Imprisoned for a Day: A Personal Reflection

In a world defined by social atomization, bureaucratization, and ant-like regimentation along institutionally sanctioned channels that exist but to uphold hierarchies of power, it is practically a moral obligation for anyone who wants to be fully human to break out of his bubble and, if possible, experience the world as “the other” does. In particular, as those without a voice do. If such experience isn’t always literally possible, we ought at least to imaginatively inhabit other perspectives, say by reading primary sources or watching documentaries, or simply by talking to people from a different walk of life than our own. The result might be not only education but even, perhaps, inspiration.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to experience a bit of life from a perspective I’m not accustomed to: the inside of a jail cell. I was left with a kind of insight that an academic like me doesn’t always achieve, an experiential or empathic insight. And I thought it would be worth communicating my impressions, if only to play some tiny part in giving a voice to the “voiceless.” For, as much abstract knowledge as we may have about the evils of the system bearing the Orwellian name “criminal justice,” the matter appears in a different and darker light from within the dungeon cages underground.

The reason for my 24-hour incarceration is too trivial to mention, scarcely more than a petty misunderstanding. And the experience itself was, of course, a mere joke compared to what others experience, just a stroll in a sunlit park compared to what the 23 million or so imprisoned and released felons in this country—in addition to millions of those guilty of misdemeanors (not to mention millions of immigrants detained for weeks and months)—have gone through. But it was memorable enough, and perhaps worth relating.

I was struck, first of all, by the insidious psychological effect of having to place your hands behind your back so they can be handcuffed. This coerced action performed in the presence of onlookers instantly manipulates you into an unwanted self-categorization: you can’t help but see yourself as others now see you, an offender, a criminal, a bad ‘other.’ Or rather, while rejecting the value-judgment, you’re aware that that’s the category into which you’ve been placed, by the officers, the onlookers, and especially the handcuffs. All of a sudden you don’t unproblematically belong to society anymore; your personhood has been qualified and thrown into question. You’re now half-person and half-ominous-question-mark. (“What’s going on? What did he do? What crime did he commit?”)

I was careful to obey every command to the letter, since, as we know, there’s nothing a police officer likes less than being contradicted, so my treatment was far better than it could have been. Still, I was puzzled by the length of time I had to sit in the car while the officers talked outside in what seemed a rather nonchalant way, given my shackled hands. That’s another insidious technique of control for which you have a heightened appreciation when you’re on its receiving end: the power to elongate time. It truly becomes impressive once you’re behind bars.

After making it to the precinct, the trial-by-paperwork begins. More waiting, and more unscratchable itches on your back and face, as initial reports are filed. I came to have a better understanding of the social role of the police as I saw throughout the evening how much “paperwork,” or electronic work, they have to file whenever an arrest is made. I had already understood that the police’s true function isn’t so much to protect people (as is claimed) as to protect “order,” the given system of social relations, which is to say the power of the powerful. The police officer is the “bouncer” for society, whose job it is to keep out the undesirables, those who either refuse to conform or have committed the crime of being poor and dark-skinned.

But now I saw more clearly that, in effect, what the police are is just bureaucrats with guns. Bureaucrats who dress up in blue and walk among us to make sure we’re following the rules, and who take us in to be processed and labeled and categorized if we violate some rule or other (or even if we don’t), and ideally to be frightened into never violating that rule again (if, that is, we’re lucky enough to be released at all). None of this is to say there’s no value in such a role; surely there can be, particularly with regard to addressing violent crime. But, given the amount of paperwork and the continuous human “processing” the job entails, to belong to the “force” is to be a fancy-dressed bureaucrat-in-the-trenches.

At length, after being divested of various items of clothing and whatever is in your pockets, the shackles are taken off and you’re safely behind bars. Your company is your cellmates (if you have any), your worries, and time. Lots of time. I sat there for about eight hours, which seemed even longer, due to the human brain’s self-flagellating tendency to dwell lugubriously on moments of nothingness (while speeding through moments of joy). I was fortunate soon to have a couple of talkative cellmates, both of whom were there for having thrown a punch or two; but even their presence was of limited use in accelerating the ticking of the clock.

