It’s a Friday night and I’m kicking it off with a couple cocktails at a friend’s house in my hometown, Birmingham, AL. The crew is chatting, flirting, listening to loud music, and eventually planning out our night to see if there’s anything worth going to before we get the drunchies and make a stop at the late night eatery in town.At this point in my high school career, partying had become a well-practiced activity. Since the ripe age of 13, I had been drinking with friends almost every night of every weekend. I got drunk. I got high. I stole booze from parents’ liquor cabinets to make cocktails by swanky poolsides. I smoked joints and watched sunrises from rooftops. I also puked (on too many occasions to count with some intermittent projectile action). I made out for the first time drunk. I continued to experience sex drunk. I got in cars with drivers who were drunk. I eventually also drove drunk. And this story is yet another in a long list of stories about when I was drunk.
So we hear about a party out in Bumfuck, Alabama. You know the typical high school story where some kid’s parents are out of town and the party is gettin’ cray. So we decide the 40 minute drive is worth our time. I jump behind the wheel with three other kids, we pump up the jams, and somehow find our way to this house off Route-to-nowhere. When we get there the booze is gone (FUCK! Immediately smoke as many cigarettes as possible. So awkward, so awkward, why the FUCK is there no beer…). We shortly decide it’s time to go. A couple other fools jump in the way way back of my station wagon as my friend’s boyfriend takes the wheel because he’s had “less” drinks. We begin making our way back to Birmingham with thoughts of triple-cheese bakers for our late night snack.
Blue and red lights in the rearview mirror (Fuck, it’s the cops! FUCK, it’s two cops). By the time they step out of their car and motion to our driver to roll down his window, yet another patroller has pulled up.
“Well, dayuuum! I think it smells like alcohol in your car! You kids wouldn’t have been drankin’ and drivin’ tonight, would you? ‘Cause you certainly don’t look old enough to be drankin’…”
They pull us out one by one, starting with our driver. Once he passes the breathalyzer test, they start questioning me to figure out why I’m not driving my own car. I had a few drinks and I didn’t feel comfortable taking the wheel (But actually, my friend was feeling sick as we were leaving so I sat in back to help clean her up after she puked out the window and to hold her hair if she needed to puke again). They tell me to sit on the curb with the others while they finish searching my car for paraphernalia.
As they start handcuffing us, one cop tells us how lucky we are. They’ve decided they won’t slap any fines on us for traveling with a couple unbuckled passengers, or charge us for possessing cigarettes underage. But they will charge us with an MIC or Minor in Consumption, which can land you in juvey for a minimum of 48 hours. In God’s Country (otherwise known as Shelby County), their Zero Tolerance Policy means just that, zero tolerance for underage consumption of any illegal substance.
Upon arrival at the juvenile detention center, we are immediately separated by gender. My female friend and I sit down while our “escort” checks us in. My friend begins to sob. Still handcuffed, I lean my shoulder into hers and tell her it’ll be alright. I feel numb when I say this. She looks terrified.
“What are we gonna do? We’re being arrested,” she whispers. “We’re in fucking jail.”
I kiss her cheek and continue to say it’ll be alright, it’s gonna be alright.
The staff at the desk looks over and barks at us. “Hey! What are y’all doing? Why are you kissin’ her?”
I say she’s my friend. She’s upset.
“Uh-uh. We don’t do that here. None of that lady-love business. You better cut that out. Right now.”
We both seem confused by the harsh order but I quickly scoot across the bench to create distance between my body and hers. My friend cries even harder.
Later, I strip off my clothes and personal belongings so I can shower. The staff watch as I wash and put on my new uniform of gray-nude sweats and neon orange sandals. An escort walks me to my isolation cell where I am told that I will be monitored by a video camera until Sunday morning. I sleep, pee, poop, eat and pace my cell throughout my stay.
The next day as I’m handed my lunch, a staff member starts asking me questions. “I heard you were kissin’ her… You in love with her or somethin’? You a lezbo ?” Later, he asks me why I haven’t cried yet. “I’ve been lookin’, but I haven’t seen you cry once!” I shrug and tell him I don’t know… there’s no use I guess. But I feel a guilty pleasure in knowing that he hadn’t noticed when I turned my back to the camera and my face to the wall. My body was shaking and my eyes were tearing as I wondered if anyone at school would find out, if I could still get into college, if my parents or grandparents would ever forgive me….
