My Blog Motto

"Good judgement comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgement"

~Rita Mae Brown

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Minor Inconvenience - reflections on 12/19/2014

It wasn't my first time in jail. After all I am a woman with a past but I wondered if the very different circumstances that landed me there would color the experience in a lighter hue. After all, my previous jail experiences were, shall we say, not unreasonable. I did break the law, I was stupid about it and I was very, very drunk. At that point in my life I was quite often very, very drunk. I can even say that for the most part I was in the wrong, I needed intervention and frankly I'm a better person for the experience. See, like many people who run afoul of the law I was lost in a mix of untreated mental health issues and coexisting alcohol and drug abuse. Unlike many people, I was fortunate enough to be offered an alternative to sentencing at a very effective and holistic treatment program for women. But that was after enough time in jail for me to learn a few things.
Probably the biggest lesson I picked up on is that my jail fears were way off base. For most people the biggest fear of jail is the other inmates. You know all the horror stories and jokes, I don't need to repeat them. In reality most people who are in County jail are not murderers and/or rapists eagerly rubbing their hands together at the prospect of "fresh meat". If anything my grand entrance to the dorm with my arm load of fresh bedding and false bravado, was pretty anti climactic. Most of the women barely looked up from their game of cards or tv show or whatever it was they were using to pass the time. When someone finally did approach me it was an older woman with a gentle and motherly nature who took me under her wing, telling me that since I'd just missed canteen day she would hook me up with coffee for the next few days. Within minutes we were in her cell sipping lukewarm instant coffee mixed with "hot" tap water, looking at photos of her grandchildren. Like any grandmother she was beaming with pride and full of stories. She was clearly an elder, both on the inside and out, and by befriending her I managed to secure a fair amount of space for the remainder of my stay. 
In the 9 weeks I spent there, I came to know all the women in my unit. I heard their stories, stories of children at home, of boyfriends who convinced them to take the rap because they had a clean record and were less likely to do hard time. I heard histories of abuse and dehumanization that often began in infancy within the family and of disenfranchisement by a system that has no compassion for women who don't fit the "norm" (whatever that is) in the community. The vast majority of my cellmates were in for victimless crimes, mostly involving drugs or alcohol, self-medication. Some were in for bad checks or other forms of "fraud" that were the only options available to provide for their children. The vast majority of these women were black, because the vast majority of people who end up in jail for crimes like that are black and usually poor. Women who were casualties of a racist and classist system that is devoid of compassion, devoid of accessible and meaningful services and resources. A system that punishes the mentally ill and re-victimizes the abused.
That experience was nearly 20 years ago and in that time I managed to get clean, return to college to earn a Master's Degree in Community Counseling and find employment in a rewarding career advocating for the kind of women I'd grown to know, and care about, on the "inside"
On December 19, 2014, I was arrested for protesting the very system I'd grown to understand was responsible for robbing these women of their freedoms, their families, their dreams. In my eyes this experience would be different. I was different, I was supporting a "noble" cause, and certainly I'd be out within an hour, no problem, piece of cake. Or so I thought. The minute I walked through that door into the justice facility all my self righteous pride and illusion melted like a January thaw. The sound of those metal doors slamming behind you, the clanging of the CO's keys, the angry voice commanding you by last name only to do as you are told brought me right back to that time two decades ago. If you haven't experienced it it's difficult to describe accurately the immediate effect of depersonalization that occurs the minute that door slams. It was as if all I'd struggled to create and nurture in my life was stripped away in an instant. 
Does this sound melodramatic of someone who ultimately only spent one night in jail on a relatively minor misdemeanor charge? Out of context I'm sure it would, and rightly so when there are so many behind bars serving decades for "crimes" that are often ultimately the result of a broken system that creates broken people. People who were never offered the opportunity for a second chance that I was given simply by being white, educated and somewhat middle class, It was in reality, much like the protest for which I was arrested, a minor inconvenience. But then again, both the protest and the arrest were symptoms of a much larger and insidious system that decides that some people are worth less than others if they are even given any thought to at all. 
I know I'm fortunate to have that advantage even if it often creates an internal discomfort, a conflict that I can only reconcile by creating minor inconveniences in the hope that they will someday bring light to the greater injustices in our society,
© 2010-2015 Nanakoosa’s Place, authored by Jennifer Hazard