My New Year’s Day in Jail

On New Year’s Day 2014, before I’d had a chance to settle on my resolutions, I was thrown in jail.

The day began full of resolve: by noon I had gotten in an hour of research on my new book, a quick workout, and started the dinner we were serving to homeless youth that evening for my son’s volunteer project (quiche I’d picked up at the farmer’s market, Greek roasted potatoes, black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s Day, green salad with a lemon vinaigrette, rolls, and maybe a dessert I’d pick up somewhere in the afternoon). Shortly after noon I headed out in my morning disheveled state to pick up my son from a sleepover at a friend’s house. Tooling up Scott Boulevard on a sunny day with little traffic, I was thinking about the social dynamics of serving and sharing a meal with homeless kids. (Would their parents be there too? Would it be awkward to have another group of do-gooders dropping by? What is it like to have no real private space? Would this all be for them deep down humiliating or gratifying?). And then I spotted the cop perched alongside the road and I quickly looked at my odometer. I was going 57 in a 40-mile zone (!) though it hardly felt that way. The cop pulled behind me and then pulled me over. He took my driver’s license and then went back to his car.

I wait and check my email. I worry about my insurance rates rising and the delay to the day. The cop takes forever. I text my son: I’ve been detained. (Little did I know.) After a long while another cop car pulls behind the first one and I think, what is this? I wonder whether I should call my husband. Cop one walks up and asks me to step out of the car and instructs me to put my hands behind my back. And then he handcuffs one wrist and then the other, wrenching my wrists together, and he says my driver’s license has been suspended and, so, by state law, he has to take me to jail. I start protesting. He opens the door to the back seat of his car and gently pushes me inside. It’s all hard plastic, no upholstery. He leans in to buckle the seat belt around me. I say please get my purse and phone from my car, and he does. He goes to his seat in the front and silently fills out paperwork. I say please call my husband so I can tell him to get my kids and tell him what to do about the dinner tonight (for the homeless youth, fuckhead, I’m a good person not someone you should be hauling to jail). He gets out the phone and I guide him to make the call. He holds the phone to the plastic shield separating him from me, with the speaker on, and then I tell my husband that I’ve been arrested for a suspended license and that I’m going to the county jail and would he please get the kids and then peel the potatoes. Surely I’ll make it home in time to prepare the dinner.

We sit some more while the cop fills out paperwork. My bound hands push into the hard plastic. The left cuff is wedged into the fleshy part of my hand and both hands are pushed into each other. My right shoulder with its torn rotator cuff aches. But mostly I am humiliated. Other cars drive by slowly and I bow my head. But I think, dignity! Act with dignity. Sit up. Don’t let this fucking cop know he’s got you. But whenever a car drives by, I bow my head in the other direction. A tow truck pulls up and slowly loads up my car while the cop fills out more paperwork. My car is towed away. The cop shows me the paperwork and explains what to do to get my car back, and then he shoves the papers in my bag. We drive to jail.

With my head bowed and looking out the right window, I notice a couple of beautiful modern houses and later a stable of horses in a field that I’d never spotted before. We enter a highway and then exit it and then enter the jail compound. The cop is buzzed in to and we park in front of the entry to the booking area. We sit there while he fills out more paperwork. Ten minutes later he gets out and comes around to open my door. I decide not to unbuckle myself because god knows what will set him off. I behave like a good prisoner and gingerly step out of the car, hands still bound behind my back.

We’re buzzed into an anteroom. He instructs me to step into a little square marked off with red duct tape. He takes off the cuffs and turns me over to a female jail keeper. She tells me to remove my shoelaces, which is really difficult with my fancy new sneakers with their innovative design. She helps me; then I stand there in my lace-less shoes as she looks through my bag. She tells me to turn around and put my hands on the wall. And she frisks me, up and down my legs and across my chest. She gives me back my hoodie and the cash from my wallet to put in my pocket. The rest goes in a blue bag.

Then she buzzes a door on the female side and we enter the booking room. She points to a door and buzzes me into a holding cell of white cinder block. And the door locks behind me.

There is only one other person in there, a black woman in her forties who, like me, is dressed in black sweats and wearing no makeup. The only way in the world I ever leave the house in sneakers, sweats, and no makeup is if I’m going to the gym or picking up my kids. I left the house like this to get a kid, and now here I am in this very vulnerable place with absolutely no armor. I sit in the corner at the other end of the metal bench. She is on one of the three metal phones along the wall that allow prisoners to make outgoing collect calls. I pick up a phone and place a collect call to my husband trying to explain more about how to make the dinner — take the rolls out of the freezer, slice up the lettuce and the scallions, get out the dill, make a lemon-vinaigrette, call my mother for recipes — and oh it may not be until much later before I can get out of here.

How did I get here? It begins to come together. A year-and-a-half earlier I had gotten a speeding ticket. The fee was huge and I dawdled about paying it until I got served a notice that my license had been suspended. (That never happens in Texas or anywhere else I’ve lived.) Then I sprang into action and tracked down how much I owed and to which jurisdiction and within two months of the original ticket it was all paid. I followed up with what seemed to be the appropriate authorities that the payment had been received and my license could be reinstated. And then I left it at that. I didn’t realize that I had to follow up further with the DMV, nor did anyone tell me. I never heard anything more. (And now I don’t think that’s an accident.) But as I sat here in the booking room of the county jail, I realized that I should have checked and not behaved like the absent-minded professor that I sometimes am. It’s a good thing that there are jails to protect the public from the likes of me.

The other woman got off the phone, and in bits and starts we started to talk. I’ve seen “Orange is the New Black” so I know better than to ask, “What got you here?” Who knows what kind of felon she might be, or how many times she’d been incarcerated and for what?

