By: Kristina V. Ramos
The sound of foot shackles dragging on the pavement is not a pleasant one, but as you can imagine neither is the feeling of them around bony ankles. Aside from foot shackles I also have handcuffs on that are connected to a chain around my waist, which is almost doubled because apparently, they don’t come in women’s XS.
It’s not easy getting on a bus in sandals and shackles, but somehow, I manage. My seat is facing the door that the officer closes behind me. Quickly, I realize that I am the only woman on the bus without really looking at the other passengers. With my peripheral vision, I can tell that there are at least 20 men, probably, closer to 40. All of them wearing red jail uniforms and shackles. Millions of questions pop into my head at once. Why aren’t they wearing orange? Doesn’t red mean dangerous? Why am I in a bus full of murderers? What else could they be? Child molesters? Violent maniacs? I haven’t made up my mind about who they might possibly be as my thoughts are interrupted when they start talking to me. I am a bit nervous, but I don’t show any emotion. They ask for my name and where I’m from, which I ignore and keep looking straight ahead. They don’t give up. I am sitting not more than a foot away from them. The only thing that’s separating us is skinny bars making up a cage around my seat. What if they spit at me, or worse? Somebody gets up from their seat and starts singing what sounds like a love song in Spanish. What the hell? I begin to relax a little. Seems like most of them, if not all, are speaking Spanish. Unexpectedly, the guy who was singing switches from Spanish to flawless English and talks directly to me. He’s saying he saw a brochure that inmates can get married in jail. He says he’s 25, doesn’t have kids, and we should get married. The other men start laughing and somebody’s telling him that he’s probably not my type. Then a few others try to talk to me all at the same time. I hear different kinds of questions coming from different directions, as I keep looking straight ahead and ignoring them all. Then they collectively try to guess where I’m from. They compliment my glasses and my clothes. They tell me jokes and try to make me smile.
Feels like at least half an hour has passed, and most of the men have given up trying to talk to me. Somebody said I would do good in an interrogation. Then some guy gave a little speech, saying he doesn’t know whether I understand Spanish, but he wishes me luck and that everything will be okay. That’s what I have been telling myself the past few hours, that everything will be okay. I’m surprised by their compassion. At this point I’m fighting back my tears. I look down at my leggings and I see a little red thread from my daughter’s blanket. Just a few hours ago, I was holding her in my arms wrapped in a red blanket.
Somebody said we’re almost there, which initiates the men talking to me again. They tell me I’ll be okay, they hope to see me in court, and they wish me luck with my case. The driver opens my cage and tells me to follow him. I am the first one to get off the bus. I am then to follow a female officer into the jail. She tells me to turn around and face the wall. She’s removing my shackles and pats me down aggressively. I don’t have to look down to know that my ankles are sore and red, and my wrists are scratched up from the handcuffs too.
After telling a deputy my name, I am told to sit and wait. There are about 15 chairs, 2 phones, and a tiny TV hanging on a wall. Once again, I am the only female, but these men are wearing dark blue, not red, like the men from the bus. And none of them look Hispanic. There’s also one guy who’s wearing street clothes- dirty jeans and a faded t-shirt. He is clearly drunk. I guess that’s the reason he’s here. Another guy is scratching himself, picking on his pimples, and talking to himself. Then an officer brings in a woman and she sits two seats away from me. My pleasant surprise to finally see a woman is killed by the stench coming from her. Her hair is very dirty and she doesn’t seem in her right mind either. She has an awful sunburn and she’s picking on her skin. She peels it and throws it to the floor. A few officers that are passing by, every now and then, say “hi” to her. I think it’s safe to assume she’s a regular. Why are mentally ill jailed?
I am thirsty, hungry, and tired of sitting on this plastic chair. Then I hear somebody say that it’s already after dinner (dinner is at 4pm here) which means we will not be getting anything to eat or drink for the rest of the day. We can drink water from the faucet in the bathroom. I don’t know how long I must wait here, nobody told me anything, so I sit in a chair for a few hours, glancing at the TV every now and then without really being able to focus on the shows. Finally, when I can’t hold it anymore I go to use the bathroom, and drink some water from the faucet. I wait a couple more hours. Funny thing is we have a clock, hanging next to the TV, staring right at us. So far everything I thought I knew from movies about jails has been wrong.
