My Trip To Jail
Issue #23, December 1995
On June 27th of this year I protested for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. This essay is not so much concerned with him per se, but rather with my experience of being processed in our community's new expensive prison and how it, along with other technologies of control, produces a normalized and slavish self through an erasure of personal identity. By giving an account of the different stages one goes through while being booked I hope to draw out just how the prison institution transforms the self.
279 of us were charged with two felony counts, rioting and arson, along with the misdemeanor of blocking traffic. I was sitting down in a non-violent stance and the officer put his hands on my shoulder and told me, you're charged with such and such, will you come with me. I stood up and was escorted by three policemen, two of whom were holding me by the arm. They then took me behind the riot police line and asked me if I had any weapons on me. I told him that I had a pocket knife, which he took. He told me to put my hands in the air. Then I was searched. Next I was asked to put my hands behind my back while plastic hand-cuffs were placed on me, luckily not too tight. From there I was walked to a police van, the back door was opened and I was put in the last available seat next to the door.
There were 12 of us in a back cage, while another cell in front kept the women separate from us. It was very dark. It was like being put in a metal box with no air or windows. We waited in the box for the police to organize a caravan and take us to where we would hopefully be released. I felt extremely helpless being cuffed and locked in while hearing the cries of people being hurt by the police on the outside. Plus the darkness made it impossible to tell where you were being taken once on the road. Along with constant waiting I felt a loss of my sense of location.
We were taken to the Byrant Street County Jail. At first we did not know, nor could we find out, where we were. When our S.F.P.D. driver opened the back to allow us some light and air, we could see that we were in an underground parking lot. But this did not last long — soon we were taken to another part of the facility. Here again we waited for the police to let us out of the van, and when this happened we were made to stand in line. Eventually our plastic cuffs were clipped and everything but our pocket change was taken from us. I then went through my second search and was put in a holding cell with some 30 or so people. This cell was an improvement in conditions because we could use the phone and talk to each other.
We waited in this cell endlessly for our name to be called, thinking that we would be out soon. Once my name was called I was taken before a long desk behind which were a number of deputies who took my diary, identified me with my photo from the scene of arrest, asked me for my driver's license number, social security number, weight, height, etc. While I was at the desk giving this information the deputies and clerks kept making dumb insults to some of us who had long hair like "get a hair cut." I remember them saying to one fellow who had a university I.D. that two felonies were not going to look good on his record when he was out of school trying to get a job.
I was then grouped with six other men and we were taken up to a bench in front of the booking desk. We watched a woman and some other men fill out forms. Other protesters were being strip searched in another room. From our position we could not see inside this room but we could hear everything perfectly well. Suddenly ten or so deputies rushed into the room screaming and manhandling a protester who was crying out in pain. I don't know what provoked the deputy who was doing the searches, all I heard was the deputy start yelling "This is my house, you do what the fuck I say in my house, Hey Hey fucking get him." The fellow protester was pleading "Oh my god they're hurting me, Oh God, God Help, they're hurting me!" As they dragged this guy away, who I later learned was black, to who knows where, to do who knows what, the protester being searched in the room with him started to move forward saying "let him go." Then some other deputies said, "Stay right there, where the fuck do you think your going? You want some of that? We have got plenty of that if you want some," as they gestured at us. "The same is for you over there." I was scared and struggled not to lose control. I said to the fellow next to me, "Those are the ones you wanna pop." We were all shaken up and hoping they would not decide to beat the shit out of us for no reason, which at that time seemed like a very real possibility.
The deputies have big black boots and heavy utility belts with weapons and keys. Walkie-talkies or high-tech phones give them access to door locks and communication with the greater machinery of the entire prison system. All these technologies are used on the prisoner who in turn never uses technology but always has technology used on him. The prisoner has flimsy foam sandals, no belt, and is essentially rendered tool-less and dependent. A technological imbalance in relation to authority is an integral part of the project of identity transformation.
I felt helpless. My fear of these big pissed off guys, well, just plain bullies, who outnumbered us was, as you can imagine, rather great. As the deputy said, he was ready to bend my arm behind my back if I were to stand up for anyone. We were all in a situation of fear because anytime we tried to talk they would command us to "Shut Up!" And if we asked any questions of the police, it would only bring us more abuse. It took a lot of power from within me to talk; I was choking with fear and essentially on the verge of tears. So when I said "those are the ones you wanna pop," it was almost just to stop myself from breaking into tears at seeing and hearing this other guy being mistreated.
