They don’t directly warn you about the handcuffs, for reasons which might be obvious. They tell you to turn around, and you know they’re coming – but somehow, at the same time you don’t really expect them. You don’t really anticipate the cold tightness of their grip or the instant helplessness they impart. I was directed toward the airport doors and I walked, hearing the two officers walking close behind me. The distance halfway covered, I heard the voice of the third officer, who I’ll call Superior (since he seemed to be in charge).
“Isn’t anyone going to hold him?”
The officer to my right lightly grabbed my arm and held it. He hadn’t thought it necessary. I didn’t either, but I had serious doubts about the necessity of the entire event. I continued my walk, focused on not focusing, determined not to look at anything except the images directly in front of me. They seemed to change abruptly, like a slide show: the floor, the door, the door opening, the police car.
The right rear door was opened and I was told to get in. If there’s a comfortable way to sit in the back of a police car with your hands cuffed behind your back, I haven’t had the practice needed to discover it. I would normally climb inside a car, using my hands to grab the seat and help guide my entry. If I’m getting into a car with my hands full, I kind of “drop” into the seat. The increased impact is usually unnoticed. This time I was rewarded with the clicks of the cuffs tightening on my wrists as they were pressed between my back and the seat. It hurt.
The ride wasn’t long, but the officer questioned me as he drove. Someone later told me that they don’t have to deliver Miranda warnings unless they’re doing a formal interrogation. If true, that seems to defeat the purpose if they’re able to “informally” question you. This questioning was framed as friendly banter, and I answered honestly without, I felt, incriminating myself. When dealing with police, I try to be the embodiment of cooperation. There’s too much at stake to lose my cool. So I cooperate, but I’m also wary.
I was driven to the Port Authority holding area and marched into the building. I was still in cuffs, but they were taken off once I was inside. Along with the cuffs, the meager contents of my pockets were taken: a debit card, driver’s license, and a dollar bill. I obeyed the order to face the wall and place my palms against it as I was patted down. I was then asked to remove my belt and shoelaces, which I also handed over to the officers. Superior entered just as one of the officers was about to take me to the cell.
Superior: “Aren’t you going to take his glasses?”
Officer: “Are you serious?”
Superior: “Yes, I’m serious. Take his glasses.”
So they took my glasses too.
It must have been between eight and nine o’ clock when I was placed into the cell. I didn’t have my watch or cell phone, and the clock on the wall in the next room – beyond the bars, through the hallway window, and twenty more feet away – was very difficult to read without my glasses. I surveyed my surroundings. The cell was at most eight feet by eight feet, and contained nothing behind the bars but a wooden bench, a stainless steel toilet behind a stainless steel partition, and a video camera mounted high in one corner. The central air was blasting, and I was alone in the clothes I’d been wearing for a summer day: a T-shirt and light pants. My shoes were loose because the laces had been removed, allowing the cold air easier access to my feet.
My first experience being locked in a cell. I had no idea how long I would be there and I had little to do for entertainment. The names and phrases carved into the bench provided little intellectual stimulation, and the posted signs on the hallway wall opposite the bars (readable only if I squinted) quickly lost their appeal. I took it that the rule against food and drink in the cell area didn’t apply to me anyway.
I was starting to understand how people become stir crazy, and I’d only been there – how long? I didn’t really know. But the thought of people going crazy gave me an idea of a way to entertain myself: I would make up a song about my experience and sing it loudly. I didn’t know if the camera in the cell had audio as well as video, but I hoped it did. My idea was that I would either amuse the officers with my song or make them think I was crazy. Either way, I would be entertained. So I began to sing, over and over again:
“Can’t tie my shoes with no laces
Can’t hold up my pants with no belt
Can’t have a conversation with no-body
I’m locked inside a cell all by myselllllfffff”
Maybe I was crazy.
If anyone heard my song, they didn’t let on. I was visited periodically by officers to verify my personal information, allow me to make a phone call, take me out and fingerprint me, etc. On the first visit, I asked if I could have a newspaper. Request denied. I was allowed to use a phone and call my girlfriend to make sure that she got home okay and to let her know I was safe. But after the phone call, there was again nothing to do. When I got tired of singing, I tried yoga and meditation. Eventually, I either fell asleep or blacked out sitting on the bench. The next thing I knew they were opening the cell to take me out and transport me. I woke up, and I was cold. So cold that I was shivering uncontrollably. Not constantly, but it spurts. A few seconds would go by, and I’d go through a violent spasm of shivering. While the officer was cuffing me for transport, another officer looked alarmed.
