“The degree of civilization in a society,” wrote the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, “can be judged by entering its prisons.” As a frequent visitor to Nevada in recent years, I have often been surprised by the cultural diversity and spiritual richness that can be found in Las Vegas. Still, I think that Dostoyevsky was right. A more accurate assessment of the degree of civilization in Las Vegas and for the broader society that the city claims to be “The Entertainment Capital” of can be made by entering the cells of the Clark County Correctional Center than by going to the top of the Stratosphere, cruising the Strip or even by taking in a Cirque du Soleil show.
I was one of twenty five arrested by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police at Creech Air Force Base, the center of drone assassination by the US Air Force and the CIA some forty miles northwest of the city on March 31 and April 1. “Shut Down Creech” was a weeklong convergence of activists from around the country. Most of us staying in tents at a makeshift “Camp Justice” in the desert across the highway from the base, our days of discussion, study, song, reflection and strategizing built up to a dramatic series of coordinated actions, including street theater and blockades, that disrupted the lethal business as usual of Creech. While we expected to be arrested, this was not our desire or our goal. Once again, the police arrested the wrong people as they abetted the criminals and took those who acted to stop a crime in progress down town to be booked.
Since 2009, I have had at least two other trips on the police from Creech to the county jail at the prestigious address, 330 S Casino Center Blvd in Las Vegas, to undergo the tedious process of booking, the fingerprinting, mugshots and other indignities before getting kicked out onto the sidewalk a few long hours later. This time, however, after my friends and comrades were released one by one, I remained behind. I was kept in jail for the next four days, not for my part in the day’s protest, but on a bench warrant due to an unpaid traffic fine.
I had been arrested a year before at another protest at Creech and cited for the misdemeanor crime of impeding traffic and released with 30 some others on our promise to return for trial. Some weeks later, the charges on ten of us were reduced to the traffic offence of “pedestrian soliciting a ride or business on a roadway” and we were assessed a $98 fine with no apparent way to plead not guilty. While those who eventually went to trial on the original charges were found not guilty or had their charges dismissed, those of us in the “hitchhikers’ club” all failed in our various attempts to have our cases heard. “How can I contest this ticket?” I asked the clerk at the Justice (sic) Court in Las Vegas. “You don’t contest it,” was the answer, “you PAY it.” In Las Vegas, it is easier to plead not guilty to a violent felony than it is to contest a traffic ticket.
In due course I got a glossy post card in the mail with a color photo of a perp getting handcuffed against a Metropolitan Police squad car, with the clever warning “Pay the Ticket, Avoid the Click-it.” This image, that can also be found on the court’s website, came with this threat: “The Las Vegas Township Justice Court will issue arrest warrants for all unpaid traffic tickets. An additional warrant fee of $150 and a late fee of $100 will be added to all tickets that proceed into warrant status. In addition to warrant fees and penalties, all unpaid traffic tickets will be reported to national credit reporting agencies.” A search of my case on the court’s website showed that I had been charged to pay for my own warrant and another “compliance fee,” apparently to pay for my account getting referred to a collection agency, bringing my bill up to $348.
These mounting fines and lack of access to the courts and the calls that started to come from a collection agency were a small annoyance to me, but are an indication of a larger systemic problem. The Las Vegas Justice Court Mission Statement (“The vision of the Las Vegas Justice Court is to maximize access to Justice, in order to achieve the highest possible level of Public Trust and Confidence”) notwithstanding, these practices and those like them in courts around the country are illegal.
A March 16, 2016, “Dear Colleague” letter from the Office for Access to Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, addressed to state and local courts lays it out: “Recent years have seen increased attention on the illegal enforcement of fines and fees in certain jurisdictions around the country—often with respect to individuals accused of misdemeanors, quasi-criminal ordinance violations, or civil infractions. Typically, courts do not sentence defendants to incarceration in these cases; monetary fines are the norm. Yet the harm caused by unlawful practices in these jurisdictions can be profound. Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape. Furthermore, in addition to being unlawful, to the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents.”
This letter cites a Supreme Court ruling that the due process and equal protection principles of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit “punishing a person for his poverty” and further insists that “the use of arrest warrants as a means of debt collection, rather than in response to public safety needs, creates unnecessary risk that individuals’ constitutional rights will be violated. Warrants must not be issued for failure to pay without providing adequate notice to a defendant, a hearing where the defendant’s ability to pay is assessed, and other basic procedural protections. … When people are arrested and detained on these warrants, the result is an unconstitutional deprivation of liberty.”
Somehow, the memo did not make it to Las Vegas. While the statistics are not available, during that long weekend I was not the only inmate in the Clark County jail locked up solely for not paying fines on minor offenses.
The deplorable conditions and cruelties of this jail defy exaggeration and are as extravagant as the floorshows at the city’s casinos and hotels. It was more than eight hours after getting arrested that I was finally taken out of shackles. We were packed standing room only, more than forty people in a small cell those first hours in chains.
Not long after I arrived, as a guard opened the door to push in yet another prisoner, a very slight young man edged his way to the front and tried desperately to explain that he was suffering an anxiety attack and needed air. Not listening, the guard tried to slam the door on this young man who stepped forward into the door jamb. The guard then grabbed the young man, threw him down onto the hallway floor and even though his hands were shackled at his waist and he could not hit back, at least five guards, all larger than him, all had their knees on his body and were pummeling him with their fists. The last I saw of him, his face was bloodied and he was being wheeled away, his wrists and ankles chained to a restraint chair. This was the jailers’ response to a normal human reaction to an inhuman situation and those suffering from mental illness or the effects of withdrawal were treated no less harshly.
