Part I: Targeting ICE
I was sitting on the pavement stopping traffic in the middle of a busy Phoenix thoroughfare at rush hour with five other activists. A large banner was laid out on the ground between us that read: ICE, STOP DEPORTING ARPAIO’S VICTIMS. Helicopters were hovering overhead in an overcast sky that thankfully kept the temperatures down to a bearable 98 degrees.
Hundreds of people surrounded us with signs and banners, chanting, bullhorns blaring: “Whose streets? OUR streets!” Friends brought us water and candy; little offerings to help ease the tensions. Police dressed in full riot gear lined up and advanced, one lockstep at a time. There was just one way this was going to end and it involved a trip to jail.
We took that street to protest the nation’s first and most notorious state immigration law, SB1070. Our target was the Phoenix headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on busy Central Avenue; a location that was pretty much guaranteed to draw attention.
ICE was in our sights because of its complicity in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s arrests of undocumented immigrants during his infamous sweeps that have targeted brown people indiscriminately, no matter what their status. ICE has deported over one million people since Obama took office, over 46,000 of which are working parents of U.S. citizen children. Thousands of these children have been placed into foster care because of the resultant destruction of families. Without ICE’s collaboration, Sheriff Joe’s notorious raids would be curtailed or severely limited.
Presidential administrations have always had discretion about how vigorously they enforce immigration laws and Obama’s has turned into a deportation machine on steroids. As a lifelong Democrat and more recently a human rights activist, I was sick of trying to reconcile the discrepancies. I finally felt it was time for action.
A large anti-SB1070 civil rights march had been planned to take place on April 25th, the day the Supreme Court heard Governor Jan Brewer’s challenge to the enjoined parts of SB1070. The law never went into effect due to being struck down by lower courts before it could become enacted in 2010. The news emerging from the hearing on the day of the march was not good and tensions were rising as people anticipated the worst from the decision expected in June.
SB1070’s passage was the final straw that ended my timidity about getting involved and speaking out against what I perceived as unjust laws. Even as a child I remember admiring the few white folks who had the courage to march with Martin Luther King, Jr and later I learned about the Freedom Riders and white allies who braved the dangers of Klan violence in the deep south to help register voters. Those were my role models during my younger years and I realized it was time for today’s white allies against oppressive laws to step up and provide the same role models that guided me. So when I was asked if I would be willing to participate in civil disobedience that would result in my arrest and detention in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) dreaded Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix, I hesitated only for a moment before saying, “I’m in.”
My hesitation was based on my underlying health issues. I have rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, both conditions that present challenges to me on a daily basis but that I also try to ignore as much as possible so they don’t dictate my life. I knew there would be some discomfort involved but I figured I’d get through it somehow.
I should have hesitated more because Arpaio’s jail is a very dangerous place. The list of deaths from beatings and Tasings by guards and medical neglect of inmates is long, depressing and has cost Maricopa County tens of millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements. The most recent was Marty Atencio, a Latino Gulf War veteran who suffered from bipolar disorder and who was repeatedly Tased and choked by MCSO guards last December and then left alone in a cell to die. The entire episode was captured on video and quickly went viral, ensuring yet another huge lawsuit against the county. Though the chances were small of anything like that happening to me, it was still something that I should have considered.
Part II: Taking the Street
The April 25th protest consisted of a march to various points of interest in the city of Phoenix. First stop was City Hall, then the Phoenix Police Department, Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse, Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Fourth Avenue Jail, Arpaio’s penthouse offices in the Wells Fargo building and finally ending at the ICE headquarters on Central Avenue.
I was tasked with helping deliver water to various points in the march. After I was finished I made my way to the ICE building and joined my fellow protesters. I donned a white tee-shirt with “Not One More” emblazoned on it and when the crowd of marchers reached us we took our banner and stepped into the street.
Our group consisted of five women and one young man. Sandra, Danielle, Jovana and Tony are all Chicanos; Jesse and I are white. My companions were in their twenties and thirties and I was the oldest at 52.
