53 Hours With Kafka in St. Louis
I spent the two worst nights of my life in the St. Louis City Justice Center. I did not experience nor witness any physical violence, not even credible threats. What I got was plenty of apathetic incompetence, banal sadism, and agonizing obtuseness. The vast majority of people dragged through this institution are poor and/or black, though plenty were educated. Their complaints are evidently easily and frequently ignored. I hope to convince people outside that demographic the City Jail really is run absurdly poorly.
I run a small real estate business specializing in North St. Louis City. This winter ravaged my bottom line. Repair costs are running five times over this time last year. I was quickly reduced to a 24 hour cash cycle, so when I got two traffic tickets in the city, and summons for unpaid vacancy code fine in Florissant, I was forced to choose between paying arbitrary fees to the government, or keeping my tenants homes operational. Many of these people are behind on their rent, yet when its 5 degrees out, I still fixed water heaters and roofs every time, with no breathing room left over for my own problems. Thats the decision I made, wise or not, which got me multiple warrants. I was finally pulled over noon Tuesday 2-18-14, at Grand and Shaw for expired plates.
I was politely cooperative, immediately informed cop I have CCW and a pistol. My permission is not asked, but my vehicle is searched. He finds a google route map of every Bank of America in the city. I collect rent in cash in places like Fairground Park. I need to know the closest bank wherever I happen to be. A sergeant arrives and uses this very flimsy evidence to charge me as an “armed fugitive”. This seems pretty farfetched, so I am still mainly concerned about a wasted evening. My passenger was also arrested with no charges or warrants.
We both sit cuffed for an hour until an FBI agent arrives to interrogate me at 2nd District station, about what he has been told is a bank robbery conspiracy. I talk about my business 10 minutes and he leaves, and person riding with me is released. I hope the sergeant who felt it necessary to bring this matter to the Federal government’s attention is at least embarrassed. I wait in the 2nd Dist holding cell for several hours, with Lovelle Robinson, 26yo Benton Park resident, who by the end of this ordeal, I’d consider a friend. He’s trapped in a vicious cycle of fines he can’t afford which cost his license, and inevitable jail time, which costs his job, six times, and half his demographic is in this snare. What good is providing a transportation network for your citizens, but enforcing rules so draconian --allegedly for their safety-- that they are pauperized out of using the system at all?
The sergeant informs me he has graciously dropped the weapons charges and I am being shipped downtown for the traffic warrants. My gun is mailed to Jeff City for a ballistics tests. Allegedly I get it back in 4-6 weeks, assuming I haven't shot anyone.
4p, we are handcuffed together en route to the Justice Center. We arrive on the loading dock of this monolithic cube, with 15' ceilings, and are detail searched. Routine processing questions are answered. And now I am expecting some kind of briefing of what are my options and how long until the next step. Instead my questions are deferred to “later” and I am uncuffed and placed in one of four 10’x20’ cells, standing room only, with 25 other prisoners. The door is plexiglass, naturally lots of shouting, very difficult to hear guards.
And the hours begin to pass.
I am hearing from several different repeat visitors that we are waiting to go up “upstairs”, presumably to smaller cells. I am not hearing how and when you can pay money to get out of here. At 6pm we are given a dinner of single slice of bologna on two slices of bread and six very stale tortilla chips.
By 8pm I was eager to make a deal. The atmosphere in the cell was convivial, but grumpy to the say the least. And yet still absolutely no communication of substance from anyone in authority. The blue shirts refer you to the burgundy shirts, who refer you to the white shirts, who say they don’t have your file. And you get one sentence in passing every ten minutes.
Around 11pm we are marched en masse upstairs. And placed in an identical cell, on an identical laid out floor. Two hours pass. Its 1am and dawns on us, this is it, there are no bunks coming. The people who designed this system expect 25 adults to sleep shoulder to shoulder on the concrete floor of a 60degree, urine rank cattle car, regardless of what they came in here wearing, or committing. Some percentage of these people will be found not guilty.
I have a leather coat, and resign myself to optimizing for some pathetic local maximum of comfort. I’ve got to choose between a terrible pillow, or a terrible blanket, nuzzled against total strangers stuck here against their will. I’m not fearful of them, but holy hell, doesn’t mean I’d invite them over to snuggle. Every 45-90 minutes prisoners are swapped for unclear reasons. Its impossible to relax, the anticipation of the next door opening, that my existence will be acknowledged, and I will be given a glimmer of an opportunity to bargain for release, or at least some kind of ETA.
