“What just happened?” The court-appointed lawyer repeated Jackie Summers words, then replied tersely. “You got f***ed.”
During a car accident, everything happens in slow motion.
I had always wanted an American muscle car. They were built in a time when there was no shame in speed and no embarrassment in excess. It came as no surprise that the first time I laid eyes on Veronica–Ronnie for short–I fell madly, deeply in love.
She was a ’72 Buick Skylark custom convertible, canary yellow. 350 V8 engine, white leather bucket seats, canvas top, and a deep, throaty growl every time I hit her accelerator. The twelve miles I got per gallon were well worth the rumbling thunder of her idle, and the roar of power vibrating up my spine every time I hit the gas. Ronnie was 3,000 pounds of pure American steel and arrogance.
With the help of Louie, my mechanic, I’d spent the better part of two years restoring her to showroom condition. Louie spewed a contiguous stream of curses so rank it could singe your ear-hairs, but he was honest, reasonably priced, and trustworthy. With the top down and the wind in my hair–I had hair back then–I left my parents home in Jamaica, Queens, and enjoyed the warmth of the summer sun, setting on my face.
Someone ran a stop sign.
Time dilation has been described as how the perception of time changes in the eyes of the observer, relative to the events occurring. “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour” according to Einstein. “Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.”
Being in a car accident is like watching a Michael Bay action sequence at 1,000 frames per second. Your rational mind can’t wrap itself around the concept that it’s actually happening, much less that it’s happening to you. The events of the next several moments seemed to stretch out into forever.
I saw the car run the intersection; I tried to swerve out of its way. For those of you who have never been in a car collision: there’s an earth-shattering kaboom, complete with the sound of metal wrenching, tires screeching, the smell of rubber and oil burning, and the clanging of parts which were once connected, now banging into each other impotently. I felt my amygdala shut down my frontal lobes and flood my brain with dopamine, snapping instantly into crisis mode, as the offending vehicle slammed into Ronnie’s passenger door. Had anyone been sitting in the passenger’s seat, they would have been killed, instantly. If I wasn’t surrounded by two tons of American steel wrapped in canary yellow paint, I would have been killed too.
I remember spinning backwards and headlong into oncoming traffic, instinctively, desperately–and ineffectually–trying to steer out of the spiral. I remember the look of panic on the driver’s face as he slammed unavoidably into Ronnie, the force of gravity doubling and then doubling again as I screeched to an abrupt stop.
I hopped out of Veronica miraculously unscathed. I checked to make sure everyone else in the accident was unharmed–including the moron who’d hit me. And then, I turned my attention to the mangled hunk of metal that moments ago had surrendered her life to protect mine. The damage was catastrophic. I removed her fuzzy dice, sat on the street where she bled transmission fluid, and cried.
How I survived without a scratch is God’s own private mystery.
It didn’t take long for the police to arrive. They made sure no one was in critical condition, wrote down stories, and ran checks on licenses. It was at that moment I discovered my license had been suspended, due to an unpaid ticket.
A first-time, misdemeanor offense, the officers had the option of writing me a $75 fine, along with a summons for a court appearance: the minimum penalty for this particular offense.
I’d just survived a major car accident. I was shaken but generally unharmed. I was lamenting the death of my beloved Veronica when the pendulum of law swung about as far from justice as I believed possible. I was handcuffed, shoved into the back of a squad car, and taken to central booking.
In prison, everything happens in slow motion.
Being arrested is a lot like that slow-mo Michael Bay action sequence, expect instead of watching, it’s happening to you. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around what was going on, but I wasn’t given much of a choice. The events of the next several days seemed to stretch out into forever.
The next 127 hours of my life might as have well have been 127 years. I’d had a previous–entirely unwarranted–encounter with central booking once before, having been incarcerated for 12 hours without being charged. I knew to be extra careful not to mouth-off to the officers entrusted to my care, as I’d no desire to repeat the Abner Louima incident. The eternal descent to the holding cells known as “the Tombs” were an unwelcome memory I’d hope never to repeat. It was a Sunday, which was good only because it meant I didn’t have to rot the entire weekend in a six-by-six room while awaiting trial. I used my single phone call to tell my parents where I was. I wasn’t given the opportunity to post bail, or hire a lawyer.
