Monday, July 25th, 2016

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For Too Many Black Men, Prison Feels Like Home

Earlier this week, I was arrested and placed in the Atlanta City Jail. Mug shot. Finger-printed. “Random” stop. My crime: Traffic violation. From 1996. In New Jersey. This is not written in error.

In the process of suffering through this ordeal, I stumbled upon some disturbing scenes—scenes that will stick in my head for a long, long time. The view from inside the jail was not pretty; what I saw was a troubling comfort and familiarity too many black men have with the insides of our prisons. For many of them, getting sent back there was like going home.

My ordeal started in a place I haven’t lived in many years. It seems that a non-moving violation ticket was scraped up by someone up in New Jersey with little to do, resulting in the suspension of my New Jersey license (which I have not had in 16 years), which forced my Georgia license into suspension.

I first found out about this last year. I actually paid a lawyer in Jersey $2,500 to get to the bottom of things and an Atlanta lawyer $1,500 to assure all was straight here.

Well, all was definitely not straight, I regrettably learned.

But while the chaos of government bureaucracy is silly and frustrating, it is not the entire point of this piece. The points are multiple, starting with the “random” stop.

Being harassed for driving while black is frustrating beyond words. Only to have been stopped as I have—about a dozen times in the 16 years I have been in the Atlanta area—can you really understand the infuriating feeling that comes with it.

Each time I have been “randomly” pulled over I was in the South DeKalb suburb of Atlanta or in Southwest Atlanta—both areas highly populated by African Americans. And only two times did non-African American officers detain me.

What does that say?

The answers are many, and all of them sad. I asked the cop who apprehended me why he chose me. He got defensive. “It’s not a violation of your rights to do a random check,” he said.

“Really? It isn’t? It feels like it,” I said. “Still, why me?”

“I can’t speak for other officers,” he said. “I just pretty much check everyone.”

“Wow,” I said. “That seems like a lot, don’t you think?”

The conversation slowed at that point. He ended up saying, “I wish I didn’t have to do this to you.”

I tend to believe the demands of an officer’s job are so intense and African-American criminals are so rampant that cops are desensitized to discern one black man from the next. We’re all criminals until proven otherwise. But that’s just not acceptable.

So I’m in jail, and I look around and say to myself, “What the hell am I doing in here?”

I was incensed. More than that, I was embarrassed and humiliated. Once I got over those emotions, which took about five minutes, I was sad. Not about my situation—I would be bailed out eventually—but by the plight of the dozens and dozens of young men (and some young ladies, too) I witnessed come and go in my 10 hours there with no concern on their faces or in their gait.

It was a familiar place to most of them, so much so that they knew the correction officers by name—and vice versa. It’s one thing to read about how our African-American young men are caught up in the system. It’s quite another to see it first hand.

Soon, I was studying the place instead of detesting it. We were in a big room, a sort of recreation area with a couple of TVs, one on BET, the other on ESPN. On the perimeter were small cells that smelled of a combination of urine and sweat—and oppression. I have walked through the slave dungeons in Cape Coast, West Africa, and the stench of the cells was just as punitive to the senses. Needless to say, it was not a good day for my bladder, as I held my water longer than I have since I was a kid.

It was a gut-wrenching, humbling time. I had work to do, people to contact, free air to breathe. With no cell phone at my disposal, I felt hopeless and, well, not free. The correction officers demanded we raise our hands if we had questions. To hold on to my dignity, I refused to do that. I just walked up to them and said what I needed to say, which usually was about how much longer before I was released.

Most of my fellow inmates seemed totally comfortable being confined. Many of them knew each other and hugged when they reconnected as if they were at a family reunion in the park. I found that very sad.

They laughed about their crimes and bragged about the time they had to serve—or had served. One guy said he was in for soliciting prostitution. Another said he had robbed someone who used to be a friend. Still another was in a street fight outside a liquor store. With no shame, they ran off their offenses as easily as you’d boast about being promoted on your job.

