Am I Getting Too Old For This Stuff?

Am I Getting Too Old For This Stuff? By Steve Clemens. May 8, 2009

Déjà vu hit me when I starred at the one piece stainless steel toilet and sink on one side of my cell and the cracked pathetic excuse for a mattress and pillow laid out on the concrete slab bunk across my 8x10 cage. Was it really more than 28 years ago that I had my first prolonged taste of jail?

In February of 1981 at the age of 30, I joined five others in scaling the fence outside a nuclear weapons plant in Amarillo, TX and was rewarded with 6 months of “hospitality” at the hands of the government. I was “blessed” with three months in the Potter County Jail followed by three months in the Federal Prison in Texarkana. At that youthful age, I was fascinated by the life on the “inside”. As a college graduate with a sociology degree plus a year of social work graduate studies, the jail and prison experiences were like an extended field trip, studying the norms and mores of some new, exotic culture. It wasn’t so difficult to hop up into the upper bunk and you took whatever limited space was available for your exercises.

Yesterday was my first time in jail since my three months in federal prison in 2006. The years haven’t been as kind as I’d like. My back was aching despite taking ibuprofen before the planned civil disobedience action at the immigration deportation center. I supplemented it with extra strength Tylenol a couple of hours into our protest just before we sat in the driveway prior to our arrest. Fortunately our affinity group only sat down on the asphalt 15 minutes before arrest so we could quickly move to another spot if the action coordinators determined that to be the best strategy to prevent or delay the deporting of immigrants that day. But even the 15-20 minutes were uncomfortable and several times I had to unlink my arms from those of my fellow protesters to better brace my aching back.

When they came to arrest me, I mentioned my carpal tunnel problems with my wrist and the police fastened one hand with the flexi-cuff and attached it to a pair of metal handcuffs for the other. Then the cuffs were linked together behind my back in a way that wasn’t as painful as one pair of standard cuffs would be for the 15-minute ride to the jail. I chose to walk with the arresting officers rather than expecting them to carry me off like most of the youthful protesters had before me.

At the jail, most of the men were crowded in to the same holding cell that contained two concrete benches and the requisite stainless toilet and sink. For much of the time there were 13 of us in that “hold”, waiting to be called one-by-one for the booking process. Prior to being put in the holding cell, we were patted down and had to remove all but our T-shirts, trousers, and socks. The cellblock was cold and with only a T-shirt, I was slightly chilled.

But most of my fellow prisoners didn’t seem to mind the temperature. Jerry, the only other protester over 40 who was arrested, had already been processed after he nearly passed out when confined earlier in the arrest process. All of my holding cellmates exuded youthful energy while I was mostly content to sit and reflect on our nonviolent action. It was a long wait for the booking process and it became clear that we were not going to be given any food despite the “jail rules” sign on the wall that stated the meal times with the proviso that you had to eat your meal “within 30 minutes”.

Andrew had been kept in a separate cell and we requested of the police guard that he be allowed to join us after a few others had been booked and moved out of our cell, “Tank 2”. When they finally brought him to join us, he had somehow avoided having to surrender his watch, probably because his T-shirt was long-sleeved and covered it. He told us it was 1:30. I had arrived about 10AM with the last group of arrestees; the first group had arrived about an hour before. Careful reading of the “jail rules” posted in the hallway clarified that meals happened only after you were booked. I guess until they took your photo and fingerprints you didn’t need anything. Thank goodness none of us were diabetic.

I was asked to sign a form twice that I had received my “property” back before I could even check if it was all there. I thought I’d be able to get to put on my shirt (and jacket!) before my imminent release. I knew it was about 2PM. I passed some of the women who had been arrested with me as they were being ready to be escorted out of police custody. They had their clothes and property with them. They unlocked a cell door for me and I assumed that was where I could get dressed.

Instead I found it to be a solitary cell to wait until my fingerprints had been compared with the databases of the BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in MN) and the FBI. “It shouldn’t take too long,” one of the booking officers told me. And I was instructed to leave my plastic bag of my possessions outside before the door was slammed shut and locked. Somehow, those loud clangs of prison cell doors being slammed quickly invade my memories of 28 years ago! That’s when I found myself with the familiar “mattress and pillow” and the one-piece toilet/sink. I was too tired to care that there was no sheet, pillowcase, or blanket. I just stretched out my tired body on the concrete slab and dozed off. I was startled awake by a pounding on the small inoperable window with the obscure pane to allow light but not vision out near the top of the outer wall of the cell. I later discovered it was my “jail support” friends on the outside trying to let me know I was not abandoned.

Finally, at 4:40, seven hours after being placed under arrest, the door opened and I was instructed to grab my stuff and leave. I was told “the computer was down for awhile”. I was hustled out to a waiting room outside the booking area before I could open my bag and retrieve my belt, driver’s license, ATM card, shoes, shirt, pen, jacket, and my “Get Out of Jail Free” Monopoly card that my captors laughed at when I handed it to them. “That card doesn’t work here in Bloomington,” the police said. I signed my citation stating that I had been arrested for “disorderly conduct” and “trespass” with a June 16 court date in Edina. I know the drill. I’ve been there before. But disorderly conduct? We were nothing if very orderly and respectful before, during, and after arrest.

As I quickly dressed in front of a mother and her pre-school child in the waiting room, one of the jail support team entered and said with excitement, “Steve, we’re glad you’re out! Everybody’s waiting for you outside!” I walked into the sunlight and warm air to be greeted by at least 20-30 people and made to run the “gauntlet” of outstretched hands to give me “high 5s” for the protest action. They gave me a bottle of water, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and an orange. I wanted to sit down, enjoy the sunshine and warmth and be grateful for these new friends.

I’ve grown accustomed to getting arrested with nuns in their 70s. We are often treated more quickly and respectfully by arresting officers and booked on-site. Somehow, this seven-hour ordeal seemed to communicate that someone takes our protest more seriously. I may be getting older but I’m still inspired by the Marv Davidovs, the Dan Berrigans, the Betty Mckenzies, and the MacDonald sisters in my life. It’s too late to turn back now. Until justice comes …

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