I was given five minutes to talk to a court-appointed attorney–who reeked of cheap cologne and hair dye–prior to standing, handcuffed, before the bench. I was never given the opportunity to speak for myself. I watched helplessly as my parents, who were present in court, watched a judge dole out my sentence. I received the maximum possible penalty for my first-time, misdemeanor offense: a five-day sentence at Riker’s Island, a maximum security. I couldn’t believe my ears. “What just happened?!” I asked Mr. Grecian formula 16.
“What just happened?” he replied tersely. “You got fucked.”
A small, unmarked road in northern Queens leads to the two-lane bridge that is the only way on or off Riker’s Island. The largest prison in the nation, it’s daily population–about 20,000 inmates–is the size of a small city, and about as expensive to run, at a cost of about $850 million per annum. It is also infamous for being one of the most dangerous penal facilities in America, with at least 4 inmates a day being slashed or stabbed. Despite–or with the collusion of–the army of corrections officers, bad things happen here.
To a casual observer, it would be easy to mistake prison transport for a school-bus. This bus, however, isn’t yellow; it’s blue and white, and the reinforced steel cages that line the windows and doors serve as a constant reminder that a different kind of education is taking place. Hands and feet are handcuffed, and then a waist-chain is attached to the adjacent prisoner, which is daisy-chained to the prisoners in front of and behind you. Movement is slow, quiet, and awkward.
In a receiving room, you’re cataloged. You are stripped naked and an incredibly thorough cavity search is performed, which I discover after my release, is illegal (in the case of non-violent misdemeanor offenders). You are divested of your clothes and personal effects, interviewed, and then given a full medical examination. Blood samples are taken; your DNA is put into a national registry.
As I watched blood drain from my arm and fill several carefully annotated vials, I silently vowed to myself: never again would I ignore a ticket.
There are actually ten separate jails on Riker’s Island. There’s a permanent infirmary. Two are juvenile detention centers. There are two facilities for women, although they place transgender people among the general populace, at great peril. There’s gay housing and there’s a mental health center.
At the time of my incarceration, I knew none of this, nor did I care. My only thought was: survive.
Once they determine your housing, you’re outfitted with a jumpsuit, and given a blanket, a pillow, a toothbrush, a bar of soap–sans rope–and three changes of underwear and socks. You’re hand and foot-cuffed again as you’re escorted to your destination. Actual barred cells are reserved for historically violent offenders; most of the housing at Riker’s is dormitory-style: 100, 2′ x 6′ cots, one foot apart, in one gigantic pressure-cooker of a room.
Although I was assigned a cot in a “dorm,” I knew I was surrounded by individuals of nefarious intent. I recognized gang tattoos: Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings. The population is 90% black or hispanic, and factions form almost immediately. Being born and bred in New York City, I somehow knew the unstated rules: respect everyone, fear no one. Look everyone in the eye. Know when to look away but never drop your head. I’d never been more terrified in my entire life, but I knew I couldn’t let it show. I heard people talking about what they were in for: rape, homicide, assault, armed robbery.
I wondered if I should invent a better story.
While my cot was comfortable enough, you never really sleep in jail; at least, I didn’t. You hear the things that go on after the mandatory lights out. People were having sex in close proximity; not all of it consensual. That’s when I realized how to tell short-term people, like myself, from folks with longer sentences: the latter actually slept. A five day sentence meant–in theory–that I was just passing through. Clearly, some of my neighbors were at home.
In jail everyone wakes at the same time. Everyone showers. Everyone lines up to be chained together for meals, although you can’t by any stretch of the imagination call what they serve, food. No one complained and everyone ate fast, or went hungry. Hierarchy determines where you sat in the cafeteria; I made a decision early on to move about quietly, but not to isolate myself. The light was entirely gone from some of the eyes that met mine, and when a person with everything to lose meets a person with nothing to lose, it’s like the force of heavy stones on eggshells. The last thing I wanted was to unintentionally antagonize a resident; any incident could either prolong your sentence or shorten your life.
