“I wouldn’t raise cockroaches in that place. I preferred working at the animal and medical waste facility. I recall everything being grimy, it was all under-lit… can a building be malevolent? Like, can a building hate you?
Just being in it made me tired in my soul. The inmates are hostile, and the guards have this air of malice, indifference, and contempt. And then you have the building itself, which is ancient and run-down. Where it’s lit well, it’s harsh fluorescent, but mostly it’s dim.
It’s just an aggregate of misery, despair, a melange of human suffering. I hated it, I hated being there, I hate driving by it… I avoid that block whenever possible. It’s a storage facility for humans that we don’t want to think about.
I’ve been in a juvenile facility in PA as an inmate, and I did work for a county facility, and in both of those cases, it was still an institution, but they were both cleaner, less oppressive in a medieval sort of way. They were places you sent and housed people, not an oubliette.”
— My friend J, who did camera maintenance at Central Booking through a contractor.
In September 2018, Shawn Leak was accused of a non-violent robbery and charges were filed. Shawn was dismissed from a job around that time but didn’t know why. They got a new job, only to be fired once again in February of this year, which was when they learned about the charges. This month, over a year later, the charges were dismissed when the accuser failed to produce evidence they’d claimed to have.
Was Shawn innocent or guilty? They’re my friend and they say they didn’t do it, but I’m not actually speaking to that question. Instead, I want to look at what they experienced simply facing an accusation.
In many ways, when it comes to Baltimore’s criminal justice machine, this is a non-story. Shawn wasn’t beaten, held for months, forced to scrape up exorbitant bail, or anything like that. They just took a stroll through the system. And yet, when they told me about it, I could see the visceral horror that the memories elicited. Below is our interview, edited for length and clarity.
Shawn: My name is Shawn Leak, I’m 27 years old. I guess if I had to give myself a title, I’d say that I’m a community-building activist, organizer, and artist. I come from Washington, DC, I rep my city wherever I am, and I’ve been living in Baltimore for a little over a year now.
Abby: How’s it treating you?
Shawn: It’s been an interesting little rollercoaster… Baltimore is slowly but surely growing on me.
Abby: I’m glad to hear that! I wanted to talk about your experience going through Central Booking. It’s just such a dark and traumatizing place from everything I’ve heard, and I wanna get more people to look at that. So… what was it about?
Shawn: Long story short, I got caught up in some mistaken identity stuff. There was a warrant out for my arrest that affected my employment. After months of trying to figure out a way of rectifying the situation without turning myself in, because I have solid proof that it wasn’t me, I just gave up and was like, “You know what, fuck it, if this is the process I have to go through, I’m gonna have to go through it.”
I willingly turned myself in, and surprisingly, I had an easier time than I know the average person has. The officers that I was interacting with, they were kind of like, “Damn, sorry you gotta go through this…” But still, yeah, it’s a shitty-ass, unnecessary-ass process, it just… it fucking sucks, man.
Abby: So what was the process?
Shawn: I had to turn myself in to the district where the warrant was issued, and then they took me to Central Booking. From the moment I was in the paddy wagon, “UGH, germs!” ’cause I’m sitting in this metal box and I’m seeing blood smears —
Shawn: — on the chairs and stuff across from me. I’m like “Y’all don’t clean shit out, no? Y’all just leaving DNA, ok… germs…” So, the whole ride, I’m like, “I wonder what other bodily fluids I’m sitting in!”
Abby: Are you shackled at this time?
Shawn: Yeah, I have flexie cuffs on, ’cause like I said, they were kinda sympathetic, and I was like, “Yo, can I not have the bracelets…” And I know, especially as a Black queer person, that is not typical whatsoever, but thank god, that was my experience.
Abby: Was that the first time you’d been arrested?
Shawn: Yeah, as an adult, as something not attached to activism. So, we get to Central Booking, and then, while we had to wait for the guards to come and open two sets of jail doors, that’s when it got real to me —
Abby: “Oh shit, I’m going inside.”
Shawn: I’m going to jail and it’s not just gonna be some quick… when those first set of metal door closed behind me, I’m like… fuck, I’m going through this for realsies, I don’t have a whole team of people —
Abby: — waiting outside to bail you out.
Shawn: Right. At this point, nobody knew, because I got up one morning and I was like “fuck it, let me take care of this shit.” I didn’t realize that I was gonna have to go through the entire process.
Abby: Ohhh, you thought it was maybe gonna be more like a paperwork situation…
Shawn: Yeah, or I thought at the most it would be a quick in and out.
Abby: So the doors close, now you’re inside.
Shawn: Yeah, and I can’t even explain it… you walk in and you’re aware of the cameras, you’re aware of these thick-ass metal doors, you’re aware that you literally cannot go any-fucking-where or do any-fucking-thing without being told. If you had any hope of having some type of freedom in any part of this process prior to then, all that shit was just stripped the fuck away.
You have people who are not all there mentally for various reasons, whether they are off their psych meds, whether they are off of their drug maintenance meds, whether they are withdrawing, it’s just so much going on! And then you got people like myself who are just like… I just gotta go through this process.
