My night in jail after photographing police against their wishes
The most humiliating part of my arrest was not necessarily the way the five Miami police officers slammed me down on the hard sidewalk and bashed my forehead against the concrete. Nor was it the way they tightened the handcuffs on me until they cut off the circulation in my wrists. Nor was it the way one officer twisted my right wrist backwards until I yelled out in pain. Nor was it the way an officer threatened to taze me if I did not shut my mouth.
It wasn’t even the way the sergeant taunted me at the precinct by saying, “I don’t know what police department you’re used to dealing with, but this is Miami PD and we don’t put up with that kind of crap here.”
No, the most humiliating part of my arrest was when I was ordered into a small dark room at the Miami-Dade County Jail and ordered to drop my pants, bend over and spread my cheeks while a jail guard with a flashlight ensured that I was not smuggling any contraband into the jail.
That’s not to say they didn’t keep any contraband from coming into the jail because later that night, one of my cellmates was smoking crack out of a small pipe and even offered me some, which I declined. I hate to see what orifice he used to sneak that in.
But despite the humility of that moment when I stood there with my bare ass in the air, feeling the cold jailhouse draft chill my balls, it doesn’t compare to what one long-haired inmate went through when he had to defecate in a cell with about 20 other inmates.
We all tried to ignore him as he sat on the seatless urine-soaked toilet dropping his load, his facial expression no different than a defecating dog, but there was no way we could ignore the smell.
It was a nauseating, burning smell that permeated our nostrils, eyes, mouths and lungs, drifting through the bars and into the fingerprint processing room and prompting one burly guard to proclaim:
“Damn, boy, something crawled up your ass and died.”
As we sat inside the cell gagging with our shirts over our faces and tears streaming down our cheeks, the inmate kept his gaze forward, staring at the cold institutional jailhouse wall which no doubt has seen many worse humiliating incidents.
The inmate silently wiped himself with the toilet paper he acquired moments earlier from a jail trustee and flushed the toilet and pulled up his pants. Then he settled beneath one of the wooden benches crammed with inmates and went to sleep.
Most of the inmates eventually went to sleep that night despite the fact that at least twice that night, a few inmates almost came to blows.
By the next morning, this jail cell full of inmates; criminals in the eyes of the law; men ranging from drug dealers to wife beaters to drunk drivers to probation violators to homeless drifters to men who just claimed they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time (not to mention your fellow journalist who had photographed cops against their wishes) had all become friends. At least for that single night.
Considering we were all being charged with misdemeanors, the only thing we wanted to do was just get through the night without any problems that would cause us to remain in jail. Unlike the felons in the next cage, we were all being released the following morning regardless if we posted bail or not.
In fact, only three out of more than 20 inmates posted bail that night. The rest of us toughed it out until the following morning.
After our release, we slapped each other on the back and told each other to stay out of trouble. We were brothers in arms, having endured an uncomfortable and restless night in one of worst jails in the United States of America.
But that is not the way the night began.
“You got a problem, bro?”
I hoped he wasn’t talking to me, this wiry, tattooed Hispanic man with a shaved head and wife-beater t-shirt. I was really not in the mood.
I was so angry at having been arrested; so angry at having been beaten; so angry at having been degraded by making me pull my pants down; I was thinking that if this little man would start talking to me in that tone, I would grab his tattooed neck and ram his shaved head into the bars until the guards came running.
That little teardrop tattoo under his eye wasn’t scaring me.
Yes, jail has a way of bringing out the animal in you. A way of rousing your most primal instincts. A way of proving Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest.
What can you expect when they treat you like caged animals?
The little troublemaker was talking to the man sitting at the other end of the wooden bench, a downtrodden man who looked as if he had never been in jail before. Perhaps a DUI suspect.
“No man, I don’t have a problem,” the man pleaded in a heavy Hispanic accent.
The little troublemaker picked up on his fear and kept getting in his face, raising his voice in the hopes that he would establish himself as the jail cell kingpin.
A part of me was hoping he would try the same with me. I even decided that if he were to start hitting the guy, I would jump in and wail on him.
I looked across at the two inmates sitting on the bench in front of me to see where they stood in this situation. They had a look of impassive expectancy on their faces. As if waiting for the violence to begin, but only as spectators. Bored spectators.
“Why you keep looking at me, bro? Are you some kind of faggot?” the troublemaker asked the man.
“No, man, I’m not looking at you.”
A guard suddenly appeared and unlocked the cell door, allowing three more guards inside, who grabbed the little troublemaker by the back of his neck and dragged him outside to another portion of the jail.
We later learned that he had been keeping himself in jail by continually picking fights. We predicted he would eventually pick on the wrong guy.
Despite the momentary excitement, none of us in the cell said anything to each other. It was still early in the evening and we were still sizing each other up, wondering whom the next person would be to pick a fight, or worse, order us to pull our pants down and bend over. Once is enough, thank you very much.
At that time, there were only three other guys in the cell besides me; the Hispanic guy who got picked on, a black guy with dreads and a Cuban guy with a fade haircut.
But the guards kept bringing people in over the next several hours until at one point, there was about 50 inmates inside, all of us standing like sardines, waiting for the guards to sort us out.
Eventually the guards were able to sort out who belonged where and the cell was reduced to about 20 inmates, which became the core group throughout the long, exhausting and tension-filled night.
“I’m going to kill that bitch when I get out here,” a Hispanic man kept yelling as he paced up and down the small cell.
He was in for domestic violence and was putting on a show for us, punching his fist into his palm and scowling and looking at us from the corner of his eye to make sure we were watching. It was quite entertaining.
If anything, he broke the ice and got us all to start talking to each other. We all took turns in telling what we did to get arrested that night.
