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Jail Tales

I am unquestionably fortunate that my jail tales don’t include any of my own incarceration. 

I am USAmerican and a white female. Thanks to the former I’m far more likely to have done time in jail or prison than most people in my circle. Thanks to the latter, I am not.

My jail tales start young. When I was around eight years old my parents thought it was time to introduce me to law enforcement and the concept of State punishment. 

At the time, they owned a computer security business. They employed a family owned cleaning service for janitorial management. The patriarch in this business was also a police officer in my hometown – at the time he was the only African American police officer in the department.

And so, my parents in their commitment to making sure I understood life – left me alone with him at the police station for half a day. 

With my parents’ consent – he took my fingerprints and put them on file so that if I were ever kidnapped they could find me. Then he gave me a tour that included locking me in the holding cell for about a minute so that I could feel what it was like. He also took me on a ridealong, my first ever. It was uneventful, but as an eight year old being in the front of a police car left an impression on me.

My first jail tales started when I moved to Los Angeles at age 17. I made friends of all walks of life. My black friends were often targeted and harassed and detained by the LAPD. 

While working as a ballot initiative petitioner, I met Jibrail. Raised in Compton now we carpool from Hollywood to West LA together smoking blunts and shooting the shit all the way.  Like a sitcom of race relations we learn things from one another that we’d never have otherwise.  

One day he asks me how I like his weave and I think he’s asking me how I like the weed (he insists on providing it even though mine is better, he won’t take a free ride).  A good eight minutes of hilarity ensues before we figure it out.  

The funny bleeds out of that story days later, when I see him for the last time, with his pregnant wife.  He pulled that same weave out of his hair behind a dumpster while running from the cops, guessing correctly they wouldn’t be able to distinguish him if he just changed his hair and shirt. He got away that time, but now there is a warrant out for his arrest and he doesn’t stay on the streets for long.  

His first babymama is having alcohol and crack issues and when he visited he scooped up his undiapered child and began taking photos of the condition of the house he found her in.  High on crack, seeing he meant to take their child, she met his eyes, tore her clothes off, scratched a rake in his arm, and ran through the halls of the public housing screaming “RAPE”.

I write Jibrail a professional character reference.  By now I know he is the son of Muslim booksellers and his wife has converted. She is from a middle class family and educated. 

He is no rapist. 

He’s a small-time hustler dabbling in drugs, art, sales, and territory – and he is a good man and an excellent petitioner.  I’ve never seen him or his wife since. Jibrail was facing his third strike, a life sentence at the hand of the law created by the ballot initiative system. No one talks about it but I know he is going away for life at just 23, no matter how many letters we all write. 

Jail tales. Yet another example of how the criminal justice system viciously swallows black lives. 

Jail Tales

Other jail tales? My other co-worker Lil’ Shaggy gets arrested in Orange County and I drive down and sit in the car while (Big) Shaggy runs in and puts money on his books. Only takes twenty minutes. The next week he is released and we go back to pick him up. 

Halfway from Los Angeles to the OC he calls and lets us know he got a ride to the nearest 7-11. When we find him there he gives me the biggest hug I have ever had.

Another decade passes before more jail tales. 

I go on a ridealong with a sergeant in the Baltimore City Police Department. This starts at the precinct in the Southeastern District.

I enter through the gap that serves as the door. The white, mustachioed police officer calls upstairs for the sergeant who is to be my escort.  He speaks with a thick Baltimore accent. He and the other desk cop, a black firecracker who keeps hanging up on some other department for being rude to her and then calling them back to chew them out, they look me up and down but then ignore me. Someone on the inside of the holding cell fewer than ten feet away from the desk is pounding on the door.

“I have to pee.” He screams. 

The desk cops ignore him. When the sergeant arrives she is feisty and takes charge. She is shorter than I am, large, but still able to move well, black, and in uniform. My ridealong is a lesbian and has been denied promotion through strategic setups because of her outspoken attitude within the department, and homophobia. I am glad to be riding with her, she shows dominance immediately and addresses the inmate.

“You just peed 20 minutes ago.” the crisp dark blue of her uniform stands out against the greyish green walls of the station.

“I have a bladder condition.” he retorts through the heavy cell door.

“You will address me as ‘Sergeant’ when you talk to me.”

“Yes ma’am. Sergeant. I have a bladder condition.”

“Well you should have thought of that before you broke the damn law.” she says, stepping away from the small hole in the cell door.

The guy continues his pounding while she ushers me back around the front desk and through the door into the administrative portion of the department, which seems largely empty. Many rooms, few people, little activity.  

The next time I am in a police station dealing with jail tales, it’s in Los Angeles again. This time it is a boyfriend, who just doesn’t come home one night. That in and of itself is a terrifying thing. Who do I call?

Inmates in Los Angeles county are listed online. I was able to find out that he was incarcerated. It took a few more days before he finally called me. I called around and borrowed $3000 to bail him out. 

Turns out it was a routine traffic stop. He at first refused to give his ID, thinking he could get out of a ticket that way. But this isn’t some podunk town, this is Los Angeles, and the next thing he knew he was being held down and pepper sprayed by a group of seven Sheriffs, all who later, in unrelated cases, were indicted on police brutality. They not only lost their job – they did time. Including the Chief. Jail tales rarely include karma.

I go to Twin Towers in downtown Los Angeles to pick him up. Twin Towers has both permanently housed inmates, and also processes inmates that they send to other jails. At the time, they processed 20,000 inmates in and out of the facility every day. The immensity of these jail tales.

Twin Towers Correctional Facility has long been criticized for failing to meet the needs of their mentally ill inmates, and other corruption. Thirty percent of the people housed here are mentally ill. Take some time with that one.

Once I pick up my boyfriend we go together to a separate building to retrieve his effects. These are everything that he came in with. They are held in a bag like the kind that travelers use to hold suits. These all hang from a motorized rack like the kind they have at the dry cleaner – only this one takes up a whole warehouse. 

We stand for a good two minutes while hundreds and hundreds of other people’s effects go by. For a moment I forget that each one of those bags is a human being who has had their freedom stripped from them. For a moment they are just numbers. 

To the system, they are always numbers. They are commodity.

This is the day that I get a visceral, unerasable impression of the sheer scale of the US prison system.

The most recent of my jail tales was when my lover didn’t come home. This time I was in Europe. He had a quarrel with his other lover. In some countries, when there is a dispute, the male is held for 36 hours or more to determine if there will be domestic violence charges. 

This is true even if a woman is physically abusive to a man. He’s still the one put away.

I started this by saying that the only reason I don’t have personal jail tales of my own is my gender and skin color. The way the legal system presumes innocence for (white) women and guilt for (black) men in most (not all) cases is anachronous and unjust. 

All that said and understood, it’s a female privilege. I’m not using it to hurt people, I do use it to defend people, but mostly I’ll work it as hard as I fucking can to keep from being locked up for some stupid shit and forming jail tales of my own.


More Jail Tales

Baltimore Ridealong

Coming Close:

Pink Taser

Homeland Security


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