We were waiting to be transferred to the Brooklyn Detention Complex, where we would wait till the next day to see the judge. If all went well, we’d be free, at least provisionally, by that evening.

So after a suitably punishing length of time, the handcuffs were snapped back on and we were transported to our luxury accommodations for the rest of the night. Actually, the precinct was a far more agreeable place, as you might expect, being less populated and less redolent of sweaty unwashed bodies crammed together in tiny spaces lacking ventilation and windows. The initial holding pens, in particular, were noisome: it would be cruel and inhumane to pack pigs into those enclosures, much less dozens of humans. At least one’s nose grew numb to the smell.

Finally we were herded into the main area to be processed again (to have the mug shots taken and so on). Though it was around 1:00 in the morning there were serpentine lines, scores of shackled men and women shuffling along—nearly all of them African-American or Hispanic. A dreary semi-silence punctuated by commands from officers. Dull-looking bureaucrats from a Kafka novel sitting at desks, directing us where to go. It was a subterranean world we had entered.

At last the intake process was finished and we were taken down dark corridors to the cellblock area, in the bowels of the earth. You can imagine the conditions in each cell: a vomitous toilet in the corner, a metal sink next to it, benches against the concrete wall…and that’s all. So there we were, about thirteen of us in a cramped cell, as the bars shut behind us. I recalled Malcolm X’s admonition:

Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars—caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.

To be sure, it’s easy to get over the memory when you’re confined for only a day. Still, the contrivance of the steel bars is an effective contribution to the psychological function of jails and prisons, viz. to dehumanize, to animalize, to infantilize. To fill with resentment and impotent outrage, and make hate.

Some of us claimed a bit of space on a bench; the rest sat or lay on the floor, settling in for a long night of sleeplessness. One guy made a pillow out of several inedible cheese sandwiches in little bags he had found strewn around the cell. (That’s the food we’re given, in addition to a small portion of cereal in the morning.) Those of us on the floor spent the night trying to avoid collisions between legs.

Sleep would likely have been impossible for me anyway, but it was made even more so by a few cellmates who had an impressive talent for remaining animated hour after hour, in a most vocal way. The guffaws were frequent. I listened to interesting conversations about, e.g., the relative merits of an astonishing galaxy of hip-hop artists, quite intelligent music criticism being expounded at great length, even to the point of heated debate. Later, conversation extended to those in the cage across the hall, questions being shouted as to where they lived, what acquaintances they all had in common, what they had been talking about over there, etc. “What’s your name, man? Oh, you live on Broadway? Me too! Monroe? I’m a couple blocks away, at Jefferson! You know Malik? He’s on Madison—works at the Subway there.” The irony wasn’t lost on me that this institution, meant to segregate and isolate, could also bring people together.

In fact, throughout the night and the next day I observed how easy it was for a camaraderie to develop among the inmates, the first inklings of a solidarity against the cops. While profanity-laced tirades against guards occurred occasionally—due to ignoring requests for food or for the time, or for being granted a phone call—more often the attitude was informal respect and easygoing familiarity. But that didn’t preclude a definite collective identity, an “us vs. them” mentality, based on a sense of shared injustice and oppression (or, more generally, shared interests). Everyone I talked to took it for granted that the criminal justice system is wildly racist—they were surprised that a “white boy” was in there with them. But the race factor, or any other divisive factor, didn’t really matter: when requests or demands or complaints were made to the guards, it was far more common to hear the words “we” and “us” than “I” or “me.”

Of course, this isn’t to deny that vicious divisions between inmates or groups of inmates can emerge in prisons. It was merely striking to observe the spontaneous appearance of a collective consciousness even despite, and because of, the radically anti-social environment we were trapped in.

What I found even more striking, and more poignant, was the casual familiarity with jail that most of the men displayed. None of them seemed particularly discomfited by it, except the next day when the waiting, prolonged hour after endless hour despite previous assurances of speed and efficiency, grew intolerable. More than a few guys took me under their wing, as it were, and explained how the system worked and why legally I had nothing to fear. “What did you do? Oh, that’s the lowest level of misdemeanor. You’ll be fine—they’ll release you and you’ll be on probation, and then the case will be dismissed. You have nothing to worry about.” Their expertise reminded me of Dave Chappelle’s bit: “Every black dude in this room is a qualified paralegal. If one of us even started to do something wrong, an old black man would pop out of nowhere—‘Nigga don’t do that, that’s five to ten!’”

