Standing in the Well

New York City is one of the few places on the planet that is perpetually alive — truly alive. Its energy is genuine; infectious in how swiftly it just reaches you and seizes you. There is a quality about the city’s action that feels as old as all creation and something in the air promises to live on endlessly, like an immortal with high aspirations. I have spent time in enough cities to know that this vitality cannot be replicated. It is the kind of place where your highs are rapturous and your lows can grind you into the dirt.

There is no venue more acquainted with meeting people at their lowest point than the New York City Criminal Court. Residents who have no cause to know or who don’t care to know, would be unaware that individuals are brought to court to face charges every single day of the year. These arraignment shifts happen in two sessions. People are brought in to be arraigned in day arraignment courtrooms from about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Night court starts at 5 p.m. and ends at 1 a.m. This is a significant change from a little over a decade ago, when the high crime rate and the hike in arrests for petty crimes (endorsed by the mayor at the time) resulted in a volume of cases that called for courts to be open all night long.

Being assigned to work a night arraignment shift is a regular feature in the life of a public criminal defense lawyer. The scenarios that play out regularly in day arraignments have a bleaker, more devastating quality at night. Still, lawyers for the indigent become used to engaging with the daily spectrum of tragedies befalling the poor in New York City. We gather up those calamities whole-armed, like stacks of chips and lay them out in our advocacy before the judge. We employ the arguments of “were it not for” the worst parts of people’s experiences, they would not be in their current situation fighting the state’s allegations against them. We implore the court to find the humanity in our clients (a more difficult endeavor than one might imagine) and grant them liberty. There are varying amounts of trauma associated with this undertaking. I believe that this trauma is drastically magnified for public defense lawyers who are black.

I had worked for a number of years on Rikers Island, the city’s dungeon incarnate, as a law library intern, and later as an attorney, before entering the polished hallways of the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse. I was already acquainted with the statistics regarding which ethnicities have the highest rates of policing and incarceration. However, I was astounded by the sight of what those numbers actually looked like when I first worked in the jails. As a young black man, I had been mistaken for an inmate as many times as I was erroneously regarded as a defendant in a number of courtrooms later on. And it was inevitable, since the majority of those inmates, as well as my clients, looked like me. The bulk of these women and men came from the same neighborhoods I had grown up in, had similar stories to mine and reminded me of a range of my own relatives.

I always understood that only a favorable twist of fate had put me on a path that diverged from theirs. It is this awareness that motivates me in my work; that demands that I uphold my clients’ dignity and oftentimes act as the sole enforcer of it in an open courtroom; that presses me to wage an all-out war on their behalf within the bounds of decency and professionalism; that guides me to counsel patience and strategy when there are no immediate wins to be had; and frequently moves me close to tears upon coming face to face with someone’s despair. None of the aforementioned duties take into account the additional strain that comes with being a black professional in an intellectual field, where centuries of conditioning convinces everyone that black people are inherently lacking in intellect — it’s like constantly doing a juggling act on a unicycle.

I was in the midst of one of these night assignments some months ago. It was a particularly busy night. The courtroom was steadily operating with a numbness that is characteristic of all nighttime job activities. And all of the standard players were present; court officers who seemed alert and disinterested at the same time, attorneys approaching tasks with the sound focus of a battalion of ants, defendants sitting around on a tightrope of anxiety and despair, and a judge altering lives from a platform not far from where the court reporter sat.

Most of the action took place inside of the Well, an area cordoned off by a three foot wall, with a velvet rope hanging across its entrance. Outside of the Well, there were rows of benches reminiscent of a church. It was close to midnight, and at that hour there were only a few spectators sitting on the benches. They were mostly family members of some of the incarcerated, huddled together and waiting for a glimpse of their loved ones as they were brought out before the judge. It is common during any arraignment session for the police to bring someone directly in from the streets if they were stopped and found to have an outstanding warrant. Those individuals are often walked into the courtroom in handcuffs and sometimes shackles, and must sit next to the officers in the audience until they have spoken with an attorney and their case is called.

A young woman was brought in that night. I noticed her immediately. I observed her for some time before I realized that I had been frowning. She had the face of a teenager, although her frame was quite full-bodied. Her hair was askew. Her eyes looked red from crying. She seemed very young and very pregnant. From the looks of it, the woman had to be about eight months along. Her hands were cuffed in a v-shape in front of her and there were shackles around her ankles. I was appalled.

The two officers positioned themselves at either side of the young woman after they sat her down. I went about my work in the courtroom speculating about what type of warrant had caused the woman to be picked up. The only possibilities were that she had missed her court date and did not return or that she had failed to complete some obligation that the court mandated. I could not imagine that the shackles that held her feet together were necessary. I am generally perturbed by the sight of shackles around the feet of arrestees, but I was particularly troubled by the scene in front of me. As I worked, I would look periodically in her direction just to monitor her demeanor. I wondered if I would pick up her case.