“What’s wrong with him? Is he missing his medication?”
“No. He’s just cold.”
I was marched back outside to a waiting police car, shivering every few steps. I tried to sit more gracefully in the back of the car, but again the cuffs tightened on my wrists. And the shivering made the discomfort exponentially worse. But I was quiet on the ride to Queens Central Booking, focused on regulating my breathing and trying to get the shivering to stop. Fortunately it did, before I made it to the next cell.
I was marched into Queens Central Booking and deposited in a receiving cell, cuffs still on. The cell was much larger than the one I’d occupied at the Port Authority, and I was not alone. There was a Latino gentleman there when I arrived; he appeared to be in his late thirties or early forties. And he was angry. He was yelling at the officers, cursing at them, saying that his cuffs were too tight and he couldn’t feel his hands. Sharing a cell was a new experience for me, and I was in no mood to interact with an agitated prisoner. So I sat on the bench on the opposite side of the cell and waited, listening to him rant and yell and curse and be ignored. Finally an officer came and opened the cell door.
“Come on.” The officer gestured for the prisoner to come with him.
The man, who had been pacing, sat on the bench opposite me and glared at the officer.
“Come on.” The officer said, a little more forcefully.
“Don’t worry about where. Just come on.”
The man laughed at the officer and remained seated. “Where?” he asked again.
The officer seemed to realize he was losing the battle of wills, and his stubbornness was only making things more difficult for himself. He had other things to do; the prisoner did not.
“We’re taking you to the hospital like you wanted,” he said. “Now come on.”
And the man went, smiling, leaving me alone in the spacious cell. My hands were behind my back. My cuffs were also too tight, but probably not as tight as the other man’s had been. Either way, I was going to be silent until something occurred. So I sat and waited, and I was soon removed from the cell. My cuffs were removed. My few possessions were returned to me, to my surprise. I signed for them, and then I was taken in front of the camera for mug shots. They took pictures of my face, my profile, and of both my tattoos. Then I was able to put my glasses back on (to my great relief), and was led around the corner to a room where a clerk asked me questions about illegal drugs, medications, STDs, etc. I answered “no” to every question and then was asked if I wanted a sandwich. I looked to my right and saw a bin filled with what appeared to be shrink-wrapped wheat bread. I declined, and then was led to the next cell. In retrospect, I should have taken the sandwich.
I was taken to a cell that was about twelve feet by twenty feet, and filled with young Latino men. There were four, who I guessed were Puerto-Rican, sitting on a bench along the wall opposite the bars; one Mexican sleeping on the other bench on the adjoining wall; and another Mexican, sleeping on the floor on a make-shift mat composed of empty single-serving boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. I took a seat on the end of the bench where the first Mexican was sleeping. It was the only available seat in the cell other than the floor and the toilet, and the spot nearest the bars. The men on the bench were talking to one another and I was trying to mind my own business. So I sat watching the officers at the desk across from the cell until I heard someone say “Hey.”
I turned and saw the four Puerto-Rican men looking at me. Two of them, sitting next to one another, were obviously brothers. Another of them, who’d been the most vocal during their conversations, was now standing. He spoke to me again. “You’re the one they arrested at JFK?”
I didn’t know how they’d gotten that information; maybe they’d overheard the officers or the guards talking. But I nodded. “Yeah.”
“What was it?” asked the Puerto-Rican, the Spokesman for the group. “Drugs?”
One of the gifts of my upbringing is the ability to slip easily into the parlance of the street.
“Nah, man.” I said. “They got me on some bullshit. Ninja stars.”
The group broke out in laughter.
“Ninja stars? Are you serious?” One of the brothers on the bench.
“Yeah, man. I didn’t even know I had them in my bag.”
The men laughed more, and I relaxed a bit.
“You think that’s funny?” I asked. “Today’s my birthday.”
More laughter and comments of incredulity. But then Spokesman got serious.
“Man, they didn’t have to put you through all this for that shit. But happy birthday, man.”
And the men went back to their discussion while I went back to my staring through the bars. Later I heard them mention that the Mexican men had been picked up by Immigration. Normally they can only hold you for up to 72 hours without a court appearance. But it’s different, it was said, with illegal immigrants; they can hold you indefinitely. The Mexican men, I heard, had been there for over four days.