It was clear that jail, and its ever-present possibility, was just a part of their lives, as, say, being paid very little is a part of the life of an adjunct professor. I tried to imagine what that would be like, how different all my frames of reference would be. I would literally perceive the world differently: my perceptions would incorporate and embody utterly different value-judgments than they do, different expectations from moment to moment, and I’d have to be cognizant of entire dimensions of experience—fears, worries, possibilities, factors to be taken into consideration—that are currently beyond my horizons. The understanding sank in on a visceral level of how incredibly privileged I am.

But more than that: I could see my own views of the world changing somewhat. After all, to sit on a floor against steel bars for twelve hours, and then several hours more when I was moved up to the even more crowded holding pen we wait in until the court is ready to see us, is an experience that encourages introspection. The situation felt both surreal and much more real than my ordinary life. I thought of my daily routines, the mindless reading of news in the morning and evening, the pleasantries exchanged with fellow professors and students, the Youtube-watching at night in between grading and perusals of academic journals. I thought of the throngs that flood the streets of Manhattan every day on their shopping missions or sightseeing missions, and the bar-socializing with acquaintances—the trivialities shouted across the table over the din. It all seemed more hollow than ever.

Millions of us chatting happily outside or going to movies, averting our gaze from every unpleasantness, while other millions rot in steel-enclosed windowless misery—for throwing a few punches or having marijuana on them, or not legally being an American, or being poor and black in a white society. At this point I could say that our usual complacent behavior is contemptible and unconscionable, but what hit me most forcefully was just how false and empty it is. We live in and through illusion; our entire quotidian existence is grounded in denial. We have a pathetically partial view of the world, a parochial little outlook conditioned by frivolity and routine, blind to the very foundation of society underground in these cages that police the “dangerous classes.” I felt that here was the truth, the beating heart of America.

For, as we know, we live in an overwhelmingly bureaucratized society, a world increasingly shorn of human connections—sacrificed on the altar of marketization and privatization—which is precisely why it’s hurtling towards doom. Humanity is simply a non-factor in the political-economic equation. In fact, for a long time I’ve thought that the Holocaust, the apotheosis of bureaucratic inhumanity, is the clue to the moral essence of capitalist modernity, the perfect symbol. But on a less murderous scale, mass confinement in cages is an equally apt emblem. The prisoners are almost totally helpless, totally at the mercy of bureaucratic diktats and the whims of guards and wardens. And we know how helpless we all tend to feel with regard to any bureaucracy—government bureaucracies, insurance bureaucracies, workplace bureaucracies, bank bureaucracies. We’re completely subordinated to power, with hardly any recourses. The arbitrary power over life and death is only more pronounced in the case of the “criminal justice” bureaucracy.

The prison bureaucracy takes the alienating tendencies of capitalist institutions to their logical and literal conclusion, in the separation of people into their own concrete cells and the enforcement of this atomization by armed guards. Actually, in a sense, jail or even prison might, perversely, be less atomizing than the broader capitalist civilization they reflect, given that the basic unit of society is no longer the community or the family but really the lone individual with his computer and his smartphone—and, for his social context, the bureaucracy in which he is embedded (as employee, consumer, and citizen). At least in jail a “collective consciousness” can emerge, together with real sympathy and empathy. And the human interactions tend to have a stripped-down quality, a directness and rawness, very different from the impersonal fakeness outside.

By around 11 a.m. the remaining conversations in the cellblock had died down. By 12:00, and then 1:00, and then 2:00, an absolute listlessness had settled on us, except for periodic ejaculations of disgust at whatever incompetence or malice was keeping us down there. Time had stopped. I began to wonder if I’d ever be released; the thought of freedom seemed too good to be true. Maybe I’d be stuck here another day, or longer. Would I have to miss work on Monday? Some of the guys had missed work that day, putting their jobs in jeopardy. I looked at the bodies sprawled on the floor and thought, This is what matters in the world. The rest is a lie, as long as this exists. The way I’d lived, immersed in thoughts of self, seemed absurd and shameful. All that mattered was to fight against this, and all suffering. I had to make changes, drastic changes in how I lived. That this could exist, or conditions infinitely worse than this, was completely intolerable.

