Think of it as a field trip to the county jail–a chance to study the criminal justice system from the inside, to gather material for a short story, or to be compassionate with someone down on their luck.
“It’s not prison; it’s jail,” a student reminded me. I was speaking to a peace studies class at N.C. Central University about my civil disobedience Jan. 20 at Central Prison with 14 others, protesting the execution that night of Perrie Dyon Simpson. The students were teaching their teacher, as all students do, about prison, the codes, the dangers, the boredom–and my travails did not compare. They were listening, but not beaming their support as a lefty circle might. They were holding back a bit, weighing their commitment, measuring my white privilege in balance with the crushing weight of injustice guised in intricate laws. It was a start.
I remember the sobbing African-American cop as we recited the litany of Lamentations on our knees. She was not trying to conceal her emotion as she lined up with the other uniformed officers, barring our entrance onto the killing grounds. Perhaps she was recalling the prayers sent up for a wayward brother.
My arresting officer was almost apologetic. “These aren’t too tight?” he asked as he fastened the plastic ties behind my back. I wondered if I reminded him of his Sunday school teacher, or the English teacher who praised his stab at Hamlet. I walked to the bus to join my affinity group as the people at the vigil held candles and sang songs of hope.
As I waited on the bus feeling like a Freedom Rider, I heard that one officer said, “Hope to see you next time.” Were they with us, or did the synchronized arresting just provide some excitement for the evening? We mostly chit-chatted on the way to the jail downtown, comparing arrest experiences, but we did break into “Shall We Gather at the Prison?” as the city lights shined through the grated windows.
“Looks like you are back for three hots and a cot,” a cop with Falstaff’s girth and garrulousness quipped at the disheveled man slouching in the booking room. Later, while we sat in one of the cells, a member of our MLK affinity group, Ethan, handed the sobering man a Gideon’s Bible and introduced himself.
“My son’s middle name is Ethan,” the scruffy man said with a smile. The two men talked for a while about faith and recovery.
“I’m thinking about Perrie,” Martin said. The tall, thin Catholic who resembles one of El Greco’s priests had been sitting quietly and not participating in our conversation about community homes. We were sequestered in a cell at the back of the jail. The green mats provided some relief from the unforgiving concrete. We joined Martin’s silence as 2 a.m. neared–the hour of Perrie’s execution. Perrie’s story had many of the same elements of other men whom North Carolina has killed. He was poor, black, inadequately represented, and he murdered a white person. The state deemed him an appropriate human sacrifice to appease the god of security.
And we followed in the steps of Elijah in the naming of this idolatry.