Photos by Shut Down Creech and Frank Cordaro
I was standing in a small cell packed with more than forty people at the Clark County Correctional Center, in Las Vegas, Nevada. A guard opened the door to push in yet another prisoner. A slight, young man edged his way to the front desperately trying to explain that he was suffering an anxiety attack and needed air.
Not listening, the guard tried to slam the door as the young man stepped forward. The guard then grabbed the young man and threw him to the floor. Although his hands were shackled at his waist, he was pounced on by at least five guards; they knelt on his body and pummeled him with their fists. Then they hauled him away, his face bloodied and his wrists and ankles chained to a restraint chair.
I was in the jail after being arrested, along with about two dozen others, at Creech Air Force Base, the main home for the operation of unmanned drone vehicles overseas. We’d been protesting as part of the annual Shut Down Creech demonstration on March 31 and April 1.
But while my friends were quickly released, I was left behind. For the next four days I remained in jail—not for my part in the protest, but for an unpaid traffic fine.
The previous year I’d been arrested while protesting at Creech, charged with “soliciting a ride or a business on a roadway,” and fined $98. There was no apparent way to plead not guilty.
“How can I contest this ticket?” I asked the clerk. “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. By the time I returned a year later, there was a warrant out for my arrest and $150 had been added to my debt.
And now, the time to pay up had arrived.
Brian Terrell, right, and Renee Espeland, under arrest by Las Vegas Metro Police at Creech Air Force Base on April 1.
I arrived at the jail early on a Friday and was kept in holding cells until Monday morning at 3 a.m.. Meals were served at 3 a.m., 9 a.m., and 3 p.m.—the only markers of time as there were no windows and the lights never dimmed.
Like some bizarre board game, prisoners were moved from cell to crowded cell at all hours. Sometimes a prisoner would be moved just moments after arriving. Sometimes the guards went from cell to cell shouting the name of someone they had apparently misplaced. Inmates who had been in the same place for days worried that they had been forgotten. Guards gave contradictory information about when we would get to court or be moved to more spacious quarters upstairs. I learned later that my friends outside who were trying to keep track of me were misled by jail employees.
Narrow benches around the walls allowed a few inmates to lie down and nap; others stretched out without blankets on the cold, filthy concrete floor. There was an open toilet in each cell. The toilet paper was often missing, appropriated for use as a pillow. In the wee hours after my third night, I was finally taken upstairs, given a change of clothes and a cot in a fairly quiet and almost clean dormitory of some eighty men.
About 10 a.m. Monday, I was chained up again and led with a group of others through a series of tunnels and elevators to traffic court. There, our cases were decided by the judge in seconds; defendants were not allowed to say anything other than affirm their identity after being called. Based on an informal formula of dollars per days in lock up, the judge shaved some off the fines owed and let most of the prisoners out with the threat that if the remainder was not paid in thirty days, more costs would be added, a new warrant issued, and the cycle would be repeated.
What I experienced in jail was by no means uncommon. Evidence from Ferguson, Missouri, and other places reveals a widespread pattern of levying fines and incarcerating people in questionable ways. A March 16, 2016, “Dear Colleague” letter from the Office for Access to Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division put it this way:
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...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.
The letter asserts that, besides being unlawful, these practices are clearly geared toward raising revenue, and are undertaken at the cost of trust between local governments and their constituents. It cites a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the due process and equal protection principles of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit “punishing a person for his poverty.”
Somehow, the memo did not make it to Las Vegas. What happened in court that morning could be called “criminal justice” only in that what was done to us by the court was criminal.
Among those in traffic court that morning, I owed one of the smallest amounts, $348. The judge summarily sentenced me to time served, crediting my four days in jail toward my fines and added costs. I didn’t have a chance to explain that I’d never solicited a ride on a roadway in the first place.
After the judge said I was free to go, the bureaucracy of the jail allowed another twelve hours to pass before I was 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’d kept vigil for me the whole time.
I left the Clark County jail exhausted but oddly grateful to have experienced this ugly side of our criminal justice system.
The same drama, unfortunately, 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 percent of criminal charges now settled with plea bargains instead of trials, many defendants are put away for years without much more due process than I was afforded with my trumped-up hitchhiking ticket.
I had come to Las Vegas to protest our so-called war on terror being carried out overseas. But what I experienced in the local jail reminds me that there is a war on people right here at home.
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 spent more than six months in prison for protesting at drone bases. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.