They took special interest in my story because of its uniqueness. They got excited when I vowed to take the cops to court for violating my First Amendment rights. They got mad when I told them the cops slammed my head down on the sidewalk.
And they concluded that the police were doing something illegal at the time which caused them to not want to get photographed.
“I didn’t see them do anything illegal,” I said. “It looked very routine for me. For some reason, they just didn’t want to get photographed.”
“Trust me, bro,” said the Cuban with the fade. “If it’s Miami PD, they were doing something illegal.”
I was sitting at the far end of the bench near the bars because there was some serious body odor in that cell, especially towards the back where two of the homeless drifters sat.
Chino and his partner smelled as if they hadn’t bathed in weeks and looked as if they had not eaten in days. They said they had been arrested for loitering. They didn’t speak much English.
Then there was the group of young black men who knew each other from the streets but had been arrested in separate incidents, ranging from pot peddling to shoplifting to vandalism.
And there was a group of middle-aged Cuban men who were arrested after engaging in a bar fight in Little Havana. One of the guys kept showing off his bloodied fists.
As the night dragged on, more and more inmates kept coming in until it got very crowded and every inch of bench space on both sides of the cell were occupied as well as the spaces beneath the benches where inmates slept on the floor with their arms inside their shirts, which I learned is the jailhouse method of keeping your arms warm.
If you needed to pee, you needed to step over numerous sleeping bodies, not to mention a huge puddle of piss, to reach the lone toilet in the rear corner. And the fact that they had taken our shoes, belts and other personal items required us to walk to the toilet in paper booties with our pants sagging. A slumber party from hell.
At one point, a jailhouse trustee handed us sandwiches and plastic little cups of water through the bars. The sandwiches were wrapped in plastic and didn’t look too appealing and I wasn’t even that hungry, so I handed it to Chino who devoured it.
A few minutes later, one of the Cuban middle-aged guys let out a stream of profanities and threw his sandwich wrapper on the floor. A couple of his friends followed suit.
This prompted one of the young black guys to berate him, telling him “my mama always told me you keep clean the place where you sleep.”
“Fuck you, man,” the Cuban guy said, pronouncing the word “man” like Scarface. Meng.
Within seconds, they were standing in each others faces, the young black man and the midde-aged Cuban man threatening each other with bodily harm. Two of the Cuban guy’s friends stood up to let the black man know the Cuban guy was not alone, which prompted two of the black guy’s friends to stand.
The yelling and threatening escalated so I prepared to jump the hell out the way in case the fracas came in my direction. This was one altercation I wasn’t joining.
There was a lot of swaggering and swearing but before any fists were swung, a loud voice emerged from the adjacent felon cell.
“Shut the fuck up, assholes!”
This prompted the two groups who were about to beat each other to a pulp to start yelling back at the felon.
“Mind your own shit, bitch,” the black guy yelled.
“Fuck you, man,” the Cuban guy said, which apparently was the extent of his vocabulary.
And this, of course, prompted several other felons to start yelling at us, threatening to annihilate every single person in the misdemeanor cage when they get out of the felon cage, whenever that time would be.
The guys in my cage were not too serious about this altercation. They were just enjoying taunting the felons, who by the sounds of it, were not seeing the humor in it.
“At least I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning, motherfucker,” the black guy yelled as we all laughed.
The Cuban guy tapped fists with him before picking up the sandwich wrappers from the floor. Everything was back to normal again. As normal as jail can ever be.
And as the hours continued to dwindle away, and more and more inmates fell asleep, the only thing we could hear was a man’s cries from a few cells down.
“Get me outta here. Please, get me outta here. I beg you, get me outta here.”
Those harrowing wails continued for several hours as a handful of us remained awake.
Meanwhile, a tall, overweight black man sitting towards the rear of the cell pulled out a small pipe from his sock and struck a match, inhaling the pungent smoke.
He said he was busted for smoking crack as he offered the pipe around to the only three people awake. We all declined by shaking our heads.
By late morning, a guard opened the cell door and lead us to the jailhouse courtroom where the judge is only visible through a television monitor but able to communicate with us through a microphone.
The judge was releasing everybody with “time served” because we were only being charged with misdemeanors.
However, when they called my name and the judge offered me the same “time served” for the nine misdemeanors I was charged with, I told him I was falsely arrested and that I wanted to fight the charges.
He read through the arrest report for a few moments, then looked through the monitor and said:
“Well you certainly have the right to take photos. It looks like things got a little out of hand last night.”
And with that, I was lead to another room where all my cellmates as well as a bunch of other inmates fought for breathing space as we waited for them to release us.
Spirits were high and there was a lot of laughing and joking going on. One tall black guy was being released after 11 months in jail and vowed never to come back.
Then we noticed Chino, the homeless man with the stink, shivering ferociously in a corner, as if he had stepped into an icebox naked.
“You cold, man?” the tall black man asked.
Chino, who didn’t speak much English, nodded yes. Perhaps he was suffering from delirium tremens, withdrawal of alcohol.
The tall black man who hadn’t seen the light of day in almost a year pulled off a long sleeve t-shirt he was wearing over a short-sleeve t-shirt and handed it to Chino.
Chino graciously accepted it, but was unable to put it on, he was shaking so much. His homeless partner in crime helped him put the shirt on, which helped subdue the shakes a bit.
Finally, we were released into daylight. Freedom never tasted sweeter. The smell of car exhaust and the sound of blaring horns never felt so good.
We were unable to wipe the smiles from our faces as we sauntered around the building in our paper booties to retrieve our personal belongings through a small bulletproof window.
After receiving a paper bag with my shoes, belt, watch, wallet and cell phone, I leaned against a wall, putting on my shoes and one of my cellmates, the Cuban with the fade, slapped me on the back and gave me these words of advice.
“Good luck, bro, but watch your ass. The police don’t like it when you challenge them.”