But here is what I found out: She is an elementary school principal. She had just picked up her 16-year-old daughter from a sleepover and was heading home. A cop driving behind her ran her plates for the hell of it and up popped a bench warrant. As it happens, three years earlier my new friend had gotten a speeding ticket in the middle of a snowstorm. With the havoc of that snowstorm, she forgot to pay it and then got notice that, with penalties, she owed $700. She then rushed to pay the ticket and fees and square everything away, being a person who follows the rules. She thought it was all taken care of and forgot about it. Little did she know that the system (or a computer glitch) said she was also supposed to show up in court and, because she didn’t, a warrant was issued though no one told her — until this cop did, as he was arresting her as her daughter stood there sobbing. The cop let the daughter drive the car home as he handcuffed the mother and took her to jail, the better to spare society from an absent-minded elementary school principal.

I was hoping to get out that night, but my friend had resigned herself to a longer stay because her “offense” was with another jurisdiction that was sending a squad to get her and then process her at the other place, and then she would have to wait to meet with a judge. As the afternoon and then evening wore on, people told her that she would likely be out within a week — as if this news was supposed to give her any comfort with her teenage daughter home without her.

A boyish-looking looking young woman was brought in, black with close-cropped hair, a white tank top under two grey sweatshirts. She slunk on the short bench on the opposite wall. I pointed her to the water cooler. After a bit she told us about being brought in for battery even though it was the other five people in the house that were battering her. She said she was pregnant, and we noticed her bruised left eye and cheek. This was her second time here, she said. The food inside will make you sick; the water is treated with bleach and it comes out of the fountains hot. The water in this water cooler here in this room is probably the best you’ll get. So I poured myself a little more, leery about drinking too much so that I didn’t have to use the communal open toilet.

We each took turns with the nurse. He took my vitals and noticed that my blood pressure was alarmingly high — surprise? — and then sent me to the clinic. This was an adventure into the jail itself. Handcuffed again, I was led by a female officer down long cold hallways, with male inmates who were scrubbing the halls ordered to turn and face the wall as I walked by. And then when we entered the elevator I was told to turn and face the back wall. Offenders one and all, unite in your humiliation.

In the clinic I was given a week-long prescription for a blood lowering med.   I took my first and last dose. On the way back, the female guard asked me, “So, are you here on a traffic violation?” Yes.

Then I went to be fingerprinted and mug shot. The slender black woman officer kept trying to get good prints from me on her computer scanner, but they kept coming back all crinkled. This happens a lot to middle-aged white women and light-skinned black women, she said to me. And then she scanned one of her own fingertips, and the image that appeared was immaculate, all perfect swirls, unmarked by the ridges that criss-crossed mine. “This is probably why you all get wrinkles early when we don’t.” (I considered one-upping Nora Ephron: I feel bad about my fingertips.)

We can’t let you out of here until we get good fingerprints, she told me. You could be wanted for murder in two states. We don’t know who you are until we can get good prints. Even if you get a bond, you can’t leave until we get good prints. We could hold you another 24 hours, and then another 24 hours. There was one guy in here like this for a week. And she kept rolling my fingers on the scanner, as each one came back with a report of “reject.” “This happens all the time with middle aged white women, but you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not your fault.” Maybe I should have used more lotion? “That probably wouldn’t make no difference,” she said. “Your skin is just getting thin.”

I ventured to ask her how, provided my fingertips finally prevail, I could get bonded and out of here. “You should have started that as soon as you were on your way here. The longer you wait, the longer you’ll be here.” But I didn’t know about this, I said, I’ve never been here before. “Well, I suppose you can’t help that either.”

Before I went back into the holding cell I got permission to call home (from a free phone at the desk) to give instructions on how to get me bonded and out of there. I gave David names and numbers of approved bail bond companies, the phone number of the jail I was in, and whatever little I knew, mostly what was tacked to the wall by the phone at the desk.

I asked about dinner for the homeless kids. He was ordering pizza and would pick up some salads somewhere because he didn’t know what to do with all the romaine lettuce I had bought. Weirdly, that the dinner would be pizza was the worst news of the day.

Our dinner at the jail was served on a grey-green tray with squares for cornbread, green beans, a chicken leg (a special treat for the holiday), some mysterious bumpy stuff, and some black-eyed peas that looked disgusting.   No way was I going to get my new year’s luck from jailhouse black-eyed peas. I ate some cornbread.

I got out before I had to put on an orange jumpsuit and join “the population.” And for this I am hugely grateful. It’s not that I worry about being with other incarcerated women. To the contrary, I think I’d be richer for that. I fear the humiliating conditions that we’d all be subject to.

Before I was released on bond, a few other women joined us: one who was drunk and had turned herself in for violating parole (for DUI), though it sounded more like she’d been arrested; another said she was pulled over for a traffic violation and then her car was searched and unopened beer cans were found (though later I read online that she was brought in for cocaine possession); and another woman who had been busted for shoplifting. So this was a smattering of the range of folks incarcerated at the county jail on New Year’s Day 2014, which I’m told numbered 5,000. This was my brush with the incarceral state that regularly locks up people for poor judgment and/or addictions. Of the 5,000 people locked up there on this day, there were plenty of violent offenders for which incarceration might be appropriate—but why all the rest?

How many incentives are there up and down the chain for a cop to run a plate and a county jail to encourage incarceration? How much money does the penal system rake in for every soul it houses? This is what I’d like to know.

By 7:30 that night, I was released and called home for a ride. At home I chopped up then sautéed some sweet onions in olive oil, rinsed out the parboiled black-eyed peas and added them to the onions with water to cover, brought it all to a boil, then simmered for 35 minutes, added olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. And then I had a bowl of luck, a little late perhaps for that day but good enough I hope for the rest of the year.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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