Saturday, February 14, 2009

Reflections From a Jail Cell

Nearly a month has passed since I was arrested for blocking the entrance to Colisimo’s gun shop (see January 18 blog). In terms of the overall experience getting arrested was easy; the difficult part was the 25 hours I spent in jail. Many people have asked me what it was like to be in jail, and until very recently, I have not been able to talk about it because the experience showed me some things about myself that I am still trying to come to grips with. Even so, I will try to describe what that experience was like for me.

Fred Kaufmann, Kemah Washington and I were arrested around 3:30 pm on Friday, January 16, handcuffed, and taken in a paddy wagon to the Philadelphia Ninth District Police Station. Over the next 25 hours I saw the inside of a jail from the vantage point of a prisoner, and got a tiny glimpse of the degrading, dehumanizing nature of the criminal justice system.

“Therefore I urge you… to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God…” (Romans 12.1)

I am not a mystically oriented person. Praise, prayer and worship for me are largely outward, physical acts. So for me, participating in the civil disobedience action that day was an act of faith and worship to the God of peace I seek to follow. As such I was generally prepared for the physical discomfort of the jail cell.

Fred, Kemah and I were put in a cell about 6 feet by 10 feet, with battleship gray walls on three sides and bars in the front. There was an open toilet on one side of the cell and a hard metal bench on the other. A narrow passageway ran in front of the bars across from which there was a rough gray-stone wall. A radio played softly all the time on a station that give neither time nor news nor weather. A few dim lights lit the semi-dark hall. Day or night the light, the music, the cell had this same general feel. In two of the three cells I stayed in, the toilet did not flush, so that over time the cell smelled like an oversized outhouse. While I could hear the inmates in the adjoining cells, I could not see anyone. Because of the hard cement floor and metal bench, as well as crowded conditions, sleep was difficult. I drifted off a few times, but only for a few minutes.

The essence of our experience was waiting. Four hours after we were put in the cell we were photographed and fingerprinted. Four hours later we talked via video camera to a bail bondsperson. Then for me it was another 16 hours waiting to talk to a judge and be released. If the guards knew anything, they pleaded ignorance when one would ask when they would be let out. It was an experience of complete sensory isolation.

“When I was in prison you visited me…” (Matthew 25.36)

While the cell was uncomfortable, the experience was bearable during the time I was in the cell with Fred and Kemah. However, at 4 am, about 12 hours after we had been locked up, Fred and Kemah were released. Rather, I should say from my perspective, they were taken out of the cell and did not come back; at that point I felt abandoned and forgotten. About two hours after they left, a young man was put in my cell with me, but shortly after was taken out. For a brief time I was put in with two other guys from our group, Sam and Jim, who had been arrested after us, but then an hour later, they too were released. The last couple hours I was squeezed into a one person cell with guy shivering in the corner, coming down from a drug high. However, the bulk of those 12 hours I was more or less alone.

Without my companions I began to be overwhelmed by two feelings: boredom and loneliness. To counteract the boredom, I made up games, seeing how close to the wall I could pitch plastic water bottle caps, and I played the alphabet game with the graffiti on the walls. I sang songs and recited passages of scripture (now realizing how few I actually remembered). However, despite my best efforts, soon the boredom crossed over into loneliness.

What was so striking to me is that I knew I had people on the “outside” who were monitoring my situation and praying for me. I knew that there was a lawyer who was trying to get me out. I knew my daughter and wife were aware and concerned for my condition. In terms of personal support, I was wealthy compared to the other folks in the jail. One of my cell mates was a 26 year old nurse assistant who was going to miss a job interview because of his arrest. His only support person was the roommate with whom he had gotten into a fight, the reason he had been arrested. There were others in adjoining cells who talked of not having anyone. I had an entire network, yet it didn’t seem to matter. I felt totally alone and abandoned and soon that loneliness turned to fear and hopelessness.

I realize now that the trauma of jail is not the physical dimension, but the feeling of being pushed aside, forgotten and alone. All of us in the cells that day shared the experience of fear and frustration. Regardless of the reasons that had landed us in the jail, all of us in the cells felt forgotten and abandoned. The lack of human contact and concern sucked from us any sense of dignity and worth.

“When you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters…” (Matthew 25.40)

Before he arrested us, the police captain tried to scare me by suggesting that we were going to be put in jail with a whole host of “bad people.” In the end I found a sense of solidarity with the other inmates; it was the “good people” who made my life difficult. Apart from my fellow protesters, I also spent time in a cell with a guy arrested for fighting, and another for possession of crack cocaine. In the adjoining cells were guys arrested for a variety of misdemeanors: assault, weapons possession, vandalism; and one woman arrested for writing bad checks. The other inmates referred to me as “the protester.” While a few of the guards were personable, for the most part they were aloof, arrogant and demeaning. Any request was treated as an imposition, and often they did not even come to a place where we could see them; they simply shouted from the room outside of the section where the cells were located. I am sure the questions we asked (about when we would be let out or when we see the judge) were questions they were asked 100 times a day. I suspect they hated their jobs and took it out on us.