Sandra walked out into the street with her hand held up authoritatively like a traffic cop to stop cars with us following closely behind and within seconds we had our banner unfurled on the ground and we took up our positions sitting and kneeling around it. The entire crowd of several hundred marchers entered the street with us chanting, “Stop 1070, we will not comply!” “Si se puede!” and other slogans. The media and cameras materialized out of nowhere. We had taken the street.
The scene was chaotic and noisy but described by one newswoman as a kind of “organized chaos.” Since the police were anticipating civil disobedience they very quickly materialized, lined up in riot gear between us and the light rail tracks and advanced. We were each given a warning that we would be arrested if we did not move and one by one we were pulled to our feet, our hands zip tied behind our backs, and marched off to a paddy wagon. Within about 40 minutes all the protesters were off the street.
What followed over the next twenty-two hours was a very surreal experience for this middle-aged privileged white woman. I’d heard many stories of incarceration of activists and had been instructed on what to expect. While those instructions were helpful, they still didn’t prepare me for what I was about to go through.
Part III: Booking
The paddy wagon was a small bus that was divided into two holding areas with a metal partition between; women on one side, men on the other. After the six of us were loaded on, we were surprised when three more male protesters were nabbed out of the crowd and also brought onto the bus.
One of the young men arrested was loud and swearing at the cops. He was violently slammed against the partition several times by one police officer as we all shouted and booed the cop. I angrily told the officer that his actions were extremely unprofessional, something that actually seemed to have an effect because he felt the need to explain himself to me. “There comes a time when you just can’t take any more of their crap,” he said. I simply repeated myself, saying that there was never any excuse for unprofessionalism.
Fortunately the abuse of the young man stopped, but I’d felt a twinge of real fear from that incident; all I could think of was Marty Atencio, who had received a death sentence for being mouthy and uncooperative. The last thing anyone wanted was for someone to get hurt, or worse, as a result of our protest.
After the arresting riot cops left us in the paddy wagon things settled down. We started joking and laughing, mostly to beak the tension. I quickly realized that having my arms tied behind my back was extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately my sweaty hands were able to slip the zip ties and I could just pretend I was still cuffed if anyone looked. Soon all us women had slipped our cuffs and as the driver played music on the radio we used our zip ties as fake microphones for dramatic effect to sing along. We all screamed the lyrics we could remember to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and when we expressed dislike of one song the driver turned it up full blast just to show that he too had a sense of humor. Hilarity ensued and it helped keep our minds off of the uncertainties that waited ahead.
Our first stop was Phoenix Police Department central booking station. We were taken off the bus, zip ties removed (actually the female officer told me, “You can stop pretending your hands are in the zip ties now”) and replaced with metal handcuffs, fortunately with our hands in front this time. Our belongings were removed and bagged, we were frisked, fingerprinted, identified, mug shots taken and then placed in tiny 4×8 foot cells. One of the officers asked us what “Not One More” on our shirts meant and we told him it meant not one more deportation. He laughed and said that was the motto they should have at central booking: Not One More person arrested.
Jovana’s information was not found in the state ID system so they held her back and loaded the rest of us into a small van to be taken to MCSO’s Fourth Ave Jail. Jovana would spend the next two hours in that little cell and we didn’t see her again until the next morning.
Part IV: Fourth Avenue Jail
We arrived at Fourth Ave at about 9:00 PM. Our van turned into a giant garage door with Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s name on it and a sign proclaiming we were entering a “State of the Art” facility. We drove into the bowels of the huge building the size of a city block. A TV cameraman was there waiting and filmed us as we were walked through the parking garage towards the door to the intake area. That’s when we got our first inkling that we were considered high-profile prisoners.
