails were black at a three-to-one ratio, inmates seven-to-one. The local paper a county over proudly displays the all the people locked up the previous day every morning on their social media; I can count the number of times they have posted with a mugshot of a non-black person in the last month on one hand.
The chill from the center block wall in my cell began to leach into my shoulders as I sat reflecting on Henry’s story and taking mental notes about the inmates in the two other holding cells I could see.
James, the inmate in the cell closest to me, was in some type of pain. From the corner I was sitting in I could hear his muted moans echo off the walls, several times pleading to see the nurse. The CO at the booking desk chucked, “You will be fine James”, and went back to filling out paperwork.
A deep hollow metal thunk broke the silence. Entering through the door labeled “HOUSING” a CO led a black man in his mid-twenties toward the third holding cell while explaining that he was going back to the next county over to see a judge for bond. The CO went through the list of charges, possession, burglary, rape; Williams, the inmate, seemed to be learning the full extent of his charges for the first time. His jumpsuit had the name of the next county over across the back, some how he had been transferred here, and now he was being transported back to see a judge in the next county.
He still hasn’t been told what he was charged with? How long has he been here?
Before unshackling him, the CO offered Williams advice on seeking council and what steps would be next, but once he was in his holding cell the COs working the cooking desk offered their own advice.
“You needed the pussy that bad?” “You can’t just be taking the pussy!”
“Who said I done it?” Williams’ muffled response came from beyond his cell door.
Smothered by the landscape, most of the details were lost to the echoes of the booking room before they made their way past the looming metallic door of my cell, but the conversation concluded when a worker with a cleaning cart arrived. As the COs made their way closer to my door – they were taking the cart to James’ cell – one replied to Williams “You probably didn’t do it anyway, someone else was in here a few days ago accused of the same thing by the same woman…still you cant just go after that pussy.”
Two soft clanks opened the door to James’ cell.
I haven’t heard from him since he called for the nurse.
“Come on James, get up. You need to clean your cell.”
A figure with the appearance of a white man in his early forties stumbled towards the cleaning cart. Wearing just an anti-suicide smoc – a quilted, single piece, tear-resistant green gown – James gripped a mop and spray bottle with an unsteady clasp, and faltered back into his cell.
I realized James had defecated in his cell. The COs talked with him as he cleaned, instructing him as one would when overseeing a toddler clean their toys. “Be sure to get over there in the corner James” “There’s still a little more James” “Come on James, you need to clean up your mess.”
I heard a whimper, “I don’t want to cause anymore trouble, I just want to go back to my cell.”
“We will see James. You have to behave.” The COs walked back to their desk, another soft echoing thud signaled the worker taking the cleaning cart back to it’s own cell, somewhere beyond the door labeled “HOUSING”.
One CO was standing at the entrance to James’ cell, shutting the door while telling him they would let him shower in a few minutes. As his cell door shut with a reverberating clang, the CO turned back toward the desk and fellow officer, “Look at him sitting up there like he is about to cry, sitting there like his dog died or something!” A smile and joyful laugh following the exclamation.
Softly, a statement broken by fragile sobs was offered from inside the cell, “I just miss my daughter.”
Punishment and Rehabilitation
At my last bond hearing one of the officers spoke to the judge on my behalf, “He was very respectful the whole time.” I still contemplate what that meant. In what way was I respectful that these other men weren’t?
The only difference I could see between myself and Henry and Williams was that my skin wasn’t the same color. In James’ case, obviously suffering from some mental disorder, the difference seemed to be that – for the time being – my anxiety was manifesting by keeping myself seated in the back of my cell, back to the wall, observing and unable to bring myself to ask for the phone call I was neglected to be offered after my booking.
Inside, I was furious. I wanted to assault the walls of my cell until they toppled, I wanted to know why the people that told me as a child they were there to help me when I was in trouble made me explain to my grandmother from the back of a police car that a paperwork error was sending me to jail for the afternoon.
I didn’t speak back to the officers at any point, but it wasn’t because I respected them, it was because I feared what would happen if I did. But to them, that was respect. Not questioning their ability to surround me, hands on their guns, confiscate my ID and destroy it so that I have a financial burden to reenter society. Not questioning their ability to hold a citizen for days without explaining the full nature of the charges being brought against them. Not questioning their ability to mock, belittle, make you feel worthless. That is what it means to respect the police, the system, the Law.
It’s not like I witnessed these abuses for the first time, or didn’t believe things like this could happen in this day and time. If anything, the few hours I spent in the county detention center reinforced everything I heard and feared about “the system.” And it showed me how adept jail culture is at punishment and rehabilitation – if you knew someone’s family, if you looked and acted normal, weren’t in need of a nurse, or mental health aid, if you weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, if you were respectful, if you could afford financial rehabilitation, it was granted. For anyone else, there was punishment.