Second to “did you ever shoot someone?”, a popular question I’m asked is as a former police officer or crash reconstruction investigator, did I get sick seeing people mangled or dead. The answer to both is no. I’m not sure why I didn’t get ill, because I don’t have an iron stomach, but seldom did I feel like I was going to purge from seeing these traumas. Maybe twice, in nearly 30 years.

Despite my ability to shake off blood and gore, there exists a kryptonite that will send me heaving. Vomit. I get a bit nauseous even typing it – but if I even hear someone, yet alone see or smell throw up, I will be gagging.

I was serving a warrant for a probation violation to, what turned out to be, a very intoxicated woman. At her house I could see that she had been drinking, a lot. I loaded her up in the back of my cruiser and away we went to the county jail. Like a kid after a day of Disney, within minutes she leaned her head against the door and fell asleep. This is a best-case scenario when taking drunk folks to jail. A quiet, uneventful drive.

I wasn’t so lucky. Less than a mile from the jail, the woman abruptly sat up and said, “I think I’m—-” and she threw up on herself, the floorboards and back seat. Fighting back my own gag reflex, I rolled down all the windows, peaked my head outside and focused on getting to the lockup. Before I made it there, she threw up again. And then again. It was like a scene from The Exorcist. The car became enveloped in the stench of hot bourbon and seafood. I was gagging and swallowing back what I couldn’t keep in my own stomach. Finally, I made it to the jail. I whipped in the sally-port, the gates closed behind and I jumped out like the car was about to explode. Jailers walked her inside and immediately my heaving began to relax. It was awful.

But there was one remaining item. The inside of my car. This woman’s stomach contents were still floating around in the pool of regurgitated liquor in the back seat. I had no worries because I knew it wasn’t going to be me to clean it up. I just needed to tell the jailers to send someone to wash up this atrocity. Who was the poor bastard assigned? No, not a junior jail staff member or custodial employee.

Prisoners.

At a safe distance, I watched on as one young and one middle aged African American men fighting back their own purging while they sopped up this woman’s vomit with cheap paper towels. Both removed their t-shirts for make-shift masks to dull the odor though I’m not sure it helped much. The process was slow as they both would need time to rest and recover in intervals for their own stomachs to withstand this disgusting task.

“Better thee than me” I thought to myself.

This was very normal. It wasn’t the first-time people in jail, often referred to as “trustees”, cleaned up throw-up or feces from my car. They regularly washed cars, changed oil and rotated tires for the police. Daily, men and women were delivered from their jail cells to the police station, city or county buildings to do lawn work, housekeeping, clerical duties, or heavy labor without pay. In short, slaves. And it’s perfectly legal. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishes slavery but leaves one large carve-out.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

This summer, Twitter became abuzz regarding Former Secretary of State and Senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1996 book “It Takes a Village”. A chapter in her memoire describes the relationships of prison workers who were assigned to care for the Arkansas governor’s mansion and lawns. As I began reading comments online I, admittedly, dismissed the criticism that she herself participated in slavery as hyperbolic and naive. Even as someone who tries to be in tune with the criminal justice’s system’s failures, I still thought “this happens everywhere.” In fact, the Secretary’s own words highlights the regularity of such use.

“When we moved in, I was told that using prison labor at the governor’s mansion was a longstanding tradition, which kept costs down…”

After leaving policing, I’ve had a lot of reflection as to my participation in the nonsensical drug war and mass incarceration. For 30 years working in the justice system, not once did I think that I partook in slavery. I had been aware of the practice of using the labor in jails and prisons as I described, but only about 5 years ago did I learn this exploitation is much broader in scope. Yet, I never examined my own role.

Ironically, the realization of my participation came as I pondered my unsolicited, a-political, critique of Secretary Clinton. I judged that she was a bit tone-deaf and laissez faire in her depictions. Yes, of course men and women who labored at the mansion were slaves and I hoped she expressed her regret. But I had no consideration about the system that facilitates this immorality to exist. It was then, my own hypocrisy was revealed. I used slaves frequently when I was a cop. No less than the unpaid labor at the Arkansas governor’s mansion, the two men who endured cleaning the woman’s bile from my car were slaves.

I’m certain that there are a lot of influences, especially racism and bias amongst them, that delayed my epiphany that I had participated in this exploitation of humans. I’ve come to recognize that I had been thinking about slavery without considering the slaves and ignored who were the slave drivers.

 

Randy Shrewsberry is a former police officer and forensics investigator who has worked