What happens if you're arrested at a protest?
August 27, 2017 11:43 PM   Subscribe

Everything I know about jail comes from TV so I'm interested in specific details of the process. Assume a non-violent protest(er). I know that prisons are different; I'm not asking about that.

Do jails really lack normal bathrooms? Every tv and movie says that toilets are in the cell. What about showers or washing your hands? Do you have access to your cellphone to make a call or least get to your list of contacts? Will they charge your phone if the battery dies? If you can't use your phone, how do you call someone, will you get help to find a phone number? Do you get access to your cash or credit cards for posting bail? Will they take your clothes? What's the food situation if you have allergies or dietary restrictions? What don't I know to ask about here? How long will you be held?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It varies by jurisdiction, but: Yes. No one cares about your hands' cleanliness, and you should not be in the central processing area long enough to require a shower. No. No. If the cell does not have a pay phone (some do), they will let you call someone when they feel like it; they will not help find a number. No. No, unless there is a security concern. Life is tough, although they are supposed to offer a halal option for whatever they feed you while waiting.

Ordinarily, if you aren't released, you will be brought before a judge within 24 hours for arraignment. There may be a summary disposition, or bond may be set at that time.

Description of process in NYC here.

If all this shocks you, civil disobedience may not be your gig.
posted by praemunire at 12:05 AM on August 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have never been arrested at a protest, but I know people who have. So, a couple of points that I have seen:

1. I have seen people write a lawyer's number on their arm with Sharpie; usually this will be a National Lawyer's Guild number. This is usually at larger protests.

2. At least in Seattle, sometimes people are just cited and released on the spot. However, this is not guaranteed.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:07 AM on August 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

During my civil disobedience days I was told to have proper ID secured somewhere on your person. Being arrested w/o proper ID will make your life a living hell. Also as spinifex23 suggested, have attorneys, legal aids and family/friends phone numbers handy (they may take away your mobile phone, so don't depend on it). Having some bail money in your checking account would be nice, or access to friends with cash.

If you are in a holding cell with others, don't eat the food, don't go to the bathroom if you can help it (I didn't pee for over 24 hours, as I was scared shitless)
posted by james33 at 4:41 AM on August 28, 2017

Age, gender, and race matter an enormous amount. An old white woman will have an extremely different arrest and jail experience(if she sees the inside of a jail at all) compared to a young black man.
posted by rockindata at 5:46 AM on August 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

In a large-ish city you will first be taken to a cell in the police station for that precinct, and then at some later point to a central booking area where you will be fingerprinted and held for a while longer. After this you may go before a judge for arraignment or you may just be released with a court date. Normally there is a toilet in the holding cells, but it is often clogged or otherwise broken and there is usually no toilet paper and the guards will not do anything about that. I have seen a precinct holding cell with a separate bathroom (you have ask to be taken there, and they will do so when they feel like it).

You won't get any real food so dietary restrictions don't matter that much. And you won't want to eat much anyway due to the toilet situation.

There is certainly no one who is going to charge your cell phone—all of your effects will be taken when you're arrested. Sometimes they will take your belt and shoelaces too. Usually most of what they take—including cash above a certain amount—stays at the precinct, so when you are released from central booking, you have to go back to the precinct to get your stuff. They may allow give you back some basic things (wallet, shoelaces, jackets) when you get transferred to central booking, but definitely not your phone. Best practice if you know you are likely to be arrested is not to carry your cell phone anyway as they may try to use it to identify your contacts.

As james33 said if you are arrested without ID you will be held longer. I've heard 72 hours in NYC, vs usually around 24 hours if you have ID.

Sometimes there is a payphone in the holding cell, sometimes there is also a free phone that only makes local calls. Definitely write numbers you'll need to call on your person. You are supposed to also be allowed to keep any lawyers' cards that you might have on you, but who knows. You will not any access to your phone contacts.

I've heard that in NYC you can't pay your own bail with a card, check, or cash that you had on your person when you were arrested. If bail is set at your arraignment you will need to have someone there to post it for you; otherwise you'll get taken to Riker's until it's posted.

The cells are filthy and there are not usually enough benches for everyone in the holding cell so you will likely end up spending a lot of time on the floor.

The cops will always lie to you about how soon you'll be out. It will always be much longer than they say.

In general, fatigue, hunger, and uncertainty are heavily weaponized against you in this situation, which can make it very difficult to think clearly or make good decisions (for example, to clearly evaluate any options you may be given at your arraignment).
posted by enn at 6:36 AM on August 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

I can say in Los Angeles, anecdotally:

1. You get cuffed and put in a paddy wagon and driven around for awhile while they are figuring what jail to bring you to. This lasts about an hour, give or take.

2. You come to a jail, get cuffed to a pipe and fill out a bunch of paperwork, then move to a room where you hand over your personal effects. Definitely have your ID for this step.

3. You get put into a drunk-tank type of cell with the rest of your party and whoever else is already in there. Dimensions are about 15 X 15, a small half wall separates a single toilet from the rest of the room. This lasts a few hours.