Like some bizarre board game, we prisoners were inexplicably moved from cell to crowded cell at all hours. Sometimes a prisoner would only just arrive before their name was called for another move. Sometimes the guards went from cell to cell shouting a name of someone they had somehow misplaced. Some of our cell mates insisted that they had been in the same place for many days and worried that they had been lost as well. Guards were constantly giving contradictory and erroneous “information,” such as when we would get to court or be moved to more spacious and comfortable quarters upstairs. Some of the guards, not restrained by their own lack of credentials, were generously distributing legal advice to those preparing to see a judge. I found out later that my friends outside were likewise misled by jail employees as they tried to keep track of me.
I had arrived at the jail early on a Friday and was kept in these holding cells until Monday morning at 3 o’clock. Meals were unsatisfactory nutritionally and esthetically, but also, served as they were at 3 AM, 9AM and 3PM, did not even serve to mark the passage of time in this dungeon without windows and where the lights never dimmed. These cells varied in size and the body counts in them varied hour to hour. There were narrow benches around the walls where a few could lie down and nap, but most of us were lucky when there was room enough to stretch out without a blanket on the cold, filthy concrete floor. There was an open toilet in each cell- to use toilet paper, one had to find and wake the prisoner who had appropriated the roll for use as a pillow. In the wee hours after my third night on concrete, I was finally taken upstairs, given a change of clothes and a blanket and shown a cot in a fairly quiet and almost clean dormitory of some 80 men.
About 10 on Monday morning, I was chained up again and led through a series of tunnels and elevators to traffic court. There were some 30 of us in that batch, by no means everyone who had been jailed over the weekend for unpaid traffic charges. Each case was decided by the judge in seconds, with no defendant allowed to say anything beyond affirming their identity upon hearing their name called. Most of the fines and added fees assessed against these men and women amounted to many thousands of dollars. Based on an informal formula of dollars per days in lock up, the judge shaved off some off the fines owed and let most of the prisoners out with the threat that if the remainder was not paid in 30 days, more costs would be added, a new warrant issued and the cycle would be repeated.
None of us in traffic court that morning had been granted a “hearing where the defendant’s ability to pay is assessed” that the law demands before putting us in jail. Few of us, if any, had been found guilty by any judicial process before being fined in the first place. Debt collection, not guilt or innocence, was the only concern of this “court.” What happened in court that morning could be called “criminal justice” only in that what was done to us by the court was criminal. What happened to us was a shakedown by gangsters wearing police uniforms and judges’ robes, not for the sake of justice, but to maintain the civic infrastructure behind the glittering façade of Las Vegas with dollars squeezed out of its poorest citizens.
Through this experience, I met many interesting people, mostly young black and brown men. A few of them were locked up for alleged criminal offenses, but many seemed to be caught up in the same collections racket as me. The calls made from the phones in the cells were mostly frantic appeals to family and friends for money to pay the fines or the bail that would get them released. Unless they were wearing badges and carrying keys, there was no one I met at the Clark County jail that I feared as a threat to myself or to the public safety.
If the machinations of the Las Vegas Justice Court are not about justice, neither are the drones controlled from Creech Air Force Base 40 miles away about defense. By remote control and often under the shadiest of orders by the CIA, military personnel at Creech are assassinating suspected enemies far from fields of battle, based on unproven allegations or on “patterns of behavior,” often incinerating their families or the strangers unfortunate enough to be close by. It should not be surprising that a government that executes suspects, sometimes even its own citizens, without trial in places far way will also imprison its poorest people at home without due process.
Among those who stood with me in traffic court that morning, my own debt of $348 was one of the smallest and the judge summarily sentenced me to time served, crediting my four days in jail to wipe away all my fines and added costs. I was not even allowed to explain that I had never solicited a ride on a roadway in the first place. Although the judge said I was free to go, the bureaucracy of the jail took another 12 hours to get me released. It was after 10:30 Monday night that I was finally given back my clothes and sent out the long tunnel that leads from the jail to the bright lights of downtown Las Vegas, onto the sidewalk and into the embrace of faithful friends who had been keeping vigil for me the whole time of my incarceration.
I left the Clark County jail exhausted and happy to be out, but grateful, too, for the hospitality and patient endurance of those who shared their harsh, constricted space with me for a few days. It is a hard but precious privilege for this middle aged white man to visit such places where other good people have no choice but to inhabit.
The same drama is being played out in jails and courtrooms around the United States, the country that imprisons more of its people than any other. With more than 95% of criminal charges now settled with plea bargains instead of going to trial, many defendants are convicted and put away for years with not much more in the way of due process than I was afforded with my little trumped-up hitchhiking ticket.
It is unclear if what happened to me in Las Vegas Justice Court on April 4 was a conviction in the strictly legal sense, but what happened there has certainly deepened my conviction that the so-called war on terror is just one front of the vicious war on the poor and on people with black and brown skin here at home as well as abroad. This conviction will lead me back to Creech and other drone bases, to the places targeted by their Hellfire missiles when I can and, if need be, to back to the Clark County Correctional Center.
Drawing on these connections, Voices for Creative Nonviolence is organizing a “NO Thomson Prison De-Incarceration Walk,” 150 miles from Chicago to Thomson, Illinois, from May 28 to June 11. Thomson is where the federal government will soon open a new “super-max” prison that is expected to keep up to 1,900 prisoners in solitary conditions that have been condemned by the international community as amounting to torture. Please join us if you can.
Brian Terrell lives in Iowa and is a Co-coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence. In recent years he has visited Afghanistan three times and has spent more than six months in prison for protesting at drone bases. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.