Public Comment

Commentary: My Jail Term

By Rob Browning
Tuesday November 07, 2006

The most diverting feature of my jail cell was the handsome stainless-steel console attached to one wall that cleverly combined the functions of washbasin, drinking fountain, and toilet. In its economy of line, its satisfying serviceability in all its functions, and its efficient and hygienic separation of those functions, it was the kind of thing one might encounter in the design galleries of the Museum of Modern Art. A very distant second place goes to the disposable toothbrush. After removing it from its sanitary package, I followed instructions to push the handle toward the brush head, which broke a seal and squeezed rather tasty toothpaste up into the bristles. My cell offered three of these. But even in the tedium of my two and a half hour confinement I used only one. 

Other diversions were slender. Nothing to read. No Gideon Bible. No Reader’s Digest. No TV. Through the plexiglass wall at the front of my cell I could observe activity in the central reception area, but alas I’d drawn a rather lethargic, crime-deprived season for my sojourn. 

I was able to watch the fingerprinting of the thirtyish woman with the wake-up fountain of hair spritzing Versailles-like from the crown of her head. She had arrived in the booking chamber a few minutes after I did, wonderfully enlivening the sociability of that grim place. Before I was taken to my cell, she and I sat near one another on a bench along one wall, each with our hands cuffed behind our backs. The ice was broken when one of her captors glanced casually at the paper showing the charge against me and asked me if I were that person. My fellow inmate seemed to approve of my achievement. I asked her what she was in for. “All kinds of shit,” she confessed. I said I hoped she’d enjoyed it all. “Very much,” she grinned. 

My crime spree began when I parked my van parallel to the street in the broad driveways of some garages that I rent. The van was slightly on the sidewalk but in no way impeded the use of the sidewalk. In a neighborhood where many of my neighbors travel in wheelchairs, I am super-sensitive to the blocking of sidewalks. In this case I had parked so that two wheelchairs could easily have sashayed past performing intertwining figure-eights. I left my van there for perhaps five minutes and when I returned found a citation on the windshield. It was for parking “on or across sidewalk.” 

Spotting the parking enforcement vehicle about a block away, I drove there. “Did you put this on my windshield?” I asked the officer. “Yes,” she said, “you were parked on the sidewalk.” I said, “I was in no way blocking the sidewalk.” “You were parked on the sidewalk,” she repeated. I asked her to take back the ticket. She refused. The stupidity and unfairness of it overcame me and I stuck the crumpled citation under the epaulet of her jacket. It was not a wise gesture. 

Driving a couple of blocks to where I had business to do, for a few minutes I enjoyed some deep sense of injustice answered. It was a fleeting satisfaction. 

I parked and was walking toward my destination when an armada of police cars appeared. In short order, I was halted by a very severe officer, who commanded me gruffly to “Give me those things,” referring to the looseleaf binder and highlighter markers I was carrying. I couldn’t imagine what might seem dangerous about them. I suggested he might say “Please” and he barked still more gruffly to “Give me those things.” I did that. He threw them on the sidewalk and stepped on the binder. I suggested no further courtesies. 

A small battalion of officers assembled, one of them wearing devil’s horns (it was Halloween). The neighbors were impressed. I was told that I was to be charged with battery on a police officer. I was frisked and handcuffed. In the course of this, several officers spoke civilly with me and asked me to describe my exchange with the traffic officer. The exception was the barking one, who at one point snarled in my face something like: “Are you a mental case? Are you on drugs?” The questions were probably rhetorical, but I answered, as honestly as I could, “no” to both. Later, as he was hustling me toward a police car, another officer said to him, “Don’t play with him. Just put him in the car.” 

I was released from jail after a very few hours. I sent a note to the traffic officer acknowledging that I knew she was just doing what she regarded as her job and apologizing for any distress I may have caused her. Judging from the magnitude of the reaction, I caused a lot. 

In retrospect I’m a little ashamed that my jailing resulted from so paltry an infraction. It rises nowhere near the stature of Henry Thoreau’s one-day incarceration for tax-refusal over the Mexican War. It lacks any of the sordid passion that put the poet Paul Verlaine in prison for shooting the provocative Arthur Rimbaud in the wrist. And Mohandas Gandhi’s life-long readiness to face imprisonment for the noblest principles brilliantly eclipses my fleeting and unanticipated acquaintance with the lockup. 

I did learn something. If you are ever handcuffed, relax your arms. Handcuffs punish resistance. But one can settle into them rather cozily if the arms and wrists just dangle. 


Rob Browning is a Berkeley resident whose court date later this month will presumably determine how the case he describes here is resolved.