At about 7:45 p.m. on Friday, I was arrested.
My crime was not as glamorous as I would have hoped — there was no police chase, no explosions, and no hostages were taken. Like an idiot, I forgot (read: declined) to pay a ticket I received in early March for allegedly not wearing my seat belt — emphasis on the “allegedly.”
I spent the next 17 hours working my way through various stages of the NYPD’s booking process and discovered several painful — in many cases urine-related — realities of the criminal justice system in New York City.
For starters, they tell you the booking process should take no more than 24 hours. That guarantee is even posted on the walls of each holding cell on a poster explaining “what you can expect” during the booking process. However, as an officer in Brooklyn’s central booking office reassured one of my fellow prisoners, “that 24-hour shit sounds good and all, but we can keep you here as long as we want. You could be here for 94 hours — I don’t care.”
Second, everything — and I mean everything — in Brooklyn’s central booking office smells like urine. It’s pretty remarkable, actually — it’s as if they have piss-scented candles that they burn 24 hours a day to remind you that this is a place you don’t want to end up ever again.
Third, don’t wear a blazer to central booking. It will only prompt officers to call you “crazy white guy,” and invite questions from fellow inmates to which there is no answer that will give you even a shred of street cred — it’s impossible to look cool when someone asks, “What the fuck did you do?” And your answer is “Well, shucks — I forgot to pay a seat belt ticket I got while driving around in my fuel-efficient, reliable Mazda hatchback.”
I was stopped on my way to meet friends for dinner
in Queens. My second mistake (the first being my failure to pay this
stupid ticket) was taking a route that brought me through Brownsville —
one of the most crime-plagued sections of Brooklyn. In response to the
recent spike in crime, Brownsville is swarming with cops —
especially on a Friday night.
The officer who stopped me was part
of the NYPD’s “Task Force” — a special unit of officers deployed to
high-crime areas to lend support to the neighborhood’s beat cops. He was nice — he explained the situation and that he needed to take me
to the 7-3 Precinct. Then he put me in cuffs.
“Wait, are you seriously arresting me over a seat belt ticket?” I asked.
then learned that he was, in fact, serious — though, I declined to
point out that spending the next several hours dealing with a seat belt
law offender would keep him off the streets, where he could be fighting, well, crime.
he allowed me to call someone to retrieve my car to avoid the “living
hell” that my life would have been if he’d had it impounded
7-3 Precinct is a bustling spot on a Friday night — dozens of cops are
zipping in and out, dropping off the day’s catch before the alleged
criminals are sent to Central Booking and either released or taken to
Apparently noticing that I didn’t exactly blend in
with the other arrestees, a plainclothes meathead asked my arresting
officer — in a thick Brooklyn accent — “What the fuck did he do?”
“Who are you?” the officer responded in a rather condescending tone.
“I’m a sergeant, who are you?” the prickly cop snapped back (it was very Wahlberg-esque via The Departed). “Oh, Officer George. That’s not how you talk to a sergeant — or anyone — now is it, officer? Return to patrol, officer.”
this point, I figured I was fucked — having been scolded by a superior
officer, I figured Officer George’s kind-hearted demeanor would take a
swift turn. To my surprise, it didn’t — he remained courteous,
respectful (as one can be to someone wearing the NYPD’s wrist
accessories), and eager to keep me from getting the shit kicked out of
me by some of the other prisoners.
Rather than feeding a guy
wearing a blazer to the wolves in the general holding cell — where
about 15 alleged criminals were waiting for a ride to central booking in
a standing-room only room that’s roughly the size of a closet —
Officer George escorted me to a single holding cell in a back room of
the precinct, presumably for my own protection.
contents of this particular cell includes the following: a jailhouse
toilet containing roughly 50 ounces of urine, about a dozen flies, two
cigarette butts, various rubbish including a torn piece of what I
presume was a religious pamphlet (I was not about to pick it up to
investigate) with the words “Is This the Life You Want to Be Living?”
written on it. There was also a half-eaten Snickers bar that a mouse —
that apparently lives under the toilet — attempted to eat before I
stomped my foot to shoo him away.
In the hallway connecting the roughly five cells was various garbage — McDonald’s bags and other fast food waste.
the single cell next to me was an African American man named Charles,
who’d apparently been in the precinct since early Friday morning. And he
was not happy about it.
His arresting officer — Officer Goggins — was just as courteous as Officer George.