It’s crowded, it’s loud, and then the first cell I was put in was, like, seven of us, and it was an interesting bunch, it was like all of those different types of people that I just described in one little tiny… probably, my room [where we were conducting the interview] was definitely bigger —
Abby: Oh shit, this is not a large bedroom as they go. You can stretch your legs out a little bit, but —
Shawn: Not in that holding cell… so yeah, you have this one lady passed out, and you could tell she’s homeless or whatever, and then she’s also high out of her fucking mind and is like, withdrawing and shit, she’s wrapped around the base of the toilet, just passed out. And her body odor, it was a lot. And then you’ve got her friend who is slouched, taking up literally an entire section of the only seating area along the wall and I’m like yo, can you watch your feet, I don’t want to have to hit you out of reflex because your dirty ass feet touch me ’cause you shifting in your sleep, like why you even stretched out, people are trying to sit down.
Abby: So it’s not ringed with benches so everyone can sit…
Shawn: No, no, it’s very cramped, it’s like you get in where you fit in. And then it’s freezing fucking cold, which kinda thank god, because, uh, germs every-fucking-where, but also, you look up and you see the ventilation, and nah, cold air is not a saving grace because it’s filtrated through wads of toilet paper and jail toilet water that has been thrown up there to stop the air flow… so yeah, like, germs… germs!! Germs. I was literally sitting like [holds body tightly], “Don’t touch me, I won’t touch you, if it’s anything other than my person it belongs to this facility, I don’t want it any more. I’m gonna burn these clothes once I get out of here!”
After umpteen fucking hours, and maybe three rounds of the holding cell shuffle, I finally see the first Commissioner.
Abby: How long do you think it had been at this point?
Shawn: There’s no window, if your cell ends up somewhere not near a clock, then you can’t tell what time it is. I feel like a good five or so hours? They had just finished up lunch when I had got there, there was a few leftovers they were able to give me.
Abby: What was it they give you?
Shaw: You get four slices of bread. I wouldn’t call it bread but they call it bread. It was just the driest… I could karate chop it, like hi-ya, crack. A tube of this thick-ass peanut butter and a tube of some thick-ass strawberry jam, and both the jam and the peanut butter are super cold, so yeah, how are you spreading that on this damn near crumby bread. And then, they have this little snack-sized package of dry sunflower seed kernels with like regular table salt just sitting in the bottom of the bag. You get one little kindergarten carton of orange drink.
Abby: And after five hours, you get to see a Commissioner?
Shawn: Yes, and this first Commissioner literally just asked me if I wanted a public defender or not. I waited five hours for someone in business casual attire to ask me if I wanted a public defender or not and process the paperwork. I waited five hours for that.
I went back and I didn’t see the next Commissioner until two or three o’clock in the morning. I briefed my public defender on the situation. You’re sitting in this little box, there’s plexiglass between you. They’re sitting in their office and you’re on the jail side, and they speak to you through the intercom, they ask you two or three questions.
She went over my information and was like “Since my client has turned themselves in, we’re asking for them to be let out on their own recognizance until the trial date,” and of course the Commissioner had no other choice because I don’t have a previous record. But yeah, I turned myself in at nine o’clock in the morning, and I did not finish that entire process of being through Central Booking until five or six in the morning the next day.
Abby: And you’re still in limbo?
Shawn: Yeah, there’s this process where you have to check in with a pre-trial officer. You might as well say you’re on probation, similar rules apply. I have not been able to be gainfully employed, because every time an employer pulls up my record, it shows that I have an active criminal warrant, because I’ve not been able to go to trial yet.
Abby: When was it you turned yourself in, back in April?
Abby: And July was supposed to be your trial, but you went in and found out it was postponed?
Shawn: Yeah, because of the holiday. The new arraignment date was supposed to be August second, but because I’ve been in pre-trial status for so long, that has to get re-reviewed, which pushes my arraignment back to September twentieth.
[we sigh deeply together]
Shawn: Big fuck.
Even though the charges have now been dismissed, in order to have an unbiased shot at employment, Shawn has to get them expunged, which can take up to 90 days. In the meantime, they’re hustling hard to get by. You can find ways to follow, donate to, or hire them for dog-walking here: https://linktr.ee/itsshawnnow
Cultural Event of the Week: Abdu Ali is one of the biggest names in Baltimore’s music scene, with a sound described as a “phantasmagoria of Rap, Free Jazz, and Avant-Garde electronic music.” Catch Ali at the Ottobar with a whole mess of other artists this Friday night!
https://facebook.com/events/725827504555037/ / http://www.theottobar.com/e/abdu-ali-73055726645/
Green Event of the Week: Repairing the everyday items in our lives can feel like a lost art, but it’s one of the simplest ways to reduce our impact on the planet. In a world of planned obsolescence, save your dollars and some carbon at the Fix It Fair, hosted by the Station North Tool Library and the Enoch Pratt Free Library this Saturday and Sunday.
https://facebook.com/events/204681463813176/ / https://www.stationnorthtoollibrary.org/fixitfair
Song of the Week: “Rhythm Nation” by Janet Jackson
This is the test, no struggle, no progress (Lend) / Lend a hand to help your brother do his best / Things are getting worse, we have to make them better / It’s time to give a damn, let’s work together / Come on now / People of the world today / Are we looking for a better way of life? / We are a part of the rhythm nation