How my white privilege protected me in jail

Alexis Eke for The Marshall Project
ByMichelle Hadley
Originally Published: 

This article was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

When I was framed for a crime by a white, male U.S. marshal and arrested by white, male cops, I came the closest I will likely ever come in my life to experiencing the feelings of powerlessness and despair that people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor faced as part of their daily reality. It’s a horrifying, crushing feeling that leaves one wondering how a system could be so fucked up that it fails so epically.

But I’m a white female, and my experience of jail and the justice system was, without a doubt, privileged. I got out alive, but as this country erupts over tensions that have been brewing for centuries, I was reminded of the privilege I experienced and of the very different reality that my cellmate, an elderly Black woman with a hearing impairment, faced in a system already stacked against her.

Rachael* was over 70 years old and had been arrested for kidnapping her grandchildren from an orphanage where they had been placed. She had subsequently been thrown into the high-security section of the Orange County Central Women’s Jail with no ability to get out on bail. This wasn’t because she didn’t have the money, but because her judge had issued a no-bail order on her case.

How the police could find any logic to charging Rachael with kidnapping is beyond me. She was nowhere near able-bodied enough to break two children, one of whom was a teeneager, out of an orphanage without their consent. But her story has many layers to it, including a white female social worker who falls into the category of the Amy Coopers of the world. You see, Rachael didn’t fall in line enough to satiate this white social worker, who inevitably called the cops to report her.

What fate that we landed in jail around the same time, both of us like fish out of water. It was only by sheer luck that we ended up being placed in the same cell where I learned Rachael’s story and where I saw what institutionalized racism, ageism and ableism really look like up close and personal.

While all the deputies told me, “You don’t look like you belong here” (a clear nod to what the color of my skin signaled to them), they treated Rachael with disdain. Had it not been for my ability to assist her, I have no doubt that she would have found it nearly impossible to get her basic needs met. In the jail, where everything from food to sleep to outdoor time to clean clothes is doled out in a hyper-militaristic fashion, even an energetic 20-something would be physically and emotionally spent.

But what was even worse was how some employees targeted her. One deputy in particular, a white blonde woman, had it out for Rachael. The deputy hated me because I helped Rachael navigate the insane and unpredictable world that was the OC jail whenever she couldn’t hear the deputies’ garble over the cell’s speaker box.

The deputy was a sporadic figure on our cell block’s rotation, often paired up with a Black male deputy. But toward the last few weeks of my time in jail, she became a regular in our rotation and enacted a reign of terror on Rachael that went beyond even the callousness and cruelty I had already witnessed.

While I am scared to death of the repercussions of taking a stand ... I can no longer ignore what we’ve been ignoring as a nation for centuries.

One night in particular stands out to me.

Prior to this deputy taking over our rotation, we hadn’t had any cell tosses, a jailhouse term for when deputies make you leave your cells so they can go through your personal belongings for contraband. When our deputy took over, she decided to change our run of luck. One night, we were abruptly called into the center bubble of the cell block, the area that housed the deputies’ command center. From this location, behind darkly tinted window panes, deputies had full visibility into our cells.

The call to exit our cells happened so quickly that I barely had time to give Rachael instructions, and neither of us knew what was happening. “Put on your uniform,” I told her. With little time, we both threw on the requisite jail garb. Except Rachael had forgotten or not had time to put on her bra.

We were marched into the center and lined up against the wall facing the deputies’ command center where the mostly male deputies sat in their private viewing box. We were told to lift our shirts above our chests and lower our pants below our knees.

In all my life, I’ve never felt so ashamed, embarrassed or violated. But what would come next was even worse.

Rachael had lifted her shirt but stopped below her breasts. The female deputy screamed at her. “I told you to lift your shirt above your chest.” Rachael refused, explaining that she had not put on her bra. At that point, the female deputy got right in her face and yelled at her for forgetting her bra. “When I tell you to put on your full uniform, I mean everything, including your bra.” She chastised and berated Rachael for never listening to or following her orders.

She wouldn’t stop. We stood there for what felt like centuries while Rachael, the one and only Black woman in our cell block, got chewed out by a white female C.O. because she had forgotten or didn’t have time to don an undergarment, something none of us were expecting to need because none of us were expecting to lower our pants and lift our shirts in front of a bunch of deputies.

When Rachael and I got back to our cell we saw that it had been tossed beyond recognition: Every single brown paper bag filled with what little comfort you can purchase from the jail commissary had been overturned, the contents littering the floor. Some of it was even destroyed. It was at that moment that my soul started to break, not only for the indignity we had all suffered but also from the crushing guilt of not standing up for Rachael for fear of being Tasered or put in solitary confinement.

As I am now confronted yet again with the systemic racism of our military police state, I feel the same crushing guilt for standing silently by while Black lives suffer. And while I am scared to death of the repercussions of taking a stand — scared to death of the very thought of being thrown into a jail cell again — I can no longer ignore what we’ve been ignoring as a nation for centuries.

Rachael’s life matters. Black lives matter. And if you don’t stand with us who believe this, you are against us.

Michelle Hadley spent 88 days in the Orange County Central Women’s Jail for a crime she did not commit. After being exonerated, she moved to New York City where she works in marketing.

The Orange County Jail did not respond to requests for comment. Hadley’s experiences are consistent with a 2017 ACLU report on Orange County jails which found instances of verbal harassment, targeting of Black detainees, strip searches of female detainees in front of male deputies, and trashed cells after searches.

*Name has been changed to protect “Rachael’s” privacy.