I was first in line to be interviewed by a nurse and since I had medical conditions I was told to provide a urine sample. They locked me into a small cell with a toilet, where I learned that pulling your pants up with handcuffs isn’t as easy as it looks. Then they took my sample and left me in there until I was to be called to talk to another nurse. I started getting nervous about being separated from my friends, our hope was that we’d be able to stay together and since we’d already lost one member my worries were somewhat justified. Somewhere in a cell nearby a mentally ill woman was screaming, sobbing, shouting and then screaming again, “Don’t leave me alone! Don’t leave me alone! AAAAHHHHH!” It was very disconcerting and once again the ghost of Marty Atencio haunted my thoughts.
Finally they let me out, I saw the nurse and she carefully recorded the medications I was on– though I don’t know why because I never was given any of them the rest of the time I was incarcerated. Then I was sent to the booking room to join everyone else. Relief ensued at the sight of my friend’s faces.
Next our mug shot was taken again and we had to say where we were born and the last four digits of our social security numbers. We waited as our names were called to enter another room where they removed our handcuffs, made us remove any outer clothing we had on and our shoes and socks. We were finger printed again and then assumed the position with hands against the wall, legs spread and were thoroughly frisked by a female guard and our pockets turned inside out. One member of our group was asked if she was carrying anything in her vagina, which of course she denied but none of us had to have a cavity search. Again, since we were “high profile” it’s very possible we were given some leeway in how we were treated.
The inside of the jail is a confusing series of block wall hallways with endless doors and glaring fluorescent lights. Prisoners are always told to line up against a wall and then marched in a single line down the hall followed by the guard. We were told which turn to make and at which door to stop. After our frisking we were given back our clothes and shoes and after the men were separated from the women, we were marched off to our first cell.
The cells, known as “tanks” were ten foot by seventeen foot off-white painted cinderblock rooms. Cement benches lined three walls with seating for about twelve. The benches were divided every two feet with a raised metal bar to clip handcuffs to and to make sleeping on them difficult. There were three Plexiglas windows looking out to the hall so you can see in and look out and there was a toilet with a short privacy wall on one side. The toilet was stainless steel with no seat and the toilet tank had a water fountain on it for drinking and hand washing. The air temperature was decidedly on the chilly side.
Our first tank had between ten and fifteen women in it. They were mostly younger, in their twenties to thirties and predominantly white with a few Latinas and Native Americans. The whole time I was there I only saw two African-American women inmates. The women were cordial and very curious about us in our matching shirts so we told them we were arrested for civil disobedience and protesting. They were all absolutely astonished that anyone would purposely go to jail, especially the Fourth Ave jail, which they unanimously agreed was the worst jail anywhere (and many had sampled other facilities so they knew what they were talking about). They were also unanimous in their disdain for Sheriff Joe, whom they referred to as a “sick bastard” along with many other unflattering terms.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in the tank was a young woman curled up in the fetal position on the floor facing the wall with wads of toilet paper around her. She was dressed in a skimpy tank top and short shorts. I eyed her closely to make sure she was breathing because she was so still. Ribbons of toilet paper and grapefruit rinds littered the floor of grey cement that was spotted and stained and obviously something you had to think twice about laying your body on. Other women were lying on the benches or the floor with their arms pulled inside their shirts or shirts pulled over their heads trying to keep warm. Most were dressed in the clothes they were arrested in, a few wore prison stripes with the word “UNSENTENCED” stenciled on the back with the signature pink socks and tee-shirt and orange plastic sandals. We all leaned against the wall or sat on the floor because that was the only place available.
Some women were quiet and others were non-stop talkers. We were regaled with stories of how and why they were arrested, all about their kids and families on the outside and what to expect during our time inside. Many were frequent fliers to the criminal justice system, seemingly locked in a cycle of incarceration, bail bondsmen, fines, no-shows at court, warrants, parole violations, re-arrest, and transfers to women’s detention facilities, including the infamous Tent City. All were non-violent offenders, mostly for minor things like driving with a suspended license, possession of drugs, cashing bad checks, or alleged neglect of children. One woman was there because her boyfriend was choking her during a fight and when the police arrived they saw her defensive scratches on his face and no marks on her. Another was accused of theft of $100 from her employer’s cash drawer. A young woman dressed in prison stripes was arrested when she accompanied her boyfriend to a foreclosed home he was stripping of fixtures. Some were admitted drug users; one woman had the characteristic “meth bites” on her face and the vast majority were seriously craving nicotine. They all had stories and advice to give each other on how to navigate the complex system they were trapped in.
