Nearly a month has passed since I was arrested for blocking the entrance to Colisimo’s gun shop (see January 18 blog). In terms of the overall experience getting arrested was easy; the difficult part was the 25 hours I spent in jail. Many people have asked me what it was like to be in jail, and until very recently, I have not been able to talk about it because the experience showed me some things about myself that I am still trying to come to grips with. Even so, I will try to describe what that experience was like for me.

Fred Kaufmann, Kemah Washington and I were arrested around 3:30 pm on Friday, January 16, handcuffed, and taken in a paddy wagon to the Philadelphia Ninth District Police Station. Over the next 25 hours I saw the inside of a jail from the vantage point of a prisoner, and got a tiny glimpse of the degrading, dehumanizing nature of the criminal justice system.

“Therefore I urge you… to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God…” (Romans 12.1)

I am not a mystically oriented person. Praise, prayer and worship for me are largely outward, physical acts. So for me, participating in the civil disobedience action that day was an act of faith and worship to the God of peace I seek to follow. As such I was generally prepared for the physical discomfort of the jail cell.

Fred, Kemah and I were put in a cell about 6 feet by 10 feet, with battleship gray walls on three sides and bars in the front. There was an open toilet on one side of the cell and a hard metal bench on the other. A narrow passageway ran in front of the bars across from which there was a rough gray-stone wall. A radio played softly all the time on a station that give neither time nor news nor weather. A few dim lights lit the semi-dark hall. Day or night the light, the music, the cell had this same general feel. In two of the three cells I stayed in, the toilet did not flush, so that over time the cell smelled like an oversized outhouse. While I could hear the inmates in the adjoining cells, I could not see anyone. Because of the hard cement floor and metal bench, as well as crowded conditions, sleep was difficult. I drifted off a few times, but only for a few minutes.

The essence of our experience was waiting. Four hours after we were put in the cell we were photographed and fingerprinted. Four hours later we talked via video camera to a bail bondsperson. Then for me it was another 16 hours waiting to talk to a judge and be released. If the guards knew anything, they pleaded ignorance when one would ask when they would be let out. It was an experience of complete sensory isolation.

“When I was in prison you visited me…” (Matthew 25.36)

While the cell was uncomfortable, the experience was bearable during the time I was in the cell with Fred and Kemah. However, at 4 am, about 12 hours after we had been locked up, Fred and Kemah were released. Rather, I should say from my perspective, they were taken out of the cell and did not come back; at that point I felt abandoned and forgotten. About two hours after they left, a young man was put in my cell with me, but shortly after was taken out. For a brief time I was put in with two other guys from our group, Sam and Jim, who had been arrested after us, but then an hour later, they too were released. The last couple hours I was squeezed into a one person cell with guy shivering in the corner, coming down from a drug high. However, the bulk of those 12 hours I was more or less alone.

Without my companions I began to be overwhelmed by two feelings: boredom and loneliness. To counteract the boredom, I made up games, seeing how close to the wall I could pitch plastic water bottle caps, and I played the alphabet game with the graffiti on the walls. I sang songs and recited passages of scripture (now realizing how few I actually remembered). However, despite my best efforts, soon the boredom crossed over into loneliness.

What was so striking to me is that I knew I had people on the “outside” who were monitoring my situation and praying for me. I knew that there was a lawyer who was trying to get me out. I knew my daughter and wife were aware and concerned for my condition. In terms of personal support, I was wealthy compared to the other folks in the jail. One of my cell mates was a 26 year old nurse assistant who was going to miss a job interview because of his arrest. His only support person was the roommate with whom he had gotten into a fight, the reason he had been arrested. There were others in adjoining cells who talked of not having anyone. I had an entire network, yet it didn’t seem to matter. I felt totally alone and abandoned and soon that loneliness turned to fear and hopelessness.

I realize now that the trauma of jail is not the physical dimension, but the feeling of being pushed aside, forgotten and alone. All of us in the cells that day shared the experience of fear and frustration. Regardless of the reasons that had landed us in the jail, all of us in the cells felt forgotten and abandoned. The lack of human contact and concern sucked from us any sense of dignity and worth.

“When you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters…” (Matthew 25.40)

Before he arrested us, the police captain tried to scare me by suggesting that we were going to be put in jail with a whole host of “bad people.” In the end I found a sense of solidarity with the other inmates; it was the “good people” who made my life difficult. Apart from my fellow protesters, I also spent time in a cell with a guy arrested for fighting, and another for possession of crack cocaine. In the adjoining cells were guys arrested for a variety of misdemeanors: assault, weapons possession, vandalism; and one woman arrested for writing bad checks. The other inmates referred to me as “the protester.” While a few of the guards were personable, for the most part they were aloof, arrogant and demeaning. Any request was treated as an imposition, and often they did not even come to a place where we could see them; they simply shouted from the room outside of the section where the cells were located. I am sure the questions we asked (about when we would be let out or when we see the judge) were questions they were asked 100 times a day. I suspect they hated their jobs and took it out on us.

As the hours dragged on and I did not know when I would be released, I began to feel intense anxiety. However talking to my fellow inmates calmed me down. In fact one of the nicest things one guy said was “The protester is still in here! This is messing with my mind! It’s not right!” In retrospect I don’t think he spoke those words in support of me, but rather as an expression for how frustrating the whole process was. However, at the time I took his comment as a recognition of my dignity, and it comforted me. Help came not from the guards, but from one of those “bad people.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” (Psalm 22.1)

From the inside of a jail cell, I learned what it is like to be regarded as less than human, and to be regarded as society’s refuse. We wonder why people often come out of prison, more violent and anti-social than when they went in. After only a day in a holding cell, I can understand why. People often live up or down to the way they are treated. A police station holding cell is mild compared to prison, and U.S. prisons, while terribly overcrowded, are much more sanitary than prisons in other parts of the world. In that jail cell, I was a nobody, someone unworthy of respect; someone not owed a piece of decency. People treated like animals will respond in kind, and prison treats people like animals. Yet, we wonder why prison doesn’t set people straight.

People often “find God” while in jail; that may be so. However, I have never been in a place so devoid of hope and meaning as that jail cell. Perhaps, if I had stayed longer, I would have experienced what the writers of the lament psalms realized as they cried out in despair, and what Jesus found on the cross; that on the other side of hopelessness is the God of love. Frankly, I am glad I didn’t have to stay that long. I find it hard to believe we call ourselves “civilized” and yet treat people with the indignity that pervades our prison system. In my 25 hours I got only a tiny glimpse of that indignity, so small that it may not even be worth mentioning, and yet what I saw rocked me to the core of my being.

I doubt I will ever fully recover from those 25 hours in jail; I saw life from the perspective of hopelessness, and I did not like what I saw. May I never forget how many people slog through life from that perspective, and may I never let go of my resolve to be a person who works for hope, change and the dignity of every human being.