As the hours dragged on and I did not know when I would be released, I began to feel intense anxiety. However talking to my fellow inmates calmed me down. In fact one of the nicest things one guy said was “The protester is still in here! This is messing with my mind! It’s not right!” In retrospect I don’t think he spoke those words in support of me, but rather as an expression for how frustrating the whole process was. However, at the time I took his comment as a recognition of my dignity, and it comforted me. Help came not from the guards, but from one of those “bad people.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me...” (Psalm 22.1)

From the inside of a jail cell, I learned what it is like to be regarded as less than human, and to be regarded as society’s refuse. We wonder why people often come out of prison, more violent and anti-social than when they went in. After only a day in a holding cell, I can understand why. People often live up or down to the way they are treated. A police station holding cell is mild compared to prison, and U.S. prisons, while terribly overcrowded, are much more sanitary than prisons in other parts of the world. In that jail cell, I was a nobody, someone unworthy of respect; someone not owed a piece of decency. People treated like animals will respond in kind, and prison treats people like animals. Yet, we wonder why prison doesn't set people straight.

People often “find God” while in jail; that may be so. However, I have never been in a place so devoid of hope and meaning as that jail cell. Perhaps, if I had stayed longer, I would have experienced what the writers of the lament psalms realized as they cried out in despair, and what Jesus found on the cross; that on the other side of hopelessness is the God of love. Frankly, I am glad I didn’t have to stay that long. I find it hard to believe we call ourselves “civilized” and yet treat people with the indignity that pervades our prison system. In my 25 hours I got only a tiny glimpse of that indignity, so small that it may not even be worth mentioning, and yet what I saw rocked me to the core of my being.

I doubt I will ever fully recover from those 25 hours in jail; I saw life from the perspective of hopelessness, and I did not like what I saw. May I never forget how many people slog through life from that perspective, and may I never let go of my resolve to be a person who works for hope, change and the dignity of every human being.


Anonymous said...

my question is... if the experience is so degrading then why do so many people do things time and time again and end up in jail?

Being in jail may seem hopeless but its like a endless circle of hopeless doom for those who do not, or can not stop their behaviors outside of jail.


Drick Boyd's Blog said...

Hannah, that is a good question. I know the experience makes me think twice about getting arrested. On the other hand, when people begin to internalize the hopelessness, they don't think about the future or consequences. Instead act in response to the way they are treated. Obviously, I am commenting broadly and each individual case is unique.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for processing these difficult hours with such sincerity. This was a challenging blog, but it also made me feel grateful that someone on the "outside" understands what these men & women experience. I wish that those who see the men and women who are in jail as "the bad people" could have this kind of an experience. At the same time though. you challenged me to ask myself if I am one who views them as "bad people". Thank you.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons you are such a well loved man is your ability to share from your heart.

I proably have more respect for you now as an agent for Social Change because you saw a situation were civil disobedience was necessry. Many of us see the same things but rarely act on our own convictions. I know this situation will strengthen your faith and make you a better human being. I know that this experience will strengthen your passion to do justice. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It has encourqged me to take inventory of my own convictions. Oh yeah I am not really anonymus but just forgot my username and password.

Victor Gimenez

RRP said...

This is a little random, but I'm sorry I didn't reply to your text message that afternoon... I had waited for a few minutes, and never got a reply, put the phone in my pocket, and never felt it vibrate to alert me of your message.

Peace & blessings-

Josh Hilliard said...

Dr. Boyd,
I was recently accepted into the MA in Urban Studies program; and when I came across your blog, I was slightly surprised. I suppose I am an outsider and do not know the whole story; however what I read, did make me think. My father is serving a 5-7 year prison sentence in Massachusetts, and has been in and out most of my life. One of the core issues of the criminal justice system that bothers me is that in my perception it is more a slap on the hand than a rehabilitative punishment. Criminals in many ways are not trained with the resources to thrive in society. On top of that when released they have trouble getting a job because they have a criminal record. So we expect people with prior maladaptive tendencies to learn their lesson, get out, get a good job and stay our of trouble without dealing with the root causes of their criminal background, or fighting against the inequities that predisposed the criminal to criminality in the first place. To me this is ridiculous, and rather naive. Hannah asked why criminals wind up in prison again and again, and I believe that the element of institutionalization can not be neglected. My father is very capable of thriving on the inside, however when on the outside he fails, partly because he has been punished and not rehabilitated. The inside becomes safe and worry free, because you are not left to your own devices. After failing to prove to yourself, your family, and to your friends that you can thrive on the outside, you develop feelings of self-defeatism much like addiction. "I have never quit smoking; what if I fail again?" Plagued by worry and fear sometimes failing is the easiest thing to do because fear and worry are no longer necessary because you have made your answer. I appreciate Stan "Tookie" Williams book Prison Life. It is not a social theory book; but an account of his subjective experience of prison. it is written to scare teenagers away from prison, so the language is conversational and dumbed down as well; but it is insightful.

Anonymous said...

I am the EU instructor who is working for prison reform. Although I have not spent time in prison, I have been Black all my life and understand that any incident, however minor, will "land me in jail". Several factors including the inability to afford a lawyer might cause me to have an extended stay in these horrible conditions.....I know your protest was another issue but perhaps you have been made aware of a more pressing cause. Jails as they presently exist have no place in a modern, civilized society. C.T.

Kathryn said...


It is great to see a fellow Christian take a stand for what they believe in. So many of us stand for nothing and fall for anything. I appreciate all that you went through. I do feel that you will get over this experience and move on to the next awesome experience that God has in store for you. Be Blessed my Brother!

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