Ambient noise is extremely disruptive, even as most prisoners try to fall asleep. I am very hungry. I doze shallowly until about 4a. I sit up, look around at this tight row of poor wretches, and just jawdrop that this is a normal night here. Every single night our city makes 70-90 citizens submit to this, a majority of them for inconsequential violations, and many of them innocent. I thought this was my night. The second was worse.
At 5a Wednesday, I receive another meager snack and people are starting to be called to court. The entire morning goes by no further updates. 11a at last I hear my name again and I am marched to videocourt, a term I never heard before this incident. I am taken to a camera booth with an old man glancing over from a flickery monitor. Well isn’t this charmingly Orwellian. Judge Headroom tells me court date is 3-13-14, I owe $50. “Ok” says me. That is the entirety of information I receive about my case. Back to cells. As lunch arrives we enjoy 2hr window only 10 people in the cell. Spirits are lifted as presumably this is the last stop for us in the Justice Center and we’re being stamped for export, either to free world or another facility.
No. By 2pm, cell has filled back up to the 25 headcount which covered the entire squarefootage of floorspace the night before. Now we are getting antsy. Some are supposed to be cut loose, some people going to various County jails like me, or more serious offenders waiting for the Hall Street workhouse, or Bonne Terre.
But nothing happens. Except more prisoners. They are constantly badgering the guards re: pickups, or even where they are wanted. All inquiries totally rebuffed. After dinner Wednesday, headcount hits 29 and stays there for the night. This forces two people to sleep immediately adjacent to the toilet, and two to sit upright all night; all others 4-6 inches apart on their backs on raw concrete. As the evening wears on, I am again dismayed. I can’t believe this is how this place is run, that I am sleeping like this another night. Ironically I had planned to attend a Lewis Reed fundraiser this evening, and now I really have something to talk to him about.
The slightest change in routine is a minor hope that some crack will form in this surreal wall of silence. A new batch of guards every 8 hours, means someone might let slip what the hell is going on behind the curtain.
I am struck with how sympathetic this crowd is to each other, its about 80:20 black:white, and there’s an effort to accommodate each other as much as possible in the circumstances. I got along fine with every inmate I met, some of them were fascinating conversation subjects.
The stories I am hearing from them over and over drive home what a paralyzing force the police exert in many Northside and state street neighborhoods. The aggressive tactics, and senseless spillover economic consequences, give powerful vibe of an uncaring occupation, not protective servants.
Around 1a Thursday its beyond shadow of a doubt no more pickups for the night, frustrations get more vocal. An Elliot Davis fan demands an investigation and lawsuit. Our collective action is thwarted by mere lack of a contraband pen. No means to record a contact list among a group that will never naturally convene again.
My opinion on the plan is sought, as the token capitalist present at the birth of the movement. I give a quick lecture on how lobbying works. Have your people blow up your alderman’s phone, state rep, mayor, sheriff, stake out their office. Demand meetings, call Town Halls. Don’t waste your time waving a sign in his parking lot. Make sure every elected official directly hears this every day.
I unsettle in under unyielding fluorescents. I go fetal in front corner of cell, and just try to endure semi-consciousness. I smell exactly like you’d expect. Around 9a shuffled around the bowels of this monstrosity, and finally loaded into Florissant's custody about noon.
The contrast is simple but stark. Florissant has a whiteboard listing everyone locked up here, what they did, what they owe, where they’re going next, and when that pick up is. Wow, that is so easy to give a foothold of peace of mind. When I finally got a lumpy plastic mattress and blanket and more than coffin sized personal space, I was so relieved it was almost as good as being free. Having to openly strip naked to change into jumpsuit didn't even phase me at this point.
My bizarre episode concludes around 5p Thursday.
If you were in the Justice Center with me between 2-18-14 and 2-20-14, I would like to hear from you.
If you are responsible for how that place is run, I challenge you to justify yourself.
I am the Missouri Republican 5th District committeeman.
I am running for MO 79th State Representative.
Please vote August 5th.