Charles explained to both me and Officer Goggins, he was in the throes
of “dope sickness.” Heroin, Charles told me later, was the cause of his
sickness — though, it was not what led to his arrest (weed, he says,
is why he was bedding down in police custody that night).
the pain, Officer Goggins gave Charles not one but two Newport
cigarettes, which he proceeded to smoke in the small, unventilated cell block
that we shared. Goggins then promised to do whatever he could to get
Charles processed as quickly as possible, and apologized for the delay.
Charles thanked the officer, and assured him that he’s “one of the good
ones.” Goggins then asked if Charles was hungry and offered to pick him
up something to eat.
In my 17 hours in NYPD custody, I observed
that — contrary to popular belief — officers didn’t treat anyone like
shit based on race; the officers who were assholes were assholes to
everyone (myself included). The professional officers were courteous to
everyone across the board (yes, I realize I was given my own cell while others weren’t, but so was Charles).
three hours in the urine-filled cell at the 7-3 Precinct, Officer George
told me it was time to go to Central Booking. He assured me that I
would be out within a few hours. That, it turns out, was not that case.
we zipped down Atlantic Avenue toward Downtown Brooklyn, the flashing
lights were on pretty much the entire time — despite there being no
actual emergency. The cops, apparently, just didn’t want to wait in
I will say this: Watching motorists pull off to the side
of the road thinking they’re getting pulled over by the boys in blue is
funny as hell — their relieved faces as the lights go zipping by are
priceless. I now completely understand why cops abuse cruiser lights.
When you’re escorted
into the NYPD’s Central Booking building, you walk into a horseshoe of
holding cells filled with alleged criminals. A central desk manned by
roughly four officers is in the middle of the room — and those officers
apparently are the jokers of the bunch.
My name — James King — when read in the reverse is “King James.”
Bible, or a supermodel, usually comes to mind. These bozos, however,
joked that they’d collared the small forward for the Miami Heat.
“King James — he’s right here, we got him,” the officer at the desk chuckled to his buddy. “What did LeBron do?”
my head, I thought: “Look, dipshit, clearly I’m not LeBron James. Take
my picture and shut the fuck up so I can get out of here.”
What came out of my mouth was, “Ha ha — sorry, I can’t dunk.”
George then ushered me through the processing stations before I was
thrown into a holding cell with about 20 other jailbirds.
about 12:30 a.m., and while I was told arraignments usually went until
1:30 in the morning, I figured I probably wasn’t making it to court
before the judge called it a night.
At about 1 a.m., the officers
moved us from one holding cell to another — we all were under the
impression that this meant freedom was just a few hours away. Then they
turned out the lights.
accepting the reality that I would be spending the night in a holding
cell with about 20 other people, my primary mission was to get as
comfortable as possible — which is no easy task in a room that’s
roughly 15′ by 20′ with a cement floor and wooden benches along each of
the three walls. Not to mention, the temperature was an estimated 90
degrees, which does nothing to help the B.O. factor.
booking veterans rushed into the cell to claim a spot on the floor. I
ended up seated on a bench next to a 17-year-old assault suspect who
“yoked up” a guy who was “fucking with” his 14-year-old sister. Sitting
across from me was a 21-year-old ecstasy dealer who was in custody
Friday night on a petty larceny charge for allegedly stealing clothes
from a retail store. Next to him was a man who got out of Rikers
literally 24 hours earlier after serving eight months for heroin
possession. Next to him was his uncle, and on the floor in front of him
was his cousin. The trio apparently got pinched for alleged heroin
We discussed a wide array of topics: drug of choice,
where we lived, and a 45-minute conversation comparing and contrasting
the differences between “Puerto Rican and Dominican pussy.” It was
Everyone got along just fine, and nobody was asked to grab their ankles.
about 3 a.m., I decided it was time for bed and did my best to
negotiate a spot on the floor in between an Asian man who didn’t speak a
lick of English — and therefore didn’t understand me when I asked “Hey, man, can you move over a bit?” — and the toilet.
Using my shoes as a pillow, I
contorted my body into an S-shape and hunkered down to catch a few Zs.
To my surprise, I actually slept.
been on my way to dinner when I was taken into custody, I hadn’t eaten
anything since roughly noon on Friday. And I was not about to eat
anything provided by the NYPD. This includes what appeared to be peanut
butter sandwiches, which some — apparently homeless — inmates were
wolfing down like it was filet mignon.
