Three Days in NYC Jails

Black = Terrorist = Thug: The New Racial Profile?

I looked around at the cell. Someone had tagged "Problem Child" on the wall. I stared at those words so long they began taking shape in my own impromptu poem. More time passed. I wondered how long I would be in jail. The poetry was flowing, but there was nothing poetic or just about where I was. No one took my prints again.

At a poetry reading during my last semester of law school, a Liberian filmmaker who had been a finalist at the Sundance Film Festival the year before asked me to audition for his latest project. I had no prior interest in acting, but read for the role anyway. Several months later, I received a call from the director, Kona Khasu, asking me to play the lead. His movie, Hunting in America, told the story of a young attorney who is racially profiled while driving a black truck, almost exactly as I had been. Khasu knew nothing about my incident with the NYPD. And here I was, in jail again. This was life imitating art imitating life.

I wondered if anyone would believe me when they heard I had been wrongfully arrested again. I could hardly believe it myself. Since I was interviewed on 60 Minutes in 2001 about the first incident, I have had more than a dozen cases of identity theft. Funds have been removed from my bank account; credit cards obtained with my Social Security number have been maxed out.

"This floating jail shared the name of the family that once owned my ancestors."
photo: Marc Asnin
"This floating jail shared the name of the family that once owned my ancestors."

A security guard at Columbia University arrested a young man carrying an ID card with my name and his picture. My law school dean was called by a judge in New Jersey who claimed I had interviewed with him, clerked at his courthouse for a week, and then stolen his bankruptcy files. During a telephone conversation a few days later, I discovered several inconsistencies on the résumé he had with my name. It was only after the judge received a copy of my law school photo ID that the judge believed I was not the thief in question.

Later that same day, while prepping me to return to court, Alison Webster advised me not to mention having a law degree or teaching at a university. The judge gave me a $50 ticket for having a busted taillight. (Months later, I received a notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles. The reason my license had been suspended and confiscated was that the DMV had failed to process records proving insurance coverage for my truck.) But there were still three warrants for my arrest, one of which included a felony charge of grand larceny. The judge said I would have to return to Manhattan Criminal Court for another hearing. He set bail for me. My family arrived that evening with the money. The clerk counted out $3,000, then apologized.

"I'm sorry," she said. "We don't have any more bail receipts. Mr. Bain will not be able to go home with you today." The prison was out of paper. So I spent another night in jail.

Day 3 Monday, November 25

Before the sun came up, I was among a dozen or so inmates chained together to board a bus for Rikers Island. An iron-barred door was locked to separate the driver and a correctional officer from the rows of inmates seated in the back of the bus. Just before we pulled off, I overheard a senior officer change our destination to a place he called "The VCBC." We went to a dock at Hunts Point in the Bronx, and drove onto a boat. It was a floating jail. The sign in front of the gates read: "Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center." The irony was overwhelming. This boat shared the name of the family that once owned my ancestors. And here I was, centuries later, being loaded back onto a ship in chains.

We were ordered to strip naked and prepare for cavity searches. A young inmate who voiced his reluctance to do so was dragged into a back room by three guards. Every man in line heard his cries as he was beaten.

At dawn, I was taken with several inmates to the criminal courthouse in Manhattan. The officer who processed my paperwork laughed when I said I wasn't guilty. His response echoed a cliché from countless films: "Sure you're innocent. So is everybody here."

A well-dressed young attorney, Eric Williams, introduced himself to me. I began to discuss strategy with the namesake of the man who fought to liberate my parents' native Trinidad from colonial rule. This Williams was a former student of one of the leading defense attorneys in the U.S.: Jill Soffiyah Elijah, whom I had called collect from jail the day before. We had met at Harvard's Criminal Justice Institute, where she teaches and represents clients from Dorchester and Roxbury.

Williams asked the court for my prints and photos, but his request was denied. He told Judge Robert M. Stolz that this was the seventh case of identity theft I had experienced since I was unjustly arrested two years prior. The assistant district attorney, Justin Herdman, interrupted him. "Your honor," began the dark-haired young man in a blue suit, "to avoid any potential conflict of interest, I should inform you that I know the defendant. He was in my law school class at Harvard."

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