Part V: The Matrix
They called it The Matrix, and their description fit. Once you were in The Matrix it was very hard to get out. You never really knew what was going to happen next and you were constantly kept off balance by the system. Time lost all meaning and you had to beg for the time from a guard; some purposely never carried watches so they couldn’t tell you. It was all about power and control and keeping people subdued. It was also a place of cruelty, inflicting unnecessary discomfort as retribution on a vast population of inmates who had not even been adjudicated. In Joe Arpaio’s world, everyone arrested is guilty and deserving of punishment until proven innocent.
Within an hour we were taken in groups of five to a room to once again be fingerprinted and there we were given a card with our charges printed on it. All four of us were charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a thoroughfare. But when we compared cards later we saw that some of us were given misdemeanor one charges for blocking a thoroughfare, others got misdemeanor two and another got misdemeanor three. Those of us with the more serious misdemeanor charges also had “fighting” as part of the disorderly conduct charges. We joked that the only thing we could be accused of fighting was unjust laws like SB1070 and laughingly we put our fists in the air shouting, “Fight the power!” as the rest of the women looked on quizzically.
The bond amounts ranged from $650 to $1000. Mine was $850 since I had a “fighting” charge. We all knew we’d be released on our own recognizance once we got to see the judge during our initial appearance so the bond amount wasn’t an issue. But since an M1 charge was a far bigger deal with mandatory jail time than an M3 charge, there was still some cause for concern.
When we were coached before our arrest we were told as much as possible about what to expect while we were inside. We knew about the food, that the rooms would be cold, that we’d be moved around a lot and never know what time it was. All this was true. We were also told we could expect to see a judge sometime around midnight and released a couple of hours after that. This turned out to not be true. When we got our charges we were told that the next misdemeanor court time would be 10:00 the next morning. We had twelve hours ahead of us before we could go to court and no idea how much time after that before our release.
The first thing that became apparent to me after a short time inside was that the surfaces were all hard. The benches and floors were cement. I’m a person who cannot sit or stand on hard surfaces for any length of time without pain; significant pain. I was already in some distress by 10:00 that night and when I heard I had potentially fourteen more hours there my heart sank like a stone. There was no chance of getting even a Tylenol inside so I knew I was in for a rough ride ahead.
After about an hour or so, the metal door slid open with a clang and a guard called us by name to come out of the tank, stand along the wall and then march down the hall. He was a surly jerk who yelled into one tank full of men as we walked by, threatening them with bodily harm if they didn’t behave. He then gave us the insulting order not to look into the tanks “at your baby daddies” as we walked by. Of course I did look, not because of the baby daddy possibilities but because I was curious and even that small act of disobedience was worth it. We went by tank after tank down one hall and up the next. Most had men in them, a few had women. Some in stripes, some in street clothes. In contrast to the women I saw, the vast majority of men were minorities. Finally we turned down one side hall and were put into another tank, this one full of about twenty women.
Since it was late this tank had its floor covered with sleeping bodies and the benches were all taken up that way too. A woman guard came in and started asking certain inmates about their underwear, “What color panties are you wearing? What color bra?” Then she led them all out. I asked what was going on and was told they were headed to another room for their “dressing down.” Dressing down is when you trade your street clothes for prison stripes. This only happens to those who will not be released soon, mostly those headed to the dorm-like jails on the west side of the city, where Tent City was also located. The women who were with us in stripes were waiting for their court appearances or to be assigned to a different jail. Most went to one called Estrella, which they pronounced “Australia”. These jails were far, far better than Fourth Avenue because they had beds and blankets and other luxuries like toothpaste.
