The cold bit through the thin wool blanket and climbed up the short sleeves of my Women of the World Poetry Slam T-shirt as I lay on the cement floor of the Hays County Jail, confused how I had ended up here. Brought in during the night, I was exhausted and agitated by the time I was taken into a small room to stand before a judge via TV monitor, and told that I would be held in general population until an undetermined court date.
If my charges were explained and a bail amount discussed at that moment, I cannot remember. The first 24 hours of my 45 days in pretrial detention are a blur. I remember the back-handed comments from the women doing my body cavity search; the granulated feel of the brick beneath the chipped paint of my holding cell; the immediate isolation and otherness that comes when one calmly and quietly submits to being caged. My time in the Hays County Jail, shorter than some but longer than others, would be spent mourning the recent death of my fiancé, trying to figure out why I had been arrested, and writing.
The first week, I borrowed a pencil and used the back pages of my jailhouse handbook for paper. I knew that writing was the only way I could help myself, so I wrote: Notes about the “pods,” or units, full of tiny cells and cracked plastic beds. The women who shared my pod, laughing at my adamant assertions that I did not belong there. The words He is dead over and over until I started to understand what that meant. I thought, If I just write some poems, I will be OK. But poems didn’t come — at first. Questions did.
If you are a generally law-abiding citizen, it might seem incomprehensible that anyone would go to jail for a bounced check for $25 worth of groceries. Why wouldn’t a person just pay the check and the fees? How could they let it get so bad that a warrant would be issued for their arrest? Why would they miss court dates? Why wouldn’t they just post bail? Those questions taunted me for days, even though the answer was simple, had always been simple. I had no money.
A broke senior at Texas State University, I was one week away from a May graduation at the time of my arrest. I was living on the last of my student loans and whatever I could save from odd jobs. I had moved from apartment to apartment, rarely remembering to update my address with the city. I didn’t know that I was being sued by H-E-B and would not know that it had reached a critical point until the night I was taken to jail.
My car began to slow, then stop on I-35 outside of San Marcos. I pulled onto the shoulder. My car had a longstanding issue with the gas gauge, but I knew that if I sat it out a little while, it would probably start again. I was still in my car, talking on the phone with my best friend, when another car pulled up behind me, followed by a police car. I stayed on the phone and watched the cop give the other driver a ticket. After the car behind me inched back onto the highway, the officer walked to me and signaled for me to roll down my window.
He asked me if I needed help. I told him no. He then asked to see my ID. Unaware of my rights and unaware that I had anything to be afraid of, I complied. Wrong place, wrong time, I guess. There was a warrant for my arrest: failure to appear for theft by check below $500. After I was taken in, my car sat in that same location until the city towed it off. I could never afford to get the car back, so it became just one of the many things I lost during that time, along with my apartment, my storage unit and the math final I needed to graduate.
For the first few days in jail, I cried nonstop and asked to speak with a mental health counselor, or at least for something to sedate me. My grief over my fiancé’s death and the embarrassment of being in an actual jail swirled inside me. I was worried that I would do something crazy, something that would really prevent me from leaving. I wanted to hurt myself, to really make the pain stop. No one listened until one of the inmates found me bleeding in my cell from scratching myself with my nails. I received Ibuprofen, some Band-Aids and a lecture about not letting my “emotions” get me into trouble.
Even if I had known how much my bail was, I didn’t have anyone to post it for me. I wasn’t talking to my mother. My father was someone whose respect I didn’t want to lose any more than I already had. Having no other phone numbers memorized, I resigned myself to languishing in the limbo of all pretrial detainees living below the poverty line. I would sit in there until they let me go. I had nothing to offer. No money. No lawyer. No hope, I wrote into the corners of the leftover scratch paper from a prayer group meeting.
The day I gave up was the day the poems finally came. I wrote about my fiancé and my parents; about cleaning the pod with my cellmates and playing endless card games. I wrote letters to people I loved but could not speak to.
I wrote about discovering that I was not special, because in pretrial I became a statistic. Another black woman in jail. My college education had not saved me from joining millions of others held for days and months and years for nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors. The poetry, while healing, showed just how much I had changed.
I left jail with a Class B misdemeanor and time served. The last several years, those poems and letters sat in a special box in the back of my closet — an unwelcome reminder that my case was not unique. Now the box is in my living room, the soft cardboard flaps frayed and tearing down the middle. The poems I wrote in the Hays County Jail are being compiled for a project that I am curating with the help of Mano Amiga. A social justice group working to change the policies that lead to people like me being held in pretrial detention for extended periods of time, Mano Amiga has helped me to find a new way to heal by allowing my poetry and essays to live outside of that cell.
Since my arrest in 2010, I have accomplished more than I ever thought possible. My poetry has been published in 15 literary magazines and journals. In 2018, I received my master’s degree in creative writing and was a finalist for the PEN America Writing For Justice Fellowship. Later this year, my first full-length book of poetry, HoodWitch, will be released: a collection about reclaiming power for black women and nonbinary people.
And yet, if I stand in front of the Hays County Jail, my throat closes. If I see a police cruiser crawling through my apartment complex’s parking lot, my back aches. I feel not like a poet, but like a small child lost in a courtroom. Not the strong, fearless person I want to be.
A short time in a county jail was enough to change me permanently. But I hope that one day this doesn’t have to happen to anyone else. I hope that one day sending someone to a county jail or a state prison will be a last resort — and not just a poor man’s punishment.
A version of this essay first appeared in the Observer’s culture newsletter. Sign up to get all our cultural coverage, including newsletter-exclusive essays, poetry and magazine previews, straight to your inbox.