It’s after midnight. Never thought I would look forward to sleeping in a jail bunk, but I’m exhausted. Why aren’t they taking me to a cell? When am I going to sleep? Why is it so hard for the officers to tell me anything? A couple of people got off the chairs and are sleeping on the cement floors. I don’t think I’m that desperate yet.
Finally, after 6 in the morning, I am called by a deputy, asked some basic information like my address, full name, medical conditions, and then I’m given a red T-shirt, red pants, a red sweatshirt, and worn out underwear and socks. After I’ve changed, I am given a mattress and am told I’m being taken to my pod, whatever that means. I’ve sat on a plastic chair for 14 hours. A few times I attempted to sleep in a sitting position with my knees to my chest, and my head on my knees – it didn’t really work. At this point, I don’t really care what happens to me.
I am not taken to a single-person cell. It looks more like a row of military-style bunk beds. It’s after breakfast, but everybody’s asleep. The only empty bunk is right next to the toilet and shower, with the light right on top of it. I put my mattress on the bottom bunk and some girl rushes to help me. I thank her, but tell her I’ll put the sheets on the mattress myself. She refuses and starts doing it for me. After she does my bed, she asks me where I’m from and goes back to sleep.
I think I should stay awake, expecting the inmates to wake up soon, curious about the new arrival, but I’m too exhausted. It’s almost 7 in the morning, and I fall asleep within seconds of hitting the pillow. I wake up at lunch time- 11a.m. The day passes by pretty fast with me napping in between meals. I am brought gifts from different inmates. One gives me a cup, another one gives me a notebook, a pen, and a soap bar. I am hesitant to accept them, but I don’t know how to refuse either. The lady who made my bed told me I could use any of her shampoos and body wash until I can get my own from commissary. What could these ladies have done to end up in here? I don’t ask. Yet.
After midnight, I am rudely, if not violently, awakened by somebody ripping the blanket off my face. I knew I should expect a fight eventually, but why not during the day? I am shocked to see an officer standing by my bunk, and not an inmate ready to jump me, as I was expecting. She grabs my arm to check the name on my plastic bracelet and tells me to get ready for a bus soon. I ask her ‘what bus?’, and ‘where am I going?’, to which she doesn’t respond and leaves. Two hours later a different C.O. comes in to take me to the booking area (where I spent 14 hours on a plastic chair). I see a long line of men already shackled, and I’m told to join the only female inmate on the opposite wall from men. A female officer is putting handcuffs on me. When I tell her they’re very tight, she tells me they’re not for my comfort, they’re for officers’ safety. She puts her finger inside the handcuff to demonstrate that they’re not too tight and there’s still room left. Unable to resist, I tell her that my wrists are not circular and they’re digging into my skin on the sides, even if the handcuffs aren’t squishing my veins. Unfortunately for my wrists, she doesn’t understand what circumference is.
Another bus ride. Not at all like the one from the day before. It’s a smaller bus, there are less people, it’s too dark to see anything, and everybody’s sleepy. There’s barely any talking. Forty minutes later, seems like we have reached our destination. The mini bus stops and the door is opened. When I ask where I am and why I’m there, the officer says he doesn’t know.
It must be around 4a.m. I am alone in a cell with a cement bench. I manage to lay down in a fetal position on the bench and eventually I fall asleep. I am awakened by loud banging on the door, I jump up and an officer comes in and tells me I will see the judge now. I say ‘what judge?’ I wasn’t supposed to have court today. He says he doesn’t know and to hurry up. Just 2 seconds ago, I was sleeping on a cement bench not knowing why I was there and now I’m supposed to talk to a judge?
I am led to a little room that looks like an office. There’s a computer with a big screen, a printer, and a phone. I see the judge on the screen. The officer says, “Good morning, your Honor,” and sits down. He points for me to sit in a chair next to him. Apparently, I am going to talk to the judge through some video-chat-thing. The judge asked me if I am ready for the hearing, and I said that I am not because I didn’t know I was going to have a hearing today until I walked in this room. The judge said it happens sometimes and rescheduled the hearing for next month. The officer gets up, judge tells him the name of the next inmate to be brought in.
A month. The judge said next hearing will be in a month. Now I regret not saying I was ready for the hearing. Maybe it would’ve been fine without any preparation and without a lawyer? No, it wouldn’t, but how can I wait another month in jail? Another month away from my family. Another month in this red uniform.
In this jail, a red uniform doesn’t mean dangerous, it means immigrant. I am in jail for my one crime- not being a citizen.