Fortunately we were now down to about fifteen people in our tank and a spot on a bench opened up for me. It was late but I knew that sleep was going to be impossible. My friends all were curled up on the floor but when I tried to do the same I learned quickly that not only was it deathly cold, my joints simply couldn’t take it. It was going to be a long night.
Part VI: The Long Night
As the night progressed the temperature dropped. Several women around me were shivering and shaking. The toilet paper roll was passed around to unravel and try to provide some insulation between freezing bodies and heat-sucking concrete. The skinnier drug addicted women suffered the most. The benches were far warmer but only a few could use them. We had been warned about how cold it would be inside and I was instructed to wear a hoodie but it was hot outside that day and I figured I could get by with two tee shirts and jeans, shoes and socks. I was wrong.
Taped to the outside of one of the windows of our tank was a notice about how the jail had been court ordered to comply with several conditions, including providing meals that met the caloric requirements of the USDA and to keep the temperatures below 85 degrees. Apparently a suit was filed at one time because (along with many other abuses) Arpaio kept the cells ungodly hot and it caused mentally ill inmates’ medications to be less effective. When MCSO lost the suit, Arpaio’s sadly typical reaction was to turn the thermostats way down, causing inmates who came in dressed for outside temperatures often in the low hundreds to suffer wracking chills and mild hypothermia for the hours they were incarcerated there. If anyone had an extra shirt it was shared and several women spooned on the floor to try to conserve heat. Shoes were used as pillows. Never a blanket or pillow was offered to us, though I was informed that if you were there for 48 hours you were given the great luxury of a mat and a blanket.
As the minutes and hours ticked by in a totally unknown fashion I listened as several women sat up all night talking. I learned how bail bondsmen were often blood sucking leeches that nickel and dimed their victims and how one woman had her baby taken away with threats that if she didn’t sign off on adoption papers she wouldn’t come out for a very long time. One Mexican lady was arrested when she went to pay a traffic fine and she was stressed about being unable to pick up her kids at school. They all had a story to tell, some more plausible than others but all fascinating. They discussed parole and probation, felonies and misdemeanors, different jails and prisons. They were experts on the judicial system.
It suddenly hit me how my privilege insulated me from what was going on around me. Sure I was sitting in one of the worst jails in the nation and I was hurting, my whole body was feeling like a bus hit it, but I was going to get out and walk into the sunshine and not have any real lasting effects. I asked to be there and it was more like I was conducting a science experiment or on a bizarre field trip instead of being entangled into a system that didn’t easily let its victims go. The Matrix didn’t ensnare rich or well-educated people in its web, it was exclusively a poor person’s nightmare.
The night passed very slowly under harsh fluorescent lights. I would sit on the bench until I couldn’t stand it then stand up until I couldn’t stand it. To help pass the time I counted the cinderblocks on the wall to measure the dimensions and read the list of bail bondsmen over and over again. There were four phones on the wall where collect calls out to land lines were allowed. I contemplated how many people actually had land lines anymore and how many remembered phone numbers in their heads in this cell phone age. I couldn’t think of a single one.
My friends would sleep for a while then they’d wake and we’d chat and tell stories. We’d speculate about what was going on outside with our friends and families and worry about Jovana’s whereabouts. Then they’d all lie down and sleep again. I was so envious of people who could sleep on cold concrete. The toilet made an explosive sound every time it was flushed in both our cell and neighboring cells so nobody slept well. At one point Sandra was laid out on the floor sleeping next to a bench where an older frail-looking lady was sitting. The lady dozed off and toppled right off the bench onto Sandra’s prone body. That was, by far, the most exciting thing that happened all night.