And I could not help but think about the damage being caught up in this system has had on our communities. Many of these men were fathers and uncles. So how many black youths, in need of an example or leadership or just a dad to be there for direction and discipline, end up on the same aimless path because that’s what they saw in the men in their lives? Too many. It is the leading cause of the death of our communities, where crime and violence inflicted is black on black — and generational. Again, sad.

When it came time to eat, it occurred to me that I stood out among my other confined brothers. Four men came up to me, saying, “I know you’re not going to eat the food. Can I get yours?”

Gotta give it to them: They had me pegged. The bologna sandwich and cookies did not appeal to me. After getting their “food,” I was amazed that more than half of the men started trading. “I got a sandwich for some cookies” they yelled, and vice versa, and they reached across chairs making the exchanges. It all seemed so normal to them, so routine. Sad.

I studied the correction officers, too. What a joyless job, dealing daily with a mob of people who have essentially given up on having a productive life. There was a guy who was so out of control that they locked him in one of the small cells. He spent the next 20 minutes of so banging and kicking on the door. I seemed to be the only one there who thought that was strange.

At one point I counted 45 men waiting either to be released or sent “upstairs” to the real part of the jail. Two were white men who were homeless, three were Latinos who had immigration issues. The rest were black men ranging in age from 18 to a meek gentleman who looked about 80. Too many to believe were complaining that they had not gotten a tan prison-issue jump suit with ACDC on the back so they could be sent “upstairs.”

Around 10 p.m., I made bail (it’s good to have good friends). I left there sad believing that not much good would happen in the lives of those I left behind. And I was angry knowing the wretched system would never be fixed.

And I learned something about myself through this ordeal: I actually can survive without my cell phone for 10 hours.

Curtis Bunn is a best-selling novelist and national award-winning sports journalist who has worked at The Washington Times, NY Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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About Curtis Bunn

Curtis Bunn is national award-winning sports journalist and best-selling novelist who has covered and written about sports' largest events and personalities for more than three decades at The Washington Times, NY Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


  1. Painful truths.

  2. Here's how it is: After the civil rights era, when affirmative action and desegregation became the law, powerful forces coalesced to undermine black culture when it needed continued support. A culture of poverty can't be legislated away in one generation. There is a thriving black middle class, especially in Atlanta. But the right wing war on drugs and maybe even a CIA crack cocaine conspiracy has brought us to where we are today, back to state-funded oppression for a big segment of American society. This affects everyone, no matter what color, and you can boil it all down to the battle lines that caused the Civil War and were never really resolved, only morphed into other battle lines, with a finely crafted puppet mechanism called Fox News.

    For-profit prisons; Cost of incarceration vs education; Self-righteous punishment vs rehabilitation; Higher sentences for crack over powdered cocaine; US incarceration rate.

    • Bevan, I appreciate the historical perspective in context to what's going on today. Thanks!!

    • Anonymous says:

      You only know, or are willing to acknowledge, part of the story. Had you been paying closer attention, you might have noticed that none of the things which the Left wing was doing ever seemed to make things more than very marginally better, and then only for a short time. The reason for this is that they don't really believe that you can, or should, get along without their so-called 'help'. Believe me when I say this: As much as I am repelled by Louis Farrakhan's hatred for my people, the things that he says, particularly about self-determination, often have no small merit. I wouldn't join him, or applaud him, but I'll never condemn him categorically, either. The white liberal, especially many social workers and the generational rich, don't have a very high opinion of the rest of us. Plus, they have a ginormously outsized opinion of themselves. They are as smugly vicious as any plantation cracker; it's just that peanut butter WILL melt in their mouths, some of the, at least to hear them tell it.

  3. No doubt, it all seems systematic and even diabolical. Still, WE'VE got to do better, to not succumb to the traps. That's the only way to not let this madness completely overtake us.

