An Education in Incarceration

It's time we as a society must decide whether or not the tools we use to protect us will eventually be our undoing.
07/07/2013 05:15 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2013

Thursday, May 16 was probably the most beautiful day of the year to date both literally and figuratively.

The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, the temperature reached 80 degrees for the first time all year and I was celebrating the commencement of my Masters degree. The speeches were your typical elations of encouragement to newly conferred graduates to go out and conquer the world around them.

One of the highlights of the commencement was an impressive speech given by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. He spoke of opportunity, career development and gave a shout out to all things Brooklyn under the sun.

Yet, while teachers, faculty, and my fellow classmates sat with a well-deserved sense of gratification for their accomplishments, I grappled with feelings of doubt, skepticism and anger.

Why? Approximately one week earlier I was sitting in Central Bookings, more affectionately termed "Brooklyn House."

Traveling between my cousin's condo and my apartment is about as routine for me as brushing my teeth before I go to sleep, which is why I was in a state of complete WTF'ness when a police squad car pulled alongside me on my bike and asked me for identification.

I peacefully complied (as most black men have been drilled to do). However, as I prepared to bid the officer adieux they informed me that I had a warrant for my arrest. Apparently, I had an unpaid ticket from 2011. I informed the officers that all my tickets were paid and I would happily procure the receipt for them. But there was no talking my way out of being handcuffed, booked and arrested. It would be another 24 hours before I would see a judge only to hear her say, "Whoops. Sorry about that. You're free to go." ... (Insert #FML)

As an aside, some lessons I was able to learn during my time in the joint:
  • Sandwiches are pillows
  • Benches are prime real estate
  • Toilets are deathtraps
  • Everyone is an unlicensed lawyer
  • Every meal is served w/ bread b/c every meal is bread
  • Quarters (read: 25ᅡᄁ) are worth their weight in gold

Sitting in the cell, I wasn't necessarily angry about being arrested. Inconvenienced? Definitely. But I also found myself beginning to justify my incarceration. Thoughts of a world where crimes being committed go unpunished were unbearable.

"So what? I spent a night in the clink ... But the system still works. Right?"

Then a funny thing happened once I "got home" and told my story to my friends and family. I happen to be fortunate enough to have a great circle of friends who are both well- accomplished and down to earth. Each one of them (lawyer, Wall St. executive, teacher, etc.) had their own story of when and why they were arrested and the petty infractions which led them to jail.

I remember listening to the police officers while I was being transported to Central Bookings tell each other how collars improved their chances for promotion. Hearing sobering conversations such as this, it's no wonder why organizations such as NYCLU provide stop-and-frisk statistics that baffle the mind.

I would say that over 90 percent of my fellow prisoners were "brown" (ain't nobody got time to break down each hue and its native origin). It all got me thinking about the methodology of the justice system, and how the means and ends don't justify one another.

Our current justice system (read: courts, prisons, police enforcement, etc.) just isn't sustainable. Currently the United States represents only 5 percent of the world's population yet houses a quarter of the world's prison population.

The current trend in police strategy in urban areas, particularly in NYC, consists of patrolling known "hot spots" searching for collars (when an officer catches or apprehends a suspect).

This strategy helps feed a system that again, is not sustainable!

Tax hikes, excess spending in budgets, and depleted inner-city infrastructures all point to this glaring reality.

What's the alternative? Recently, I read a publication by the Sentencing Project that envisioned a different kind of justice system, in the year 2036. This justice system lauded techniques of police problem-solving, evidence-based criminal investigations, and policy reforms that shift budgets from funding incarceration to education. One might naturally be inclined to ask: Why wait until 2036?

It's time we as a society must decide whether or not the tools we use to protect us will eventually be our undoing.