Next we were taken two at a time into a small room where we gave over each piece of our clothing until we were naked. Then we were forced to open our mouth, but the deputy who was searching me did not put his fingers in my mouth; yet that is just what the deputy next to me did to those he strip searched. Next I was commanded to turn around with my hands in the air, to lift my heels to show I had nothing taped to the bottom of my feet. I pulled my butt cheeks apart and ran my hands through my hair. It was like a dance, and if you did not do everything quickly, there would be trouble. A crucial element of identity is its borders and margins. In jail a shift in the borders of self alters one's identity. For example, in a strip search the deputy puts his fingers in one's mouth to make sure there are no drugs or weapons there. These personal spaces are normally private, but in the strip search process they are not. All too often one thinks of prison as the confining walls that make up one's cell but I propose that it is every bit as much a dual violation of both inner private spaces and access to outer public spaces.
Once we were called out of the de-tox tank we were made to wait on another bench for our names to be called by a medical person, the O.R. staff (own recognizance), the photograph and finger-print technicians, and finally, the Sheriff. The medical person asked us many of the same questions again and again. We were reduced to statistics, and hierarchicalized in categories according to the status afforded us by the given institutions in our lives. Own recognizance forms and medical forms all serve to locate the subject in relation to the other institutions in one's life. One must name his or her current and past employment institutions, medical institutions, educational institutions, and of course past penal institutions. One's identity is composed by the endless reflections of different yet oh so similar institutions.
I was commanded to give my finger-prints for the second time, one copy on paper forms, the next on a computerized national file with the F.B.I. and other government law enforcement agencies. I also posed for a third set of photographs, one front, another back, then side to side. Finger prints and mug shot photographs serve to expand the prison walls to airports and border crossing inspections centers. If the F.B.I. ever deems you a threat again and you are trying to leave the country, the computerized file composed during your stay is waiting, ready to close off any movement through the State's outer-most borders. Walls and fences redefine one's margins as a part of a larger project of total identity transformation.
While at the Sheriff's desk he asked me, "Do you have any history of depression, suicidal tendencies — in other words are you crazy?" I said "No". He said "Are you homosexual?" I said "No." The question of sexual preference seemed to be a way the institution could map a code of behavior on the prisoner. The gender question in prison is quite odd, because the absence of women problematizes a man's ability to perform as male. Violent male on male rape is threatened as the supreme weapon for the decimation of 'manhood.' Next he asked, "If anything happens who do you want us to call?" I replied "I don't understand. What is going to happen?" "In case you get cut or something." I felt he was trying to come across as tough, like he was trying to scare me, but basically he was just a jerk to everyone. I told him my mother's phone number, then got to make my three phone calls.
I was getting deeper and deeper into the system. I was taken to a room where I was given a towel, comb, tooth brush and shaver, and then put in a room with thirty or so beds along with other protester friends. We could watch T.V. and even saw ourselves misrepresented on the noon news.
A few hours of this and I was lined up again; we were locked together at the wrist in rows of two and walked down the hallway till we were brought to another tank. There were already some of us protesters in this tank and they all had orange prison uniforms on. Roll-calls were made slowly for the umpteenth time and some were taken out while others were made to wait. Finally I too obtained my orange jumper. I had to put what was left of my possessions in a brown paper bag which was very unsettling because I felt I had nothing of my own identity left besides maybe my puffy hair. The signs that composed my old identity were altered into the image of a controlled and corrected identity. When one's street clothing is replaced with an orange jump suit uniform, the body emits signs produced by the State to be interpreted by other prisoners, the deputies, and even more importantly oneself. Finger-prints also fall into this process: they are signs performing much the same way. Aside from the information being extracted from you in terms of your positions in other institutions there is no way for one to return questions to the institution, or to get answers as to one's condition from those in authority. If one asks, What is the law? How long am I going to be here? Where is my location in this building complex? or What is the history of this prison? you will be told, "We don't have any answers." or "Shut Up!" Our prisons, police, and military don't even answer to supposed over-sight committees and civic watch-groups, much less prisoners who are suffering their abuses first hand. Foucault's words from Discipline and Punish seem an apt description of this power imbalance: "The prisoner is seen but he does not see; he is the object of information, never the subject in communication."
We were locked into rows again and loaded like cattle into caged and cramped elevators. Then we were led two by two into Pod 8. As we were being unlocked, the Sheriff said, "This is what we call the love cell," as if to infer that there was a chance of homosexual rape. At this moment there was not a large population of protesters to give each other support and security. This was a surprise because I was thinking that it would be a small room with one or two other criminals but it was not. We were told the rules in Pod 8 and that the deputies were to be kind of like our parents for the rest of our stay. We would have to ask permission to go up and down the stairs and to the bathroom; our bed was given a number and we were forced to lie there and have our name called. When the lights were put out they were still at about half their normal power. I had no choice but to lay silently in my bed. For a minute it was relaxing, but it soon felt like a forced silence and a forced body position. A bed feels very different when you can't get up if you want. We were told to get up at six o'clock and get in line for breakfast. After that we could shower and watch TV in-between the roll calls and lessons on the Pod rules.