Part VII: Our Initial Appearance at Court
Finally at some unknown hour in the morning two guards showed with the breakfast cart. We were each handed a plastic bag containing one grapefruit (many of which were moldy), two semi-frozen torpedo rolls (whole wheat– big surprise there), a sealed plastic bag containing about a third of a cup of peanut butter, a cookie and a small 8oz container of grape drink. That was apparently the morning half of the diet that met “the caloric requirements of the USDA”. The other half, consisting of the exact same menu, was served at night. I ate my grapefruit and drank my drink. I figured I needed the hydration since I still couldn’t work myself up to drinking the water on the toilet tank. The roll was dry and I was annoyed to find my bag was missing its cookie. We had about an hour to eat and whatever we didn’t finish was removed. No saving food was allowed.
All during the night guards would come by and take some inmates away and add others. Finally one woman came into our cell and when she saw our shirts her eyes lit up, “The tank I just came from had a woman with a shirt just like that!” she exclaimed. That was the first we knew that Jovana was somewhere in the jail with us and our relief was enormous. The guard who was gathering names of inmates to be seen in court that morning told us he’d bring her over so we’d all be together. Sure enough within an hour or so Jovana was admitted to our tank and we all hugged like we hadn’t seen her in years. She claimed to have had a great time with her newfound friends and she described how they’d set up a bowling alley in their cell with drink bottles as pins and grapefruits as bowling balls. I was so envious. Some girls really do know how to have fun.
At 9:30 we and all the others with minor charges were taken from our tank and marched down to the misdemeanor courtroom. We were told to sit together in the front row and were greeted by two public defenders. It was then that we learned that the press was gathered in the public viewing room and watching the proceedings on the monitor. It was our first information about what was going on in the outside world.
We weren’t the only cases to be heard of course; there were about 40 or so other inmates there for their initial appearance but we assumed we’d be up first so as to hustle us out of there and send us on our way. We should have known better.
All the other inmates were called forward one by one to see the judge. They were told what their bond would be or if they could be released on their own recognizance. Most of the cases were for failure to appear at a former court date or failure to pay fines. None of the excuses were accepted by the judge and bond was required for their release before their next court appearance. Some pled guilty to their charges but most pled not guilty.
After the first hour ticked by we realized that we were being saved for last, and we suspected it was intentional. The room was very cold and some of us were freezing. The metal seats were first uncomfortable and then painful to sit on. When asked why a fan was running in that frigid room we were told it was necessary to “keep the computers cool.” I contemplated my home with multiple computers and the summer thermostat set at eighty-one degrees and mentally called bullshit.
After an hour and a half one of the public defenders came up to us apologetically and tried to reassure us we’d be seen soon. “I suppose you can call this ‘attrition through enforcement,’” she quipped. Of course attrition through enforcement is the key phrase of SB1070, which was designed to make life so miserable for immigrants that they’d voluntarily self-deport. I told her I’d be happy to self-deport myself out of that building at any time.
Finally we were the last left in the room. One by one we were called forth to plead not guilty and be released on our own recognizance with a date for our next court appearance. One of the young men who was arrested after us had an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended sentence so he was issued a $500 bond. One of the public defenders explained to the judge on our behalf that we were protesting “an unjust law” but this was contested by the prosecutor, who obviously didn’t agree with that point of view. The judge interjected that this was not a subject that was going to be argued in his court at that time.
We women were then taken from the courtroom and put in a tiny cell measuring about six feet by twelve feet with several other women and a toilet. It was crowded with standing room only. The good news was that our many bodies finally brought the room temperature up to something that was bearable.
Part VIII: Mind Games
The lawyers in court told us we’d have to wait anywhere from one to three hours before being released. The guard walking us to our cell told us it would be more like three to six hours before we got out. That news brought my mood to a whole new low. The tiny cramped cell lowered it further. We’d just sat for two hours on metal benches in the court and now we were going to be sardines for god-only-knows how much longer. Fortunately the guards came and took a couple of the women out so I could sit down on the tiny bench. We were getting a bit rowdy and started chanting. A red-headed female guard came and told us if we’d shut up she’d have us out in an hour. We agreed and were as quiet as little mice.