In the morning, we were provided Rice Krispies, which I also declined.
milk offered — to my surprise — was ice cold. So I drank three small
cartons and prepared for my release — or escape, whichever came first.
My freedom, however, would not be attained for another six hours.
about 8:30 a.m., my fellow cellmates and myself were shackled together
and led through a maze of narrow corridors leading to the courthouse,
where we were ushered into another holding cell that already was full of
alleged criminals who’d apparently been there since the night before.
all, there were probably 60 people in this room awaiting a meeting with
a public defender and an arraignment before a judge. This room, too,
was standing-room only — and reeked of piss.
What happens in
this room is as follows: You stand around and basically wait for someone
to scream your name, which means it’s your turn to meet with a public
defender in a tiny room — with a Plexiglas divider — and get the gist
of the evidence the state has on you.
Tales began to emerge of
people who’d been in this room for more than 36 hours — inmates told me
they’d arrived in the holding cell at noon on Thursday and were still
awaiting the coveted meeting with a government-provided attorney.
the center of this crowded room was a grungy man passed out on the
floor. And — adding to the urine scent of the room — he smelled like
absolute shit (the heat certainly did nothing to help the aroma).
Humanity In A Holding Cell:
overriding theme of this particular holding cell was how bad the man
sleeping in its center smelled. His feet were caked with filth and he
had clearly been living on the street. It was rumored that his name had
been called to meet with a public defender — and presumably find his
way back to freedom — 24 hours earlier, but he declined the meeting in
an effort to keep a roof over his head, regardless of the fact that the
roof was that of a jail cell.
As my fellow inmates mocked the man
— some kicking him and then joking that he made their shoes dirty —
people started throwing Rice Krispy boxes at him.
blazer, I came to the conclusion that condemning this abuse was not in
my best interest. But a man seated across from me had more balls than I.
After the third round of Krispy-ing, this man spoke up.
“Leave him the fuck alone,” this inmate screamed at the group. “His shit’s bad enough, he don’t need this bullshit.”
The abusive inmates, to my surprise, immediately stopped — and the homeless man at the center of the room went back to bed.
Guilty — But Not As Charged:
about four hours of waiting in a holding cell in the back of the
courthouse — with the suspicion that it could be up to two more days
before I was allowed to leave — it happened: “James King,” someone
screamed, indicating that it was my turn to meet with my court-appointed
“It says here that you’re here over an unpaid seatbelt ticket,” she asked.
“Yep,” I answered back.
your license was suspended because you didn’t pay the ticket. The D.A.
has agreed to plea you down to a traffic violation. If you accept the
plea, you will have to pay a $200 fine,” she said.
“Does that mean I can get out of here?” I asked.
“Sign me up,” I responded.
hours later, I appeared before a judge and pleaded guilty to a traffic
violation at about 1 p.m. the day after my initial arrest.
I Was lucky:
I discovered during my relatively painless — but extremely
inconvenient — foray into New York’s criminal justice system is that
due process is irrelevant. The people who go through the booking process
haven’t been convicted of anything. Yet, they’re treated like convicted
criminals and held in custody for extended periods of time.
mentioned, some of the alleged criminals I met during my time as a
guest of the city had been in custody for several days before they even
got to meet with an attorney. The paperwork for three of my fellow
cellmates had somehow been lost between the time of their arrest and
when they’d been taken to the holding cell where they were supposed to
be on a list to meet with a public defender. When they told NYPD
officers that they’d been there for days and asked that they check on
their paperwork, they basically were told to fuck off.
the prisoners I spoke with were there — according to them — after
having been stopped during a “stop and frisk” operation and cops found
weed in their pocket. As we’ve reported, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has directed his officers to not make arrests for low-level marijuana violations
that are the result of “stop and frisk.” These charges — in most cases
— are dropped. But only after the supposed offender has spent several
days negotiating the NYPD’s booking process.
As one inmate
explained, he has a job — when he disappears for two days and is going
through central booking, he runs the risk of losing his job.
got lucky — I got arrested on a Friday night and didn’t have to worry
about getting to work the next day. Not to mention, I was guilty.
That, unfortunately, is not always the case.
As if 17 hours in central booking wasn’t enough of a kick in the balls, I now have the DMV to look forward to.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 24, 2012