    • Anonymous says:

      Now, that's where we all need to start. Only when we, most of us, see the lizards among us for what they are, will we stand a chance to regain freedom. Study the judo sensei as to how to do this. Don't let them use your momentum against you. Street theater is your enemy. Somewhere, somebody is making a report at some computer screen. What you do today may get you pulled over tomorrow. And you'll never know why. Nor, to be truthful will the cop who pulls you over. He'll just know that the license plate that he ran led to a name which "someone", somewhere, on some other day, FLAGGED. "Step out of line, the man take you away." And you'll NEVER know why.

    • Anonymous says:

      It might be because that joke that you told your buddy at work offended the lady who you didn't see listening in the next cubicle. Or, in my case, because the black guy at the receptionist desk at the clinic misheard something I told somebody else as being racist. Neither of us will EVER know. Much less be able to explain ourselves, even assuming that we might actually recall the incident in question.

  4. or just don't commit crimes…

    • Xactoplia, seems like you've missed the points. . .

    • You don't have to commit a crime to be arrested. The same thing happened to me when I was in college. I was arrested, booked and finger printed for a traffic ticket that I never got– on a car I didn't own. The alleged violation occurred when I was away at college. But I had to be arrested, jailed and bailed out so that I could go to court and clear the whole thing up.The only reason I was pulled over– was because the cop saw me driving, fell in behind me and did a "random" check on my plates. They called it routine police work– but they've always seemed to do it ONLY in Black neighborhoods!

    • Exactly, Ray. It is very disheartening that OUR areas are targeted time and again. It is a vicious, terrible pattern of targeting that has to be found unlawful at some point. In the meantime, we have to just sort of brace ourselves.

    • I lived and worked in predominantly white neighborhoods and in a predominantly white profession. I don't ever remember witnessing this kind of police work in the white neighborhoods I lived in; nor do I remember any white classmate or colleague who was targeted/arrested in a "random" police check. I guess they just didn't look suspicious eh???

    • Anonymous says:

      Ray Metoyer Another thing that makes things easier in white areas, mostly, is that many of them are relatively 'quiet' duty for cops. Neither they, nor their bosses, are so highly stressed. Consequently, even though these systems are in place, their use is not going to seem such a high priority to anybody. Mostly, they will get fewer flags, with lower importance. The bosses will be relaxed much of the time, so they won't be crawling all over the uniforms' backsides. Easy peasy; twice as easy.

    • Jack– you got pulled over– but did you go to jail on a trumped up ticket charge? That is the truth I'm talking about. It is a known fact that rookie police officers go to black neighborhoods to practice being cops. Most Black neighborhoods are not high crime areas– anymore than most white neighborhoods.
      Trust me I know that there are just as many whites who are driving without insurance, current tags, and expired drivers' licenses. Lawbreakers don't just come in one color, but police aren't setting the same traps in white neighborhoods.
      However, it's probably going to get worse for everybody now, because all of these cities are looking for ticket revenue. Now would be a good time to drive the speed limit as often as possible.

      BTW I am always nice to DMV clerks because I know they have the power to keep me in line all day.. that's enough of a threat. Please don't assume that I get hot under the collar– I may be a passionate writer, but I am very cool when I need to be– it's called survival. I am also extremely polite and professional if I'm stopped by police officers because I don't want to be perceived as a threat– and THEY HAVE GUNS!

  5. Wow, I went through this before.. sad super sad

  6. Well written Curtis. An interesting angle on a continuous, growing problem. What's going o with DWB in SWD and SWATs. This has to be addressed…

  7. Great article Curtis! It brings back memories from the 60's and 70's and repressive practices that we thought we had gotten rid of.

    • The new Jim Crow more repressive than slavery and really evil.