It was after two o’ clock in the morning (I could see the clock clearly now) and I was relieved when I and a few of the other occupants, including Spokesman, were taken out to be moved to a different cell. I had visions in my head of cots where we’d be able to sleep through the night in relative comfort. My hopes were dashed when we reached our destination. It was a fairly large cell, maybe about fifteen by twenty-five feet, but it contained nothing but the stainless-steel toilet, wooden benches around the walls, and the cold, hard concrete floor. I imagine that the benches, while hard, at least served to remove their occupants from the frigidity of the concrete. I say “I imagine” because I never got to find out: practically every inch of bench was occupied. There were seventeen other men in the cell with me, most of them already asleep when I arrived, some of them already resigned to the unforgiving floor. I saw then why I should have taken a sandwich from the bin: they were being used as pillows. With no soft surfaces to lie on, those in the know had held onto their meager meals in order to have a soft place to rest their heads for the night. I, without a sandwich, lay down on the hard, concrete floor and did my best to sleep restfully in the ridiculous brightness, the absurd cold, and the general discomfort of the cell. It seems to me that they don’t want people to be rested before seeing the judge in the morning. They don’t want you to be well-fed, relaxed, in any way on top of your game. They want you to be tired, sore, and hungry. That’s the only conclusion that I can draw.
I also feel compelled to point out that every man in that cell, along with every prisoner I’d encountered in that jail up to that point, was either Latino or black.
In the morning, after a sleep more fitful than restful, I had a conversation with Spokesman about how we were being punished without having been convicted. Guilty until proven innocent. A favorite topic of conversation in a jail where men are treated worse than animals in a zoo. We laughed when Spokesman smelled marijuana and we realized that someone in a nearby cell had snuck some in and was smoking it. Then we stopped laughing when the guards came to our cell thinking we were the ones with the weed. They realized it wasn’t us, but I don’t think they ever did find out who it was.
Spokesman was in for domestic abuse; he’d had a fight with his wife, it had gotten physical on both ends, and she’d called the police on him. He claimed he was the one who’d taken the most abuse. I didn’t know the circumstances, but it’s hard to judge a man when you’re in jail with him. I just knew that I had no one else to talk to, so there we were. I was hungry, and I looked forward to breakfast. Signs on the wall promised great things:
Breakfast – 8am – Cereal and fruit
Lunch – 1pm – Peanut butter sandwich or cheese sandwich
Supper – 6pm – Peanut butter sandwich or cheese sandwich
I great way to feed adult men for days on end. But still: I looked forward to breakfast.
I was to be disappointed.
I was moved to a smaller cell; there was one other person in it when I arrived, but he was removed shortly afterward. I didn’t know what time it was, but I knew that it was morning. There was a phone in the cell, and since I was alone I had unlimited access to it to make local calls. I called my sisters to find out what time it was and to get an update on what they were being told about my case. I should be able to meet with a public defender around 2pm, I was told, and to have my arraignment shortly afterward. At that time, it was around 7:30. I didn’t have long to wait for breakfast. So with no one to talk to and nothing else to do, I sat on the bench and closed my eyes.
When I woke up, I noticed that the people in the cell across from me had cereal boxes, apples, and cartons of milk. I walked up to the bars and waited for a guard to walk by.
“Excuse me, sir? I didn’t get any breakfast.”
He stopped walking, looked at his watch, and made a face. “They already brought breakfast.”
“I see that. But I didn’t get any.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
And he walked off.
I tried again with the next guard who passed.
“Excuse me, ma’am? I didn’t get any breakfast.”
“You didn’t get any breakfast?”
“No. I didn’t get any breakfast.”
She thought for a moment. “Okay. Don’t worry. I’ll get you something to eat.”
I sighed and sat back down on the bench. I was cold and hungry and my back ached, but at least I would get some food.
The guard came back about ten minutes later, and my heart sank a bit when I saw the cart laden with sandwiches and a large thermos. But at least I was getting something, and the sandwiches couldn’t be that bad, could they?
They could. The two sandwiches each consisted of two slices of a dry wheat bread. About a fifth of the interior surface of each sandwich was smeared with a substance that that seemed to be a mixture of peanut butter and plaster. Peanut plaster, I guess, which explains why there were smears of it decorating the walls and ceilings in most of the cells.
