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When they take my shoelaces and belt, I realise that this is more serious than I had thought. I am in a Manhattan precinct cell, early on a Sunday morning in August, having been stopped for making an illegal turn in my car. The officer who has stopped me takes my licence and (for complicated reasons involving my sister’s mother-in-law) Texas registration, goes back to his vehicle for a bit, and then returns to my car.

‘Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the car.’

I’ve watched television. They must be checking my sobriety.

‘Sir, are you aware that your licence has been suspended in the state of New York?’

I am not aware of that. That’s going to mean a hell of a fine.

Another police car pulls up behind his, lights flashing.

‘Sir, please turn and place your hands behind your back.’

I turn and prepare to recite the alphabet backwards while standing on one leg (as I’ve seen on television). Something clicks around my wrists. Handcuffs. I’ve never been in handcuffs before. I’ve always prided myself on my positive relationship with the police.

‘Officer, I’m confused. Have I done something else?’

‘Sir, please step into the car.’

I am driven to the precinct, where I assume this will all be cleared up. They inform me that in 2007 I neglected to pay a speeding ticket on the Taconic State Parkway, and that has led to the suspension. They take my phone, wallet, shoelaces and belt (suicide risk), and place me in a cell.

How long is this going to take?

‘They should take you downtown for processing in a couple of hours. They’ll get you out pretty quick.’

The officer brings me a phone, and I call my sister and tell her what has happened, and not to tell our parents. I tell her I should be out sometime in the afternoon.

I am alone in the cell, which has no clock. After a while, I lie down on the floor.

After some time, two other men are placed in my cell. They were arrested last night, but because of a leg injury in one man and an unclear condition in the other, they were taken to hospital, and now have to go through the system again. One of them tells me that Central Booking downtown is overwhelmed because the police were asked by the district attorney to make a sweep this weekend, and I will probably not be released until tomorrow.

‘You’ll probably spend the night in the Tombs.’

The Tombs is the nickname for the cells below Central Booking on Centre Street, famously built into a polluted landfill in 1838.

Two more hours go by. (I learn that later: it’s impossible to feel time pass here.) A new pair of officers comes and takes us out of the cell. We are cuffed again, and chained together. I’ve seen this on TV too, but it still comes as a surprise. As they drive us downtown, I ask when I might be able to call a lawyer. They say there are phones in every cell downtown. We reach the side of the courthouse. There is a crowd of cops and chained prisoners. Apparently they aren’t opening the doors because more prisoners are being brought in than the court can cope with. We stand in full view of the Chinatown weekend crowds for a while. Then they bring us in.

This part, the processing, seems familiar. (I’ve seen Law and Order.) Picture taken, the medical examiner makes sure I’m OK for jail, and then I am placed in one of the ten or so cells for men. There are seven of us in the cell and the phone is broken. I ask a guard when I can get a phone.

‘That phone is broken. Most of the phones are broken.’

The cells with the non-broken phones are full. Our cell is the least crowded. But there is no phone.

The cell is very dirty, and has an open toilet which is not fully functioning. The air is very dank. There is a sign on the wall warning about suicide risk, and telling us that if we have been held for more than 24 hours without seeing a lawyer or judge to notify a guard. One of the men in my cell has been here since noon yesterday. He tells a guard.

‘Seventy-two hours.’

‘But the sign says 24 hours.’

‘Seventy-two hours.’

There are sandwiches and milk. No one eats the sandwiches (peanut butter or cheese) because they are disgusting. One of my cellmates says that in the old days there used to be bologna. The only water is from the sink above the open toilet. The men in my cell (I am the only white guy – the others are black and Latino) are in for having open alcohol containers on a subway (two), marijuana possession (two), a bar fight (one). Two are a little fuzzy about it.

Every two hours or so, the public defenders come through, names are called, and some of us are taken upstairs to court. It does not move quickly. The guards are clearly angry that the police have brought so many people to the Tombs on a Sunday, the police are angry that we aren’t being processed quickly enough for them to bring in more prisoners and make their quotas, and the public defenders seem furious at the whole thing. No one explains what is happening to the prisoners. It is unclear how long any of this will take.

Around 8 p.m., they have moved enough guys through the system for us to be taken to a larger cell, with about 23 men in it. Five of us are white (two college students who were stupid at a bar, two men who had some kind of domestic altercation that they don’t want to discuss), and the cell is about equally divided between English and Spanish speakers. Other infractions include trespassing, selling a subway MetroCard swipe, public disturbance, and various drug and alcohol-related offences. Everyone is very friendly. There is a phone. My resourceful sister says that the city’s surprisingly efficient hotline has kept her informed of my whereabouts, and that she was told that I should be out tonight. The court closes at 1 a.m. We all discuss what we will eat when we get out. Shrimp fried rice. And beer. I am one of the only guys in his thirties. Most are under 25, or over 40. Many of the young guys have kids. One of the guys has hidden a small joint on him. He threatens to smoke it. In the cell opposite us (rumour has it that the felons are in that cell) an older man in a porkpie hat has been talking for hours, non-stop, to no one in particular.

Around 11 p.m., the mood darkens. One last group is called out, and then two guards come by and say that the court is closed. Then another guard says the court is still going. Then we hear nothing more. One of the college kids has a panic attack, and starts yelling at the guards. This is infectious, and soon there are prisoners yelling all around the jail. Six of my cellmates call their wives or girlfriends, to tell them to call their bosses in the morning. They assume they will lose their jobs. Around 2 a.m., I lie on the floor and close my eyes.

They take us out of the cells to get breakfast at 5 a.m., and when I come back with my cornflakes, someone has taken my spot. The only space left is right by the toilet, which is not an option. I squeeze in near the front.

At 9 a.m. they call my name, and a group of us are lined up and taken upstairs to another pair of cells. We are told that the public defenders will call our names. The mood in the room is agitated. The toughest guys from the night before are the most nervous. The young men start pacing, while the older men mutter under their breath. The defenders speak to each prisoner in a small private chamber at the back. When my turn comes, the lawyer seems competent, pleasant and honest. He says I will almost certainly be able to plea down to a simple fine. The prisoner who comes in after me, an older guy, refuses to talk to his lawyer, and when they come to take us to court, refuses to go. He is incoherent, but begins to scream that he won’t let them railroad him. The guards tell him he has to come to the judge or be sent back downstairs, but it seems that they can’t force him to appear before the judge. He can remain here, indefinitely, neither innocent or guilty, a refugee from the whole system of pleas.

When I enter the courtroom, I see my sister and watch my cellmates accept pleas, many for misdemeanours. This part is easy, because I feel confident of the outcome. The guy who goes before me, on the other hand, is asked to accept a plea that will put him away for a few months. He is trembling. When I get before the judge, I am quickly offered a plea down from a misdemeanour to a simple fine. The fine is $75.

My sister took me for fried rice and a coke. I never got my belt back. The next day, on 42nd Street, I saw a man who had shared my cell downtown, asking for money. I didn’t want to think about the community we had briefly shared, so I averted my eyes and kept walking.

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