I see you standing in the back of AG1, arraignment court, right hand jumping up to smooth your braids compulsively. A man with a tic—or a boy, maybe. I wonder what your name is. You look like so many of my friends—Noel (Dominican name Leudis), Alexis (Dominican name Aramis). You have the ageless face characteristic of boys from upper Manhattan; smooth caramel skin, naturally tanned from your father’s island sun. You could be sixteen, twenty-two, twenty-nine. An athletic build fed on mondongo and ghetto P.E.: dunking basketballs into a netless hoop on Edgecombe Avenue; leaping up for signpost bars affixed to the corner and doing chin-ups; whacking baseballs over chain-link fences that line an empty lot—that counts as a home run. You were the Manny Ramirez of the block.
Prison puffs some bodies up, muscles the size of watermelons bulging from all-day weight-lifting and push-ups. I can see you’ll have the other prison body, though. Your brown eyes are too soft, too skittish, jumping around the courtroom, glancing at the judge hopefully. In prison, you’ll age ten years in five. Your body will become a collection of sharp angles, melting away until you become a skinny candlewick. The hopeful flicker in your eyes will flair out, too.
None of that has happened yet, and the only damage incarceration has done is to your braids. Their neat, uniform cornrows have turned frizzy, impossible to maintain even as you try to smooth them out every couple of minutes. More stray hairs popped out with each hour of your journey here, I imagine. A few teased out by the soupy humidity when you ventured onto the summertime streets of Washington Heights last night. Maybe some more when you were sprayed by a rogue fire hydrant. A good bit of hair came loose from your braids when you started running from the cops. Even more when they caught up to you, pushed your forehead against the pavement and cuffed your wrists. Dug their fingers into your skull as they guided you into the wagon. You slept on the braids overnight in the jail cell, waiting for your arraignment. They weren’t equipped for such action.
Judge White, the master of these proceedings, wouldn’t understand. She looks like an African queen sitting atop the judge’s bench; slim, erect neck, wide-set no-bullshit eyes, a gleaming bald head. Some judges get tired of arraignment court, the constant stream of freshly incarcerated defendants still formulating excuses, flustered defense and prosecution lawyers flying through dictionary-thick stacks of paper, trying to remember who this one is, what did he do?
Not Judge White. I’ve seen her work when my co-intern Hazel and I come into AG1 during slow stretches in our trial bureau, no copies to make or 911 calls to transcribe. We like AG1 because it moves quickly, all kinds of people filing through, like the Ellis Island of the DA’s Office. The guy two places in front of you, inexplicably, waited until his ex-girlfriend left the house, broke in and threw her DVD player and TV out the window. I wonder if they used to fight over the remote.
Next, Columbia frat guys who got a little too rowdy with the cops after getting caught jumping the turnstile. No priors. A fine. Open and shut. Judge White sits by with pursed lips and an alert expression, not handing out any free passes.
I’m worried for you.
As you tug at the braids, you look around for someone. The boys from the block aren’t here, and maybe for the better. They would mock you for those messy braids. “Looking raggedy son.” They would belly-laugh. You got them done after-hours at the barbershop, everyone bumping to merengue and half-watching the Mets game. Maybe you paid twenty bucks. Maybe less, because you are someone’s cousin. Maybe you got them done on the front stoop, children circling you like tiny hurricanes and colonies of older men in lawn chairs drinking, playing dominoes. Your aunt did them, or your girlfriend or her friend, stitching each strand into tight communion. It will take a while, over an hour, but her fingers work expertly and efficiently and do not indulge your grumbles if it hurts. In the end, she is proud. They look good.
Does she know you are here?