4. You get moved to a general population cell: two floors of bunks totaling maybe 20 - 25, a television that the incarcerated do not control, a long table with bench seating and newspapers, and a toilet and shower behind saloon-style stainless steel doors. Timeline here is pretty varied. Could be three hours. Could be until midnight, whenever that is. If it's a Friday and the police are annoyed with you, could be until Monday.

5. You are offered a sandwich made of two slices of bread and a single piece of balogna.

Now, if you are doing civil disobedience associated with a group that has some allies in local elected government--examples *might* include unions, civil liberties groups, DREAMers and other immigration activists, depending on the jurisdiction and local politics--then this is often highly orchestrated and you'll be out by midnight, put in a pretty low-key general population cell, etc.

I don't know how this translates in the Trump era, where a lot of protesters that get arrested might be associated with less high-profile, less connected activist groups, or with antifa, or just are arrested as protest participants. I can say that during the Occupy era, your random teenager arrestee was treated less kindly than a union or immigration activist.
posted by kensington314 at 11:07 AM on August 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's important to be able to deal with boredom and have an enjoyable inner life without external inputs for up to dozens of hours.
posted by kensington314 at 11:08 AM on August 28, 2017

Every experience will vary, but when I was arrested at a protest, I was tackled to the ground hard, had my hands ziptied together behind my back and then was led to a converted school bus "paddywagon" which I was locked into with about 10 other arrestees. We were left without food, water, or access to the bathroom (and with our hands still ziptied behind our backs) for about four hours. For part of that time, the area where the bus was parked was being teargassed.

When they finally moved us to the jail, they cut the zipties and gave as each a bottle of water for the trip. At the jail, everything in my possession was taken and documented (they had done on;y a cursory patdown, and taken my bag, when they first arrested me) and I was made to strip naked and shower while two officers watched. I was then given a prison jumpsuit and a case number and led to a cell.

The cell was about 8 feet by ten and featured two bunks a sink/fountain and a seatless toilet (with no privacy screen). Four of us were put in this cell and left there for 18 or so hours. This time was broken up by a brief excursion to an office for fingerprinting, and also by two meals. The meals were identical to one another, both consisting of a bologna and processed cheese sandwich, an orange, and 250ml of room temperature milk. I told the guards I was vegetarian to which they predictably responded: "Don't eat the bologna then." I didn't.

At every instance of interaction with guards in this span, I repeated my demands to speak to my lawyer, and was always told I would get a phone call when there was a chance.

I also held in a shit for the entire time, because those of us sharing the cell had made a no shitting pact for obvious reasons.

Finally, I was taken from my cell, roughly 24 hours after the initial arrest and ushered into a room where I was placed on a teleconference with a judge where a very confusing conversation happened, that I later understood to be a declaration of some of my rights being officially set aside as an emergency measure due to the number of arrests being processed.

At this point, I was moved to another cell, identical to the previous one, but blessedly private. I took a huge shit, and then promptly began to miss my prior cellmates, since at least together we had been able to talk and play chess with the pieces we had fashioned out of torn milk carton and orange peel. The walls of the cells were conrete (not vertical bars like you so often see on TV), and you could only really see into the one cell directly across the hall (through a small barred window in the door). Complete isolation, except for yelled conversations up and down the hall with faceless inmates. I was left in this cell for another 24 hours or so. At some point in that day, I was finally given one phone call. The officer dialled for me, but said he would leave the room for the call. He said the only person I was allowed to call was my lawyer and offered to provide me with the number for one if I didn't have one. I told him I had a lawyer's number, but then I called my mother instead, told her where I was and told her to call a lawyer for me.

After 24 hours in the private cell (and three more identical bologna sandwich meals), I was taken to another room and told that I was going to be released, but first I had to sign a statement releasing the police and jail from all wrongdoing in my arrest and detention. I refused and asked to speak to my lawyer again. They said that I had had my one phone call and they put me back in my cell for another 10 or so hours, at which point they gave me another chance to sign the statement, which I did.

At this point, they gave me back my stuff, drove me to the middle of town in a cruiser, and then kicked me out on the side of the road with a notice to appear in court some months later. It was 60 hours after my initial arrest, and I should note that the times in the above account are heavily estimated because the only two certain reference points I had were my arrest and my release. I don't think I saw a clock the whole time I was in jail.

The court case that followed is a whole other story. I did reach out to a civil rights group after the experience and was joined to a class action suit against the jail, but nothing ever came of it.
posted by 256 at 12:11 PM on August 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

When I was arrested at a protest it went something like this.

We were herded into a small communal cell. One by one we were taken out and processed - fingerprinted, your phone call, etc. I don't remember what happened to our personal effects - they were taken from us. So were shoelaces. You know. So you don't hang yourself?

After processing we were put into a big communal cell - separated by sex. The drunk tank. There we were waiting to go before a judge. There was a toilet behind a half wall in the corner. It was pretty exposed.