Time dragged by slowly and the psychological aspects started to grind on us. I started getting whiney. Danielle was missing her son. I moaned at the thought of a nice soft bed. Sandra started talking food porn. Stress always takes away my appetite but the others were ravenously hungry and discussed in minute detail each food item they’d eat when we got out. Many of us needed to move our bowels but none wanted to do it in that tiny cell so intestinal discomfort was added to the list. We discussed what we would do first when we got out. The options were eat, shower, sleep or Facebook. I chose Facebook. The lack of information and contact with the outside world was by far the hardest thing for me.
Another guard came by and we asked the time and learned we’d now been in the cell for two and a half hours. We asked him when we were going to be released and he told us it took three to six hours to get out. We started getting loud and really grumpy. A guard came by with another woman to add to our cell and we snarled that we were crowded enough already. He pulled her back out saying, “OK, I’ll put her at the front of the line out of here then.” That just made us feel worse, of course.
My language deteriorated into the gutter as I started muttering f-bombs about what a f-ing gulag the place was and how this was f-ing cruel and unusual punishment and the guards were all f-ing sadists. Sandra gently reminded me that there were thousands of people in detention centers who were separated from their families forever and by comparison we really had nothing to complain about.
“But at least they have beds!” I wailed. I was definitely losing it.
Finally the time-challenged red-headed guard returned and herded us to another cell. We were at the final stage before release. First we were told to shut up and behave. Then we had to answer some questions proving our identity, get our fingers printed one last time, sign a release and get our belongings. Next we were pointed towards the magical door and told, “When you enter that room the door behind you will close before the door in front will open.” Sure enough the magic door thing happened and there in front of us were the swinging doors to freedom.
We walked out of the Fourth Avenue Jail to cameras, reporters, news cameramen, friends, family members and fellow activists who were all gathered there to greet us. It was the most amazing thing ever. I fell into my husband’s arms and bawled like a baby. No matter how much I thought I was ready for that place, I realized that nothing could have prepared me for what went on in there. We’d entered a kind of hell that you can only read about but never really imagine.
Arpaio’s cruelty showed in every policy, from the freezing tanks with no place to lie down except on rock hard concrete without something as basic and decent as a blanket, to the crappy food and sick mind games played by the guards. It’s a system designed to beat down, dehumanize and punish those who have not yet even been convicted of a crime, all the while operating under the misguided belief that if they manage to inflict enough suffering, people will somehow never return.
But it doesn’t work that way in real life. Instead the jail becomes a Matrix that the poor, the mentally ill, the drug addicted or the poorly educated find too daunting to navigate out of, akin to beating the fallen horse that is unable to get up. Not one of them ever wanted to come back there and yet there they were. Despite all that, we also found humanity flourishing in those cells full of women supporting each other as they struggled to survive in a system designed to ensure failure.
I know I never want to go back to Arpaio’s gulag but it’s also very possible I may once again find myself out in the middle of a busy street in Phoenix shouting “Whose streets? OUR streets!” because sometimes it seems to be the only option left to us. If SB1070 is upheld I know that many more of us will need to prepare ourselves to enter The Matrix.
Only next time I’ll wear a hoodie and I’m definitely going bowling.
Watch the video by Dennis Gilman of the protests and arrests along with testimony before the Senate Judicial Committee on SB1070
Amy McMullen is an activist for human rights and social, economic and health justice currently residing in Arizona. Her former incarnations include back-to-the-land counter culturalist, small business entrepreneur, charter boat captain, EMT, and rehabber of distressed homes. She is currently unemployed except for her writing and the required care and maintenance of her husband and two dogs. She also volunteers for the Phoenix Urban Health Collective as a street medic. Her writings on social justice and other subjects appear in Truthout, Salon, The Tucson Sentinel, The Pragmatic Progressive and on her blog at Open Salon.