To think that every day in cities and towns across the country tens of thousands of people were streaming, handcuffed, into jails, prisons, and detention centers, there to languish at the mercy of the System, was beyond horrifying. What would people outside think if they could see through the thick walls of the Brooklyn Detention Complex and know what was going on in here! All those free, relatively carefree people right outside, strolling down the streets blissfully unaware of the mass suffering just a couple hundred feet away. The moral imperative was to de-atomize, to bring to light and bring together. Arbitrary power thrives on atomization, and grows to Goliath dimensions as long as it can live in the dark. The necessity is to shine a light on it and kill it.

At long last the moment of deliverance arrived: my name was called. Full of hope, I left the cell…to be transferred to another cell. In which there were perhaps thirty people, though it was scarcely larger than the one I’d spent the night in. But at least I was closer—so I hoped—to freedom. I was also trepidatious, not knowing what to expect when I faced the judge, for instance whether he would set bail, or whether the DA would prosecute despite the pitiful triviality of the incident that had landed me there. Soon after I was in the new cell, a man came in cursing the judge, whom he had just seen. “That motherfucker set bail even higher than they asked for! $2000. As soon as I saw him look down at the sheet, I knew it was over. They said I had an old warrant for littering, so they went after me.” Littering.

To be sure, others had committed more serious crimes. One middle-aged guy, a jovial fellow, had been caught shoplifting at Macy’s (to sell the items later). “I know what I did wrong now,” he said. “I gotta be more careful when there aren’t crowds. In the holiday season it was different—I probably took $20,000 worth. Easy. There are so many people it’s easy.” I noticed that they all drew a distinction between stealing and taking. “You don’t steal,” one guy said. “You take. A woman steals, I take. You gotta take it, just take what you need, it’s yours, and walk out of there.” Earlier I had talked to a pregnant young woman, attractive, confident, and articulate, who said she regularly steals—no, takes—expensive items from Macy’s (again, to sell them on the street). It isn’t really theft because she thinks she’s entitled to it, in light of how much the government takes from her and how cruelly the System treats people like her (i.e., poor African-Americans). She has a job, but the pay isn’t enough for her to provide for her family. It was clear to me that this sort of theft is widespread.

The situation, then, is predictably absurd: people are denied the ability to earn a living, and, in addition, government steals money from them when they can find work—yes, steals, for the logic of government is, arguably, no different from that of a protection racket—so they have to turn to illicit means of surviving; but in that case, if discovered, they’re sent to prison. So it’s Scylla or Charybdis. Deprivation or—deprivation in prison.

Meanwhile, my own brief period of deprivation was about to come to an end. The last couple of hours weren’t particularly eventful, aside from when one of the inmates had a seizure, complete with foaming at the mouth. I can’t say if it was due to negligence by the authorities, but my guess is not, since they acted fairly promptly to get him medical assistance. At any rate, by this point I was more than ready for freedom. Not to mention food. The thought of both was sweeter than I had ever known.

In the early evening my name was called for the last time, and I made my way to the courtroom. Whence to freedom, a half-hour later. Having no criminal record, I was let off easy. What happened to the others, I don’t know. What I do know is that as I walked outside into the drizzling rain, the taste of freedom in the air, people in handcuffs were being ushered into the back entrance of the building, out of the rain-scented air and into the sweat-stinking holding pens. Many of them would be repeat offenders, and this latest arrest might have dire effects on their lives. It would be harder to get a job, which would tempt them to take what they needed, which would raise the possibility of another arrest, and so the cycle would continue. The System would continue to be fed fresh meat, and it would grow bigger in scale, and ever more lives would be ground up in its gears. The System would continue to dominate a diabolically regimented society—unless its victims and their advocates could, somehow, throw a wrench into its gears and grind them to a halt.

I didn’t know how that could be done, but, newly inspired, I knew I had to take part.

Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Notes of an Underground Humanist and Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States. Read other articles by Chris, or visit Chris's website.