Sunday morning is a big day for us. After two nights in “iso,” we’re let out of our cells to join the other inmates and enjoy the fresh air on the center’s blacktop. There, we meet up with the male counterparts of our party who’ve staked out a spot on a picnic table adjacent to the basketball court.
Were you in iso?
Yeah, we were in iso… Man, the food was awe-ful!
But did you get something to read?
Yeah… it was a joke though. Chicken Soup for the Romantic Soul. Cheesiest book I’ve ever read.
You know when they’re gonna let us out?
After some more chatting, we realize that we are just a few of many who come in for underage drinking. Jokingly referred to as the “weekenders,” we’re the kids who pass through each weekend in order to have a casual stint with jail time. Weekenders are meant to be scared shitless, to temporarily experience the fate of a criminal and never break the law again. The other young men and women, however, were the criminals. Assault, battery, grand theft auto… they were in it for the long haul. So we start joking about how much “street cred” we’ll have once we get out. We joke about how little “real” work Shelby County cops have to do if they spend most of their time arresting drunks kids every weekend. We make jokes until the bell rings for us to go back inside.
Next, we join the other female inmates for their weekly Bible Study, wherein we have the pleasure of hosting volunteers from the neighboring Baptist church for an hour or two. In that time, two women share the word of God and God’s love in a discussion with the incarcerated youth of Shelby County.To be frank, I can’t remember much about this conversation because I immediately zoned out. I had lived long enough in Alabama to
know that ignoring evangelizing Christians is the only way I can deal with them. But then one of the inmates, a young black woman, begins choking up as she talks about her sexuality and sexual past. She’s afraid that God won’t ever love her or forgive her. She knows it’s sinful, she knows it’s wrong, but she just can’t help feeling sexually attracted to women. One of the Baptist ladies ask her, Why do you think that is? Why are you attracted to women? The young woman then tells us that she was repeatedly molested by her mother’s boyfriend as a child. She’s scared of men, she hates men, she commits crimes against men… But she’s into women.
The Baptist ladies assure her that God’s love will show her the way to righteousness. That if she believes in God’s love enough, he will help her find the strength to reject homosexuality and be reconciled with her past. As this conversation unfolds, I wonder… Do the guards know? Do they question, harass or tease her as they did my friend and I? Does anyone care about the fact that she was repeatedly molested as child? Is there empathy for a (homosexual) black woman in Alabama’s juvenile detention system, or in Alabama, or anywhere?
A couple hours later we’re told that our parents have arrived and it’s times for us to go. As we make our way back towards the real world and our clothes and our belongings and our concerned families on the other side, we pass a group of four white girls heading in the opposite direction. In that moment, I become painfully aware of how white we, the weekenders, all are. Despite the gray uniforms and disheveled “i’m-in-jail” appearances, we stick out as if we don’t really belong. And I don’t think we were supposed to feel as if we belonged. In a detention center where the regular inmates are primarily youth of color, gaggles of drunk white kids are paraded through not only to get scared shitless and to stop all that rabble-rousing but to also internalize a status quo. A status quo that normalizes the incarceration of people of color whereas white incarceration is just a blip, a one-time fuck up that will eventually be forgiven. Given the fact that I was arrested in Alabama, this didn’t seem all too accidental.
As a significantly privileged white female, folks are always shocked when I tell them this story. What? How? Why were you arrested? And I tell them. I spent 52 hours in juvey for drinking underage. I then regularly pissed in a cup during my 6 month probation and my case was later put in a zipped file that would never be revealed to my high school, prospective employers or prospective institutions for higher learning. The following spring, I received an acceptance letter to a prestigious university, presumably fulfilling their regional (though decidedly not racial) diversity quota that school year. And today, I am an Ivy League graduate. Given my race, class and education, no one would even venture to guess that I was once arrested, put on an inmates uniform, and spent an entire weekend in an Alabama Juvenile Detention Center. And I guess that’s pretty damn typical.
By Mary Alice Reilly, Contributing Writer
Born and raised in Birmingham, AL, Mary Alice Reilly is a recent graduate of Brown University and currently lives in Providence, RI. As a student, Mary Alice first began examining justice through coursework about the food system and alternative food movements. Today, she feels more so indebted to her incredibly thoughtful friends and peers that have helped deepen and expand her understanding of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia from various perspectives and frameworks. Given the coincidental overlap, she is interested to see how this post may contribute to conversations and critiques raised by Netflix’s increasingly popular series, Orange is the New Black.