From the thermos, the guard had poured water into a small paper cup. I received this with my sandwiches, and took a small sip to help me swallow each mouthful of dry bread. Bread and water, essentially. I knew that some people had to wait in that jail for several days. I was glad to know that I probably wouldn’t be one of them.
The time passed slowly alone in that cell, before I was finally moved to the cell where, I was told, I would meet with the public defender. It was a large cell with three doors in the rear, each leading to a small alcove wherein one could sit on a stool in front of a Plexiglass window and talk to a lawyer on the other side. There were several men in the cell. I recognized the Puerto-Rican brothers from Cell 3. They were waiting in line to use the phones, and one brother was explaining their defense strategy to his doubtful sibling.
“Just stick to the story, yo. It wasn’t us. I’m gonna tell her to say that the dudes who did it had on black jeans; we have on blue jeans. Nobody else saw anything, yo. They don’t got enough evidence.”
“Are you sure, man? Cuz I don’t wanna go to prison.”
“We’re not goin’ to, yo; we just have to stick to the story.”
Also in the cell was a young black man who seemed surprisingly good-natured and energetic considering the circumstances. He’d found out from the brothers why I’d been arrested, and from then on he told the story to each person who entered the cell – embellishing it a little more each time. Within an hour the tale had become completely outlandish.
“Yo, this is my boy right here! He got caught in JFK airport with ninja stars and nunchuks and swords and shit!” He distinctly, comically pronounced the w in “swords”, and I couldn’t help laughing whenever he said it.
There was a Korean man who was keeping to himself near the front of the cell. He was, by this point, only the second prisoner I’d seen who was of Asian descent – also the second who was neither black nor Latino. I asked him what he was there for, and he told me it was drunk driving. He was clean-cut, with glasses and a buttoned shirt. He told me he’d been there for three days already, and was only then about to meet with his lawyer.
Another young black man was in the cell. He said that he was arrested after drinking alcohol from an open container in front of his house.
“I was stupid. When I saw the cops coming, I just stood there instead of going inside. They came up and asked me what was in the cup. I had finished it by then, so I said it was empty. But the cop smelled the alcohol. They searched me and found some weed in my pocket, and that was it. Now I’m here, and they’re probably gonna send me back to the Bronx, too.”
“Why the Bronx?”
“Cuz I have an outstanding warrant out there.”
“Open container. I was drinking beer in the park.”
I didn’t want to laugh, but I couldn’t help it. Especially since, as he spoke, he absent-mindedly lifted his hand beneath his shirt to scratch his stomach. In doing so, he revealed the upper portion of his boxer shorts – which were printed all over with a three-word phrase: I LOVE BEER.
I had a conversation with another Latino man. It was a familiar conversation: guilty until proven innocent. We’d been treated poorly in that jail. Substandard food, filthy conditions, no comfortable place to sleep, and deprivation of freedom. Locked up for as many as three days, maybe more for illegal immigrants. And all before being given a trial, before a trial has even been scheduled. Certainly before any crime has been proven.
Cell 7, and epilogue
We were sent to another cell, but we stayed there very briefly before lining up in the hall for our arraignments. When my turn came, I entered the courtroom and stood next to my lawyer, facing the judge. I was happy to be leaving the jail behind me, and I was even happier to see my sisters who had been doing everything they could to help me from the outside sitting in the courtroom.
The judge quickly released me on my own recognizance and scheduled a court appearance for the following month. I flew back to Tampa on the first flight I could get, and then I went back to business as usual.
When the time of the court date arrived, I flew back up to NY. My attorney was pushing for a dismissal of charges. As a condition of dismissal, the district attorney’s office was pushing for community service hours – which I would have been happy to do as opposed to a fine or additional jail time. So my lawyer told the judge that we would agree to the community service, and asked if I would be able to do it in Florida rather than New York. The judge looked at the prosecutor.
“This is his first offense, right?”
The prosecutor shuffled through some papers.
“Then why are we even talking about community service? Is there any reason we can’t do the dismissal without the community service?”
She shrugged. “I guess not.”
The judge ruled for the dismissal, and I was free to go.
I’d never been arrested before, and I had no real idea what the experience was like. I’m telling this story to share the experience with anyone who might be interested. It wasn’t what I expected based on fiction that I’ve read or that I’ve seen on television. The story is factual, although it is edited for space and style, and conversations are paraphrased. I hope you found it interesting and enlightening. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.