We waited all day. We were given some terrible food. I recall a tiny fruit cup (you know - plastic cup, foil cover, cubes of "fruit" swimming in syrup), an 8oz thing of milk, and a slab of bologna between two pieces of white bread.

At the end of the day we were herded to individual cells. The cell had a toilet in it - it was the same unit as the sink. It was pretty exposed, though the cell doors (bars) were staggered so you didn't look right into somebody else's cell. The bed was a slab. No sheet or blanket. I used my shoe (sans laces) as a pillow.

Next day, back into that big communal cell until brought before a judge.

tl;dr - mostly it's just waiting in an uncomfortable room with a lot of people, dreading the prospect of not being able to hold your shit in any more.
posted by entropone at 12:53 PM on August 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Story from a woman friend arrested in NYC:

She was handcuffed and put in a van (a van with windows but no seats) with about a dozen other people and taken to the local precinct, where she was fingerprinted and put in a cell with another woman. Her fellow arrestees were men, so she was separated from them.

After a short while, maybe an hour or two, she was put in a van again with her fellow protest arrestees (again in handcuffs) and taken to central booking, where they were photographed for mug shots. I believe the men were searched, but she was not and was allowed to keep her purse. They only took her tampons.

At central booking she was placed in a very large cell with many other women, with vertical bars surrounding it. There was a pay phone in the cell so she could make as many calls as she wanted, but I think she could only call collect. There was a toilet in the cell with a solid but short door in front of it that only covered the toilet itself (up to the waist when seated). There was a drinking fountain but other inmates warned her not to drink from it.

She had to ask for maxipads from the guards. Food was baloney sandwiches. In the morning wake up was at 4am (not that anyone slept much, lying on the floor, and there was a TV constantly on) and they got an apple and cereal.

She was taken to court in the morning and was released without bail. She had to make a few more court appearances but the case was dismissed eventually. (She had to hire a lawyer b/c the court appointed lawyer told her to plead guilty, when she knew she was not guilty of anything. For her first court appearance, he was the only lawyer she had, and she had to have the wherewithal to go against his advice.)
posted by Vispa Teresa at 7:35 PM on August 28, 2017

My protest related arrest was in 2001 in southern California.

Do jails really lack normal bathrooms? Every tv and movie says that toilets are in the cell.

Yup. You want privacy? Avoid arrest or get people to not look. The sink is on the back of the toilet. There may be powdered soap available if you are lucky. If you're really unlucky, the toilet will be busted. This will not be a priority for the jail to fix.

What about showers or washing your hands?

I wasn't in long enough to shower. See above about washing your hands.

Do you have access to your cellphone to make a call or least get to your list of contacts? Will they charge your phone if the battery dies? If you can't use your phone, how do you call someone, will you get help to find a phone number?

They will take your phone and all your personal possessions when they process you in. Personal possessions include shoelaces, belts, and any body piercings. Calls are made on a phone on the cell block - this thing will be rock solid and very hard to damage or use as a weapon, so the cord is short. All calls are made collect, with a message at the front telling the recipient that it's a call from jail. If you don't know the number, too bad. If you don't make the call when the opportunity is going by, too bad. This is why you write any phone numbers you need on your arm in sharpie.

Do you get access to your cash or credit cards for posting bail?

Not sure if they'll let you bail yourself out. My friends came and bailed me out. There are bail bonds dealers across the street who are generally open 24/7.

Will they take your clothes?

Only if they can be used as weapons. Giving everyone new clothes is a lot of work.

What's the food situation if you have allergies or dietary restrictions?

If you don't eat what they feed you, you don't eat. Also good luck getting your medication, especially if it's for something non-life-threatening. Depending on how many people there are in your arrest group and how overworked the cops are, you may not get stuff like insulin.

What don't I know to ask about here? How long will you be held?

I waited six hours to be taken to the emergency room despite multiple rubber bullet wounds that were bleeding all over the place. Other people arrested at the same time waited similarly to be seen for broken bones. If you are lucky enough to get to go to the hospital, you'll go in handcuffs. If you're really lucky, the cops will cuff you in front for the actual ride. You won't get a seatbelt. You will get harassed.

If you do need medical attention, you need to make a huge stink about it or they will just blow you off.

Sexual harassment by cops especially toward young women is extremely common and impossible to prove. Physical abuse by cops toward everyone is extremely common and they will blame you for it. The danger increases if you are a member of a marginalized group - if you are a person of color, obviously gay, or trans, you are in increased danger.

Jail food is terrible, but by the time you get it you're going to be so excited to have shitty grape kool-aid that it's going to be the best thing you've ever tasted.

Typically you'll be held overnight and arraigned on the morning of the next business day. If you are arrested on Friday, that means you're there until Monday. Exceptions: someone bails you out, or if you're in Minnesota you can be released into the custody of your attorney.

Jail is not terribly clean. For bedtime you will get a blanket but not a pillow. Beds are bunk bed style. The air is recycled and your odds of getting sick are good.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:03 AM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

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