At some point, the woman was interviewed by another attorney and brought before the judge. All figures in the courtroom seemed to draw still when the officers led her to the podium. It was community service that she had failed to complete — two days. The attorney went into a detailed explanation to the court about the hardships that had prevented the woman from fulfilling her obligation. The judge seemed unaffected. “The Court already gave her one more opportunity to do the community service the last time she was here,” the judge said. “She knew that there was a fifteen day jail alternative for not doing the community service. She didn’t do it and she didn’t come back either.” He continued.

“I know, your honor…” the lawyer started, and then went on to convey the fact that the woman was homeless and living in a shelter at an advanced stage of pregnancy, and had been dealing with illnesses related to her condition as well as other problems. The judge was still unmoved. He declined the woman another opportunity to do the community service. Her choices were to plead guilty to violating the court’s mandate and serve some jail time or to have a hearing about the issue of violating the court’s mandate. The woman was adamant about not pleading guilty. She could be heard loudly telling the lawyer that any time in jail would mean she would lose her place at the shelter. The lawyer appeared to be trying to calm the woman, while explaining what opting for a hearing would mean. The woman was intent on expressing the precariousness of her position to the attorney. The judge blankly observed the discussion. After allowing what seemed like another second for the lawyer to inform the court of the woman’s decision, the judge impatiently ordered a hearing and instructed the court staff to move on to the next case.

The next case was mine. I watched my client sitting on a bench next to a row of other men that had just been brought out of the cells in the back. I made eye contact with my client when his name was called and walked across the Well to stand next to him before the judge. We stood there, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the officer to read out the charges that my client faced. Two other correction officers were in the process of guiding the woman to the door leading to the cells in the back. In that instant, she must have realized that she was going to be locked up while awaiting the date of her hearing. The hearing date that the judge had set would not be for another ten days. The woman looked as if she saw a sudden tsunami railing up against her. She let out a shriek that pulled all eyes in her direction. I noticed with rising disdain that the judge actually looked surprised.

The woman started to wail and grabbed the corner of a wall that was close to her. The two officers were struggling to drag her away as she screamed. They were unsuccessful. Almost immediately, three more officers ran over to assist their comrades — all men. They tried to forcefully pull the pregnant woman towards the door. I could see my client shaking his head distastefully as the officers tried to yell instructions at the woman through her squeals. I was statute still, but internally, I was battling the urge to rush over to the melee and help her; make a barrier between her and these men and push them back. At the same time, I knew that my composure was necessary for the application that I would be making on my client’s behalf once the disturbance had ended. My poise was also part of the unspoken contract of civility that all defense lawyers enter into. I understood that the courtroom was the domain of the judge and the law enforcement agents that run it. In practice, I periodically admonish some court officers about their behavior in a way that hopefully doesn’t endanger my clients once I have left the building. But most times, I try to protect my clients by pleading with them to be calm and not incur any wrath from the officers or the judge that would worsen their circumstances. I assure those clients that I will reach into my legal arsenal and do everything in my power to address their grievances, and silently hope that I can.

As I approach a decade as an attorney in criminal practice, I realize why my job is becoming more and more unbearable. I cannot endure for much longer having a front row seat to the brutalization of my people. Enlightened minds all around us are knowledgeable about the continuous cycle of institutionalized racism and how it plays out in every form of black life. They are aware, in the criminal context, of how our communities are over-policed and underserved. Scholars write volumes about how the schools in our communities form a pipeline to prison and how certain of our neighborhoods populate the country’s prisons. Still, seeing the larger institutional phenomenon unfold day after day, person after person can be overwhelming if given any prolonged thought.

Statistics take on a different, more diabolical shape when one considers the sheer numbers of adults from our communities that are stopped, harassed and often assaulted before they are arrested. And no soul can sit still with the knowledge that for many of our children, being targeted by the police is an everyday occurrence and that some sort of contact with jail is a certainty in their development. Personally, there is something disturbingly reminiscent about repeatedly witnessing lines of black bodies brought out before a judge. It is distressing. A white friend and colleague of mine recently resumed practicing law after a long sabbatical. After her first full day back in court, she relayed how struck she was that, out of the dozens of cases that were called that day, she did not see even one white defendant. It was a sobering reminder of our reality.

The young woman’s plight that night was just a recapitulation of the vast extent to which our lives are undervalued. The undervaluation of black life is ingrained deep within the consciousness of this society. That is the only way it could be acceptable for five mature men to manhandle a distraught and pregnant black woman and drag her to be locked in a cell. When she finally disappeared behind the wooden door, I looked directly back at the Judge. I swallowed my disgust, feeling as if we were all sinking into slime in that Well. I put a hand on my client’s shoulder. I needed to settle his nerves as well as my own. The officer proceeded to read out the charges, after which he prompted me to speak on my client’s behalf. The young woman’s cries could still be heard from the back, but were quickly drowned out as the door closed shut.

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