Your odds were never good, just by virtue of the caramel skin and the Spanish. You came out of the womb at risk to become a statistic, affixed a ratio heavier than a nametag and left to your own devices: two times more likely to be in prison than your white counterparts, a projected one in six chance of being incarcerated in your lifetime. On average, inmates cost the city $167,731. That’s per year. I don’t know what you’ve done yet, if anything, but the majority of incarcerated Americans receive a sentence of 5-10 years. That means you and your twenty-dollar braids, in prison, could cost over $800,000—more than half a million dollars. Maybe one of the reasons you’re here is because nobody, least of all the state that stuck you in a class with thirty-five kids and a harried Teach For America blonde who couldn’t speak Spanish, the state that gave the OK for a stop-and-frisk every few weeks, ever suggested that you could be worth that much.
Across the narrow street that separates the DA’s Office from the criminal courts where you’re awaiting arraignment, my boss, Assistant District Attorney Janine Gilbert, is rifling through file cabinets. She’s on the phone at the same time, maybe fielding a call from a reporter or a defense lawyer. I know because she’s always doing two things at once, if not more. She is a chess player. Whether in or out of the courtroom, her eyes are perpetually narrowed in calculation, trying to map out how any given moment can be maximized.
Her office is the only impediment to such productivity. Loose papers coat the floor and furniture like honeymoon roses in a hotel room. Any slight movement results in the sound of rustling papers, papers massaging the air as they float from the desk to the ground, papers being punctured by a paralegal’s office-appropriate pumps. Our first assignment from Janine was to organize the chaos, one or two hours a day spent on the task. In the end, it took months.
I formulated a foolproof system. Each of Janine’s file cabinets would be labeled with a name, each name assigned its own color. As we gathered the papers, mostly photocopies of evidence from long settled cases, we would mark them with the correct color. One man was prosecuted for serial rape. We marked the photocopies of the letters he sent to his victims blue. Another man, adept at ingratiating himself to the elderly only to steal their identities, had stacks of bank statements marked in green.
One criminal, Jamal (pink), boasted three full drawers worth of files. Impressed by the breadth of paper devoted to him, I waved a sheet from his case at Janine one day as she worked on her computer. “Janine, what did this guy Jamal do?” I asked.
“Something horrible, obviously,” Hazel said, adding another stray paper to his stack.
Janine never needed to pause to recall her cases. “A-1,” she said. “He shot someone, killed her. 85-year-old woman.”
“Why would he do that?” I asked.
“He was aiming for another guy,” Janine said. Hazel and I stopped filing for a beat, the silence filled by the ceaseless clicks of Janine’s keyboard. “He won’t get out,” she said.
I wondered if that was supposed to be a comfort.
“That’s good that you put him away,” Hazel said.
For a millisecond, I saw Janine’s fingers freeze above her keyboard. She blinked. “He was seventeen.”
I looked at Jamal’s stack. I wondered if prison was like high school: bigger file, bigger badass. Or could Jamal even imagine that so many copy machines, so many ink cartridges, had been devoted to him?
“Do you ever worry about convicting someone innocent?” I asked.
Janine shook her head. “If I think someone is innocent, I won’t bring it to trial. It has to be black and white.”
Hazel and I took the back entrance into the criminal court building on our way to AG1. We exited our office building on 1 Hogan Place and crossed over to the grand structure. The Chrysler Building’s homelier sister, the art deco behemoth stretches across Centre Street with imposing columns reaching skyward. In the front, boxy limestone towers are striped with windows, creating the optical illusion of massive vertical prison bars, as if to remind you this is not a good place to be. The back is not nearly as imposing, just a double door manned by a bored security guard. Above the door, a sentence is engraved in the limestone: Justice Is the Firm and Continuous Desire to Render To Every Man His Due.
Someone calls your docket number. You pat your braids one last time, tuck your hands behind your back like a good schoolboy. You look at the prosecuting attorney uncomprehendingly, a stranger in a half-wrinkled suit. I wish I knew you. I wish I could have warned you of Janine’s words: it has to be black and white. It has to be neat, like your braids when they were fresh. You have to be careful not to get caught in the grey area.
I leave before they give you your due, too afraid that you’ll become hundreds of papers, outnumbering your pre-prison years many times over, highlighted pink and stuffed into a file box.