The Time I went to Jail (on a Tour)
Once you get in here, you’re nothing more than a number and set of fingerprints.
The officer said it casually, factually, as if he had just told us the sky was blue. I can’t remember his name at the moment, but the officer — a tall, fat man with a soft face that turned red without provocation — walked through that prison with the kind of confidence that only comes from running the place. He saw nothing wrong with the words coming from his mouth or the smell of piss mixed with mop water setting my nostrils on fire.
Although we were on a tour (that’s right: a jail tour), when the officer asked for our Driver’s Licenses, fear shot through me: what if they don’t let you out? Keep your shit together, Biko; you won’t be in here longer than thirty minutes. But the thirty minutes extended to an hour and a half, prolonged by the officer’s inconsequential ramblings about how inmates are treated, processed, and released. We were there until he finished. And with every passing minute, my nerves got worse.
The place is nerve-wracking in large part because of its architecture — the lack of windows, the hard benches, metal toilets, and cheap industrial lighting. Harris County jail is a concrete monstrosity whose walls trap women and men in cages in such a way as to wear away their humanity in a slow and methodical fashion, like water torture. There’s something about the lack of windows and the almost ubiquitous presence of concrete that serves to trap both body and mind. It invokes the kind of claustrophobia that makes the heat of the sun a godsend and the wetness of rain a blessing. The sea of concrete becomes a constant reminder that you’re not getting out until they say you get out — not even those of us on a “jail tour.” I felt trapped, which means I can only imagine how the inmates felt and feel.
The jail’s physical environment creates the space for collective depression, insanity, and desperation to spread like wildfire. With their humanity now totally stolen away, I saw the signs of insanity and fatalism. I saw one inmate sweeping the same spot on the floor multiple times, just to pass the time. Another inmate, crippled by some kind of leg injury, hobbled around on a worn-down walker held together with duct tape and tennis balls. But he was so conditioned to his bondage that he didn’t even speak out about how useless the walker was. Behind me I heard the cries of young men petitioning the officers for some food. “We aren’t rapists or murderers,” one guy said, wondering why they hadn’t eaten in what sounded like eight hours. Other inmates were less diplomatic, foregoing the apologetic strategy for a more direct approach — the outright chant. “WE WANNA EAT!” echoed through the hallways, ringing in my ears throughout the tour and long after I left. (They never got food while we were there, by the way.)
This is how it is in the jail: there is no place for humanity to flourish — not even on the part of the guards and prison staff. Like the Stanley Milgram experiment, everyone’s humanity was erased by the combination of absolute authority and absolute docility. You were either a prisoner or staff — either a paycheck or number. The New Jim Crow tells us how prisoners and ex-offenders are stripped of their citizenship (which is the only form of humanity the U.S. recognizes), but the jail spoke of something else lost. It elided the souls of the officers; their eyes had been deadened by the perpetual contact with constellations of “numbers and fingerprints” in their ward. When the inmates cried about being hungry, the jailer simply said, “okay,” and slammed the door in their faces. The cry of human need fell on deaf ears because the mouths from which these cries emerged were the mouths of criminals. “These people” deserved what they had gotten.
And therein lies the problem. “Criminal” has become a synonym for “not human,” and we lock people away in the jail to make them out of sight and out of mind. On top of this, the problem with the label “Criminal” is that it is discriminately applied to different groups. Despite its apparent neutrality — and here’s how insidious white supremacy is — the term “Criminal” invokes color; although it’s a general term, “criminal” traps the masses of black and brown bodies to fall prey to its clutches.
“Criminal” hearkens back to Reagan’s days, where we solved “drug” problems that didn’t exist; it recalls the “superpredators” of Hillary Clinton’s imagination, and speaks into existence a generic black or brown body that could be any black or brown person. (I think I’ve said this before, but the three degrees I’ve earned hold no candle to my existence as a large black man with locs. I look like a criminal — and have been treated as such, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
I’m sure for many, this argument will not persuade — in large part because the stigma of criminality is so totalizing that it’s easy to forget. But consider this: just about 80% of the inmates are in there because they’re too poor to get out. These folk haven’t been convicted of any crimes. they’ve only been charged, and because they’re too poor to get out and cannot afford a lawyer, they’re stuck in jail, losing more and more of their humanity as every minute, hour, and day passes. 75% of these folk are black and brown, snatched away by a law enforcement officer who went looking for trouble.
As the tour continued, things seemed to get worse. At one point, the lights went out, and we were in absolute darkness. The officer fed us some BS about how “this has never happened before,” and when the lights decided to return from their hiatus, the tour continued. By this time, I’ve started to get antsy, worried we might actually not get out. As we moved to the last phase of the tour, I was beginning to see that it was only going to get worse — that the numbers were going to show me something even more heinous than I had seen before. You see, behind that concrete box sitting in the middle of downtown Houston lies one of the worst programs ever invented: 287(g). The jail is the headquarters for 287(g), with a large section of the second floor devoted to the program.
287(g) is essentially an agreement between the feds and local governments to crack down on undocumented immigration. Basically, the feds train local law enforcement officers to become ICE agents, so that your local (not-so-)friendly police officer can tear your family apart for you having a broken taillight. The agreement is voluntary because it’s costly; the feds don’t foot the bill of about $50 million a year. And since most counties and jurisdictions have common sense, the program isn’t popular. But not Harris County; it’s one of the last jurisdictions spending large amounts of local taxpayer money to carry out a federal program. Through 287(g), Harris County has won the title “deportation capital of the country,” deporting more people than even Arizona.
We left the 287(g) wing on the way to conclude the tour. Because the elevator was broken, we ended the tour with a long walk down a flight of stairs filled with the smell of shit, piss, and sweat mixed with a small amount of cleaning fluid. As I walked to my car, I reflected on my tour, realizing that the worst part of all of this is the fact that, despite wanting very badly to be angry at the officer running the tour, I couldn’t. I wanted so badly to make him the enemy, to turn all of my ire toward him, to make him the very embodiment of evil.
But I couldn’t be mad at him.
I couldn’t be mad at him because he was the embodiment of a society that has chosen to forget us unless we’re profitable. We were once slaves and migrant workers, and when that stopped, we became lynch victims and drug peddlers. And ultimately we became criminals. With each of our metamorphoses, we were denied the very possibility to speak our humanity, to allow our beautiful complexity to shine through. The jail houses the collective paranoia of white supremacist society, turning people into “cases.” Once this happens, we become nothing more than something to be processed until we get out. The officer was ultimately right: once you enter the jail, you’re a set of fingerprints and a number. He was simply sharing facts. He wasn’t “racist” because he was just doing his job.
The crazy thing is, after only being in that jail for a little over an hour, I’m not sure any prisoner — from the most heinous murderer to the low-level offender who was in the wrong place at the wrong time — gets their humanity back.
Well, I guess they at least have their fingerprints.