Based on some recent experiences, I would like to relate a story about how our justice and incarceration systems are broken. Before I relate the gritty details, first I’d like to share some findings with you that disagreed with my preconceptions of the justice system. The story will be told along the way.
Myth #1: Being Read Your Rights (the Miranda Rights)
If you are going to be arrested (in this case, for a contempt of court charge relating to a traffic ticket you’ve already paid and a court date that may never have existed that you were never informed of), don’t expect to be “read your rights.” The officer who arrested me told me some sort of bupkis about it only applying to people who were being questioned in relation to a crime. Turns out they have no obligation, or desire, to inform you of your rights for other types of arrests.
Myth #2: The Pat-Down
One might believe that an officer of the law would not feel you up and touch your genitals when they pat you down for weapons (after asking you if you have any weapons and being told no). It does not feel like any less of a violation of my person because I am male. It gave me a feeling of nausea somewhere in the pit of my stomach, and I had an uncomfortable sensation in my groin for the rest of the day. I am lucky enough to have no prior sensation of violation to compare it to, but I don’t know what else to call the feeling. I was felt up twice, in fact: once at the arrest and once at the jail. We’ll get to the jail in a moment.
Myth #3: Innocent Until Proven Guilty
If you are arrested for some reason (in this case, for a warrant relating to something you’ve already paid and a series of court dates you most certainly attended with bells on), don’t expect anyone to care that you are not guilty of the crime, let alone take the expectation that you are innocent. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a nice idea that has no real-world equivalent. If there is any hint of a reason to think you’ve done anything wrong, you are treated as guilty.
Myth #4: The Phone Call
You know that old saying, something about the one phone call when you get to jail? There were phones I eventually had access to, but these phones only made local calls. I am living in a new city. The phone numbers I have memorized, such as my parents’ home phone number, my fiance’s cell phone, or my best friend’s cell phone, do not have local area codes in this city. Looks like you don’t get to make a call after all.
One of the officers took pity on me (probably because I’m “white”) and let me make a quick phone call from the desk. I don’t think most inmates get that opportunity.
Myth #5: Due Process
If you believe you would have a trial date to at least try to prove your innocence before being thrown in jail, you would be mistaken. In fact, in a county where the traffic violation and theoretical warrant did not occur, they have little to no information about any reason why you have a warrant. You will be summarily thrown in jail, the details will be sorted out later… theoretically. Ah, but there’s the bond system, right? That leads us to…
Myth #6: No Taxation Without Representation
Myth #7: The Abolition of Debtor’s Prison
In this particular case, I was able to pay the fine, narrowly, to be released on bail for a crime I did not commit after wasting 5-6 hours of my time and giving me a terrible score as an Uber Eats driver while my delivery, and any subsequent ones, were forcibly neglected. However, what if someone were theoretically unable to pay a court fine? Or a bail fine? They would sit in prison while the outside world, and all of their life’s affairs, go by unattended. So far as I can tell, the “justice” system and incarceration system are a money-making scheme that lacks any soul. This leads me to the last, and ugliest, myth.
Myth #8: You Are Safe if You Haven’t Done Anything Wrong
I am a “white” man, 35 years of age, with no tattoos, piercings, or any history of misdemeanors, prior arrests, felonies, etc., basically anything worse than two (now three) traffic tickets. I’m sure white privilege was working in my favor throughout this ordeal, and would only have been worse if any of the above was not true.
In the past, I used to see the police as a necessary compromise for public safety. I could see there were problems with the justice system as a whole, but I also saw police officers as doing a necessary duty and keeping people safe. Changes clearly need to be made, particularly in how black people are treated, or people of any ethnicity other than “white”. I saw these things at a distance, as a theory.
Now, the police lights already make me uncomfortable, and I would go out of my way at this point to avoid them. It is not because I feel guilty, but out of a sense of fear.
What are they going to misconstrue this time? What mistake will the police make this time that I will pay for? Not wearing any reflective gear while they stand in the middle of a pitch-black road in the dead of night, with no traffic cones or other obvious signs I should stop? Will they believe I failed to yield properly while they are double-parked and not directing traffic, doing god-knows-what? Will the problem be more insidious, such as a justice system losing the record of me paying my traffic fine and inventing a court date I was never informed of? What else might go wrong? What if I was reaching for my phone to make a call and they thought I had a weapon? What if I was black?
I won’t bore you with all of the details, such as the near-mistaken identity that plagued me with someone else who has my birthday and a very similar name (I was lucky enough to have my Social Security card on me, there’s now a copy of it in my file for this reason). Suffice to say, it took forever, it was awful, and that was with fairly cordial interactions with the police. I can hardly imagine what the black woman who came in after me was going through, her night was a heck of a lot worse than mine (she was screaming mad and pregnant).