By Lisa Sharon Harper 1-26-2017

One week ago, I emerged from 31 hours in police custody — 16 hours underground in D.C.’s central jail. It was horrific and holy ground.

I was taken underground by officers and placed in a small steel cage — literally, a cage – where roaches flowed into our walls and floor throughout the night. Curled in a fetal position, I tried to sleep on a 6’ x 2’ steel tray.

“Just one breath at a time,” I thought. “You’ll make it,” I told myself. “One breath at a time.”

Someone pushed against these steel walls before we were here: Full handprints remain on the wall across from the bunks. They tell a story — of desperation.

One guard said: “This is horrible. But nothing will change if I complain. You [the jailed] have to complain. Only then will they listen. It’s not right. You get no blanket to cover you or pillow. And it is too hot.”

My cellmate SueZann Bosler had it particularly bad. SueZann’s father was murdered — stabbed to death by a man that broke into their home seeking drug money. The man also attempted to kill her: He stabbed her multiple times, and left her for dead. One permanent wound is situated just behind her left eye. You can see it if you look closely. There is a dent where multiple surgeries left a permanent reminder of the trauma. The perpetrator was sentenced to death in Florida. But SueZann’s faith (her father was a pastor) compelled her spend the next several years of her life pleading for the court’s mercy.

She won. The man who killed her father is now serving a life sentence without possibility of parole. He will die in prison, but God will determine the day, time, and cause — not the state.

There were no pillows in our cell, so SueZann could not lay down. If her head laid on the same level as her body, her head would swell, and she would suffer epileptic fits. She tutored me on how to care for her if a fit came on.

In the middle of the night, at who knows what time, one guard entered our block with water and toilet paper. She asked why SueZann and I were there.

We explained: “We are here because we were arrested for holding a sign in protest of the death penalty on steps of the Supreme Court.” Jan. 17, 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the first modern-day execution in the United States.

The guard spoke with authority. Every day, they are forced to lock human beings in these roach-infested cages — before a trial, before a guilty verdict — regardless of the offense; whether a kid jumps a turnstile, a protestor exercises civil disobedience, or a grandmother is accused of slapping her child. Yes. Two separate grandmothers struggled through the night on my cell block because they were accused of slapping their grandchildren.

Every night, images of God presumed innocent before proven guilty struggle to breathe in D.C.’s jail and in jails across the country.

Sandra Bland died in a jail cell before arraignment.

The Huffington Post tracked the deaths of more than 800 people who died in jails and police lock-ups in the year after Sandra Bland’s death in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. Fifty-eight percent were declared either a suicide, attempted suicide, natural causes, or medical emergency.

Laying on my tray, knees to chest, I closed my eyes and saw Sandra Bland. I understood her. I was only in this jail cell for a total of 16 hours. Halfway through I wondered if I could make it. Sandra was locked in liminal space for three days — for a minor traffic violation.

According to the Huffington Post report, of the 623 deaths they obtained information on, at least a third occurred within three days. Half died within a week.

I was ushered into the bowels of D.C.’s domestic hell because I held a sign in protest of the death penalty singing “This Little Light of Mine.” I emerged with new understanding of our justice system.

It is not just.

Lisa Sharon Harper (@lisasharper) is a speaker, trainer, writer, activist, and author. Her newest book, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, was published in June 2016. This was presented as a performance poem at The Summit 2017 in Washington, D.C. 

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