When it was time to hear the pod rules again, someone asked "When do you think that us protesters are going to be released?" The deputies told us that we were all being charged and that we would have to wait for a court date, but since the courts were so backed up none of us had a date assigned. With this in mind, we thought that Frank Jordan and his cronies were going to just keep us for a few weeks on some notion of back-log just to be cruel. The thought of this was not a nice one because being in jail screws up your job or your schooling if you are a student. Your rent does not get paid and everything is put on hold. My mother called and said that she would put up the $500 in bail if I needed to get out so I could keep my job which I had already missed a day of. I heard that some people had already paid the $500 and the thought of it made me so frustrated. The thought of giving all that money to the police seemed a pretty high tag for exercising so-called free speech. So we waited hoping they would drop the totally ludicrous charges.
Surprisingly just when we thought we were fully booked and ready to do a little time in the belly of the beast, we were called up to start our way out of the system. The release procedures were in many ways like the booking procedures, but there were only half hour waits between holding cells rather than five hours. I signed for my clothing in the jail and was subjected to my sixth set of finger prints. Next I had to go down to the basement and wait in line as a free outsider for my belongings. Ironically, my first taste of freedom was much like being in line at the D.M.V.. My knife and wallet ended up being misfiled, causing me to have to return a week later.
I felt extremely angry as I was being released because at the end of the stay the guards kept wanting us to be happy and tried to joke with us. They could switch between good guard and bad guard so fast that you would want to be all chummy with them, and then the next moment you would be angered and terrified. I felt that I had to try and keep control of myself and fight their attempts to manipulate my moods and reactions. Plus I felt they were trying to teach us a lesson, but all it made me want to do was work harder when I got out to organize actions. While I was in line waiting for my wallet and knife (which I never got back), I was getting so angry that my nerves started to go, and rather than act out or get red in the face I kept feeling like I was having panic attacks and was going to fall over.
Once I was finally standing on the steps outside of the Byrant Street Court House and station, I had a cigarette, and I again felt like I was close to passing out. At this point Keith McHenry drove up in his truck and brought out a bucket of soup and a bag of bagels. While I was having some soup a bunch of riot police came out of the station and arrested him along with impounding his truck. I shouted "Food not Bombs" with the small crowd of released protesters as he was dragged into the jail. By this time we were all pretty worn out and tired, and watching McHenry being dragged away made us feel all the more angry and frustrated. I felt morally obligated to help him, but I really did not want to be arrested again. As I signed a card that was to be sent to Mumia, a woman who had just gotten out said "You know this whole experience has totally made me really realize how totally fucked our justice system is."
Pod 8 is the round glass structure that everyone drives by on I-80 going through downtown. The Pods are one of our urban metropolis's testaments to Foucault's conception of panopticism. Our Pod had two floors constructed around a central control-tower from which the deputies did their work. A panopticon prison works to control in part by a method of backlighting, which did not come from the sliver of a widow from which we could see the cars on the freeway rushing by, but rather from a florescent light in each cell. Backlighting allows the supervisor to know just what each and everyone of us prisoners were doing at all times: "The panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheral ring, one is totally seen without ever seeing; in the central tower, ones sees everything without ever being seen." All I could see anytime I tried to look out from my cell was the control-tower, an architecture of authority shaping power dynamics, all my attention along with every other prisoner in the pod was focused on the force of our subjection.
Ideally a panopticon should have one person per cell, but in our case there were three of us per cell; this constant visibility made us feel alone, in a kind of constant one-on-one relationship with authority. Before, in the old square rooms, we protesters were not watched every moment and could interact as a crowd. This relative freedom was interrupted only when the deputies came to the door. The panopticon is like a guard constantly at the door, Foucault states:
The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a separated individualities. From the view of the Guardian, it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised; from the point of view of the inmates; by a sequestered and observed solitude.
In fact our beds were numbered and we were to be at that numbered spot upon roll-call. If one attempts to get around any part of the rules one knows he or she will be surely caught, and this knowledge works on one until even the thought of breaking the rules becomes almost out of the question. And when I was assigned to my bed at 10:30 p.m., I began to see that if I talked, I would be heard and punished; if I sat up in bed, I would be told to lie down. In short if I did anything but stay down I would be caught and corrected. Sylvia Plath hits the nail on the head when she says in her Ariel poem "Tulips":
Nobody watched me before, now I'm watched.
The Tulips, turns to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips.
Sylvia Plath describes the process of a disintegrating self within the context of a mental hospital, which are not all unlike prisons. Plath's "paper-cut shadow" says it all. A paper cut is an identically produced subject, a subject that is normalized to a mean of behavioral standards set by the 'cutter' or supervisor. The gaze of authority cuts away at the self, flattens, thins, forms one two-dimensional, forms one meager of dimension, numbed, a shadow of nothing but authority and its ever-penetrating gaze. Finally the institution, the authority, and the subject join, fuse together until the machinery is complete.
Jeremiah Luna has a B.A. in English from UC Berkeley, and likes to read lots of theory. He is particularly interested in idiocy. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.