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Friday, September 6, 2002


If people were made of paper,

this just might work

By Scott Harrison



Men in Black and Blue


At Mission Station they took me around back and walked me in. They closed the big heavy metal door behind me. They took my watch. They took everything that was in my pockets. They took my wedding ring. I was fingerprinted and sat on a stainless steel bench with my hands handcuffed to a pole behind me. I sat across from two women arrested for prostitution. One had been arrested some 78 times. I heard I was being charged with two felonies. Each charge against me could result in a prison sentence of two, three, or four years. Someone said my bail was $25,000.

I looked blankly at the green cinderblocks, and I started painting mental pictures of what would happen to my life if I were sent to prison for four years. I played those pictures over and over and over in sheer dread and astonishment. My bookstore would go belly-up. I’d lose my apartment. I would lose my friends. My family would be devastated. What would happen with Khadija and me? I’d lose everything.

With these thoughts I began the San Francisco Police booking procedure. A sheriff’s van came about 1:00 am to drive me and a couple of others to the county jail. I asked the man how my wife was and he said I'd better just worry about myself. My possessions were sealed in a large manila envelope and held by the sheriff. The van was like a dogcatcher’s van. They put me into what seemed like a big dog cage.

At County Jail I was stripped and searched. Body cavities were examined. I was given orange underwear, orange pants, an orange shirt, and an orange sweatshirt. In a daze I walked too close to an officer and another one yelled at me and threatened me.

There is a very distinct relationship between prisoner and jailer and they let you know it: they own you. I was taken to one of the many holding tanks filled with men, all wearing orange like me. During the next grueling thirty hours, as I was booked into San Francisco County Jail, I sat in one crowded holding cell after another. I had my picture taken. Fingerprints. Medical questions. Background questions. I had a plastic band with my picture on it attached to my wrist. Most the time I stayed in one of the holding cells, trying to lie on the floor and use my shoe as a pillow. Just by reaching out, I could touch five or six other men. I kept imagining a future with years of prison.

I’ve tried to explain what this booking procedure is like. The best I can say to anyone is, "You know what it’s like to go on a trans-Atlantic flight? You know how tired you are when it’s over? Well, this is like going on three of these trips in a row, New York to London, back to New York, then to London again, but being knee to knee, elbow to elbow with prisoners on hard concrete floors while you’re in great mental anguish." In the very early morning of the second day, I lay in shock and exhaustion and couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face. I wanted to stop them but I couldn’t; I could only try to hide them. What made me the saddest was that my wife would do this to me.

At the very peak of this strain, I was let out of one holding cell and taken to an interview room to talk to a man in a suit. He was friendly and polite. He seemed interested and concerned about my case. He wanted to have a talk with me. He was a detective from the domestic violence unit. When he spoke with me, I made it clear to him I did not attack my wife. I did not hit her, push her, or threaten her. Not when I had been arrested, not ever. I told him I felt I’d better speak with an attorney. I wanted to tell him a few more things, but the moment I mentioned an attorney he said he could not have any further conversation with me. They left me alone in that room for another thirty minutes. Maybe they had it reserved.

How can I put this in words? This incident revealed to me the basic truth of the situation: that man, the San Francisco police detective, pretending to be impartial, pretending to conduct an objective investigation into the facts of a case, was in fact only interested in how he could get the charges against me to stick to me; he didn’t want to help me; he was another wing of the prosecution.

I was sent to another holding tank with another group of men. Hours later I was called to go to court. The Hall of Justice building is connected with the jail building. The men in my group were chained and walked into the holding cell of Courtroom 18. About sixteen of us were put into a space the size of a bedroom. By that time I was so tired it hurt. Eventually I spoke with a public defender, who informed me the two felonies had been reduced to five misdemeanors. I couldn’t understand how they came up with so many charges. Each misdemeanor had the potential of one year in jail. But in his opinion it was very unlikely I’d do more then one year.

The remote hope I had at that moment was that Khadija would be in the courtroom trying to help me. That her anger would have passed and she would come to rescue me. That she would come and tell what really had happened. I stepped into the courtroom. She was not anywhere to be seen.

I wanted to speak with the judge and explain some of the particulars of my case. I was not allowed to say anything. They have no time for that. They have too many cases. They read the police report, the prosecutor (the deputy D.A.) studied it, the judge studied it, and my public defender read it over. The police report controlled everything. The police report would follow me every step of the way through the entire system.

When I was called before the judge, I was told I would be released on my own recognizance later in the day on the condition I made all court appearances and immediately enrolled into a program of domestic violence counseling (which I’ve written about). The case would proceed toward trial. The judge also extended the order to stay 150 yards away from my home and my wife for three years. I could have no contact in any way with my wife, even through a third party.

The D.A. handed this order to my public defender, who handed it to me. There was my wife’s name and our home address. How could they do this? I loved my wife. I missed her; I needed her. I wanted nothing else but to be with her, to see her eyes and talk to her. There is no rhyme or reason for love, but for me seeing her is like taking fresh air into my lungs. Not seeing her, I felt something like the panic and pain of a psychological suffocation.

For my wife to tell the police something untrue, something that never happened. For the district attorney to point at what she said on a piece of paper. For the judge to study that piece of paper and say my wife and I are to be separated, divided for three years. How can I describe the weight this put on me? The pain this put me in? Because I was not screaming and howling in that courtroom does not mean that I wasn’t inside. I most certainly was.

The police never even heard my side properly. The detective did not hear my side. The attorney gave me 90 seconds. The judge gave me three minutes. They had it all decided. It was so perfectly like a Kafka story. Such a huge bureaucracy with such utter blindness. A meat-packing factory but with reports on paper and folders stuffed with papers which are moved about as people’s lives are being cut up. If you want to hurt someone, just take away the people they love. Use an overwhelming show of force. Pour shame all over them. Psychologically torment them by playing cat and mouse with truth and rights. The system had all this equipment, all these polished devices to inflict the most astonishing amounts of emotional pain. They had put away all the methods of physical cruelty and come up with these. I started to doubt who the actual criminals were. Who was hurting whom? What was their excuse? In a compassionate society, why would they even dream of treating people like this?