Boredom is a serious problem among inmates. After breakfast I found a chess game, being careful not to win more than I lost. There was a phone, but there was a pecking-order, and I didn’t rank high enough to use it. I watched violent arguments break out over how long a phone call went; even though I didn’t see any, I knew there were weapons in that room.
It takes one hour for everyone to line up and be chained together for the one hour of sunlight allowed, per day. Once outside, everyone separates quickly. When all you have is one hour a day of “freedom,” every second counts. Hardcore bodybuilders hit the weights and their bodies defy everything Men’s Health told you about nutrition; based on their diets, building muscle should be impossible. Baseball, football and basketball games form; it’s clear that in order to participate, you need to have a pre-existing club membership. Transactions take place. Deals are made between corrections officers and inmates. Things and people are bartered, bought and sold. It takes another hour to line up, to be re-chained, after the daily allotment of “fresh air” has passed.
There’s one other way to tell those with short sentences from those with long: time dilation. I was given a five-day sentence. Every second took an hour and every hour took a day and every time a corrections officer showed up at the gates with a stack of papers, I desperately hoped that it would be my name they called. For inmates with longer sentences, time had lost all meaning. It didn’t matter what day of the week or what week of the month or what month of the year it was: they weren’t going anywhere. I tried–ineffectually–to erase all signs of hope from my eyes, as I didn’t want to give someone with no fear, no good intentions, and no hope, a reason to remove mine.
How I survived a week at Riker’s Island without a scratch is God’s own private mystery. The damage was not catastrophic.
After serving my sentence without infraction, I was released. The bus ride back to freedom over that interminably long bridge was even longer than the one that brought me there. I knew it wasn’t over until my feet hit the pavement.
When they finally released me from detention, It was five o’clock in the morning and I had no idea where I was or where I was going; I just wanted to run until my lungs burned and my legs collapsed. I’d survived an entire week in America’s most dangerous prison, and I was shaken but generally unharmed.
While it is true that laws are meant to be “race neutral,” those charged with dispensing the rule of law, are not. I always believed the severity of my sentence was directly related to the color of my skin, but until a week ago, this was all emotional and circumstantial. Jennifer Adger, a PhD candidate at Columbia University, is originally from Alabama, a state with one of the highest incidences of death penalty sentencing. Her thesis proves statistically that, counties which historically had a high incidence of lynching retain the highest rates of capital punishment.
As Lisa Hickey pointed out in her essay “You Do The Math” there is great disparity in terms of minimum and maximum sentencing. While it’s easy to scream “racism,” a study published in the American Journal of Sociology AJS Volume 109 Number 3 (November 2003) by Angela Behrens and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota, and Jeff Manza of Northwestern University actually present historical argument behind institutionalized racial disparity in criminal punishment, and their insidious reasons:
“Disproportionate criminal punishment of nonwhites constitutes, in part, a reaction to perceived racial threat. The most common formulation traces racial threat to economic relationships between racial (or ethnic) groups. Levels of racial hostility may therefore be greater in places where a dominant group has higher levels of economic marginality. The racial composition of state prisons is firmly associated with the adoption of state felon disenfranchisement laws.
“The expansion of citizenship to racial minorities, and the subsequent extension of suffrage to all citizens, threatened to undermine the political power of the white majority. By restricting the voting rights of a disproportionately nonwhite population, felon disenfranchisement laws offered one method for states to avert “the menace of negro domination.” The sharp increase in African-American imprisonment goes hand-in-hand with changes in voting laws. Felon disenfranchisement provisions offered a tangible response to the threat of new African-American voters that would help preserve existing racial hierarchies.
“It was not until the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act (which effectively eliminated state voting restrictions that undermined the Fifteenth Amendment with the intent to diminish the voting rights of African-Americans) that near universal suffrage was finally assured.
“We conclude that racial threat is reflected in the composition of state prisons and find that such racial disparities in punishment drive voting restrictions on felons and ex-felons.”
In a free society, ethical progress is the slowest motion of all.
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© Jackie Summers 2011
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