What I Learned in Jail Last Night

Sheila didn't come into work yesterday... as it turns out, she had a good excuse. As I was led through the subway station in handcuffs Tuesday night, a young girl called after me, "Oooh, undercover got you, didn't they? What you did, ma?" Good question! All I did was drink a beer from a paper bag while waiting for the F train. Trashy habit, and technically illegal, but who cares, right? In fact, the NYPD cares very much. What followed was twenty-four hours in two jails, hours in handcuffs, and eventual dismissal in that three-ring circus known as Night Court. Everything I need to know about life, I learned in the female prisoner holding pen in the Tombs.

After taking away my beer, the cute-but-weathered strawberry-blonde lady cop who arrested me put me in a van with two other quality-of-life violators: an old homeless Polish man named Bogden, and a seventeen-year-old black kid named Kevia. Both were arrested for "outstretch": taking up more than one seat on the subway, or lying down on the seats.

We sat in the van for two hours while officers tried to round up another "body," as they're called, for the night's sweep. "Doin' a big sweep on quality-of-life offenses," I heard the baldheaded, babyfaced male cop tell someone on his cellphone. He talked with my arresting officer:

"Billy's officially ruined the unit. It's ovah. It's completely ovah." He shook his head.

"He's the only what who really believes in what we do, though," the lady cop sighed.

They transported us to the precinct in the Canal Street subway station. Still handcuffed, they pulled the bobby pins out of my hair, the shoelaces out of my shoes, took my backpack and all belongings into custody, and removed my belt. My nose was running from not being able to reach my face for two hours, and my makeup was smeared from lying facedown in the police van. I fit right in! They put me in a cell and slammed the door.

My cellmate was a teenage-looking, chubby goth girl with holes in her tights who scratched herself compulsively. We said nothing to each other; meanwhile, the guys in the two cells next to us were practically having a party. They'd gotten some guards to buy them Cokes and were hollering and yelling about "we'll be outta here by 3 a.m., no problem." They were in for the crimes of "outstretch" and turnstile-jumping.

An hour later, it was mugshot and fingerprinting time! Part of the reason I was in jail so long is because my fingerprints wouldn't go through. They use a stupid machine that places your finger on a Xerox-type platen. Not only does it take regular prints, but you also take prints from different angles. I spent an hour being fingerprinted. Mine were too light, and the court kept rejecting them. Technology!

I slept on the wooden bench in my cell, between rounds of attempted fingerprinting. They kept bringing in new prisoners, trying to put them in my cell: "Hey, I thought only girls are allowed in here," I squeaked when they tried to bring in a scruffy dude.

"Why you gotta be like that, baby?" the new prisoner rasped. "We coulda had something real nice goin' on, sweetheart. Why you gotta ruin it like that?" They put him in another cell.

At 7 a.m., my arresting officer tucked a snub-nosed pistol into her hip holster and took me and Bogden, the homeless Pole, to Manhattan Criminal Court. She always cuffed me too tightly.

In the basement of the Court, we waited, still cuffed, to be processed behind a line of older black men who were sitting on the floor, handcuffed together. That is, each man was handcuffed to the other, like a chain gang. We had our mug shots taken again, went to a medical screening to make sure we were mentally sound, and I was taken upstairs to the female holding pen. This is where my real education began.

They were asleep when I came in, about a dozen women stretched out on benches, and in a few cases, thin mats. Oh, the luxury! For the next twelve hours, I eyed the mats jealously.

The two most common questions you get in jail are, "What you in for?" and, "This your first time being locked up?" The other gals awaiting arraignment were in for the following reasons: there was a redhead who had illegally subletted her apartment, a small Japanese exotic dancer who hit her boyfriend with a frying pan ("He had it comin'"), a cluster of Spanish-speaking girls who clustered in the corner and did not socialize, an older Spanish-speaking women for singing for change in the subway, a thirtysomething black woman for a suspended license, a pair of sisters for larceny, check and credit card fraud, a college girl accused of stealing $4,000 from work (she assured us she had not), and a sweet girl in a short coral dress and heels who had been accused of kicking a car while leaving a nightclub. She hadn't kicked the car, but had put up a struggle upon being arrested: "It's because I'm black, isn't it!" It probably was.

Christy, a 44-year-old black woman arrested for having two screens for a pipe in her backpack, was a jail veteran and the unofficial leader of the group. "It's an election year," she said, standing up to deliver a speech. "They sweepin' the streets of us degenerates, of the black folk. We got to band together. Whoever says every man for himself, that's bullshit. They got all us in here all some bullshit charges."

The burly female guards told us, with sadistic glee, that we could be legally held for up to 72 hours. A few girls broke down at this. Christy watched as a twenty-year-old, arrested for turnstile-jumpting, wept. "I was like that the first time I got locked up," she said wistfully. She reminisced about her youth in Times Square: "We would sit in that movie theater and get lifted! You could not even see the muthafuckin' screen, the smoke was so thick."

"This your first time locked up?" she asked me. I nodded. "You're takin' it really well."

Over the next few hours, we talked about Barack Obama (inmates prefer him 10 to 1), MySpace, and how to properly wash your girl-parts. (I think the word they used was "irrigate.") Tattoos were shown and compared. I used the payphone that was outside the cell by reaching my arms through the bars to dial, and pulling the receiver inside. We were given sandwiches, but the guards got nasty when we asked for toilet paper. A small battle ensued.

Nearly 24 hours after being arrested, a guard clanked the keys in the door and yelled my name. I jumped up, and they took me down to Night Court.

Arraignment took less than a minute. All charges were dropped. As I walked out of the courtroom and hailed a cab, I realized that I was reformed! I'll never drink beer in the subway again.