    • Anonymous says:

      Carol Wand Aka It's all of that, except it's no longer limited to black folks. Every time someone speaks up for themselves now, some person may enter the episode into a computer program at their job. Santa's making lists you do not want to be on. Notice that "speaking up for themselves", sometimes vigorously, is something that a lot of black people do quite well. It's why you're more likely to end up on one of these lists. No defense. No matter that you're no danger to anybody. Your name just popped up on somebody else's computer screen. Maybe it was a cop in his squad car. Maybe it's the 9-1-1 operator who, mysteriously, won't let you say what you've got to be saying. Maybe it's your doctor or the clerk at the DMV or your HR director at work.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like they could use a good role model….or more government programs…..

  9. This proves something I've believed for years, that is that hopelessness and defeatist attitudes that accompany it can be more destrructive to our people than outright racism. As we used to say in the '60s, pride will override, and we need to get it back.

    • Anonymous says:

      This white boy, who came of age in the 1970s just a mile north of Detroit, was said to see you let it go. When I was 13, 14, 16, 18-21, I would walk around much of Detroit and think nothing of it. Even the bums were mostly pretty cool about things. If you did get jacked up, nobody was likely to beast you in any way, or just shoot you cause they was scared or nervous or you looked at them 'wrong'. I mean, don't get me wrong, there was a lot of crime, but even the criminals were mostly respectful of folk. Overnight, it changed. Kids started throwing chunks of concrete and BOWLING BALLS onto cars on the City's freeways. Busting out cars for no good reason. Car jacking and pistol whipping folks. Man, in 1972, I was convinced that the average black guy that I met on the street was less likely to be an A/H than most white folk I knew. I've got to tell you, that ain't true any more. All the decent folk are behind locked and barred doors.

  10. How did you handle the lawyers that you hired? They owe you!

  11. Wow! It's hard to believe this is going on today in our society. The United States Of America is suppose to be the free world, land of oppurtunity and a fair legal system not! The whole justice sytem down from the judges to the police officers are failing the black community especially the black male. We need to stop talking about it and do something about it just like the Hispanics are doing about immigration! I don't care who u are President Obama and down if u are a black male they will bring u down if they have the oppurtunity to do so. White males with similar problems or charges will get a more favorable treatment from the judges on down in the justice system. I'm here to tell u I'm a victim of the justice system. A white retired Judge who was about 80 years old and look like he had the onset of parkinson dieaese slapped me with a protective order against another person and the other person was not even there on the day they said the incident occured. I did nothing to this person and I mean nothing! My lawyer of Pakistan decent was furious and said I was railroaded and needed to appeal. That's the problem they know most black people don't have the money to appeal. It would cost me almost 10000 thousand to appeal. So now I might be out of a job because the Order is for a year. My job requires I can not have a protective order. This is how the justice system treats black males, always trying to keep us down! O have know traffic violations or a criminal record a the Judge thru the book at me because I'm black!

    • Anonymous says:

      Find my other post here, Leonard. Understand this, that it's not about your skin color, but your continued seeming obedience. It's not just about the cops, but about most government workers and personnel department employees. We are being watched. "Step out of line, the man take you away." And you will NEVER know the real reason why it went so badly for you. NEVER. (Tip No. 1–above all, never make someone at a desk mad. It may ruin your life–years later.)

    • Anonymous says:

      This same system is now also in use in Europe, Japan, Australia, even Indonesia (in some large cities) and India. More and more countries every day. It's command and control, observe and report. Most of the reporters haven't a real clue what they're doing. (They'd lose their job if they were caught out telling anyone about the reporting system.) Fewer still even have an inkling of the fact that they themselves are prisoners of that system. Sadly, your own best friend might see you drowning in its net and never say a word to you. Maybe she even figures that you surely "MUST" deserve what you're getting. See the men go nuts, like the student at VT did, or many soldiers have done? Maybe somebody's been squeezing them, watching them wherever they go, seemingly. No conspiracy on their part; they really think that they're doing the right thing, many of them.

  12. Marc Chomel says:

    Hey Curtis I am a prosecutor who is writing a collection of stories and poetry opposed to the death penalty and to my searing experience doing lifer hearings. Is it possible to purchase or use the photo that you used in your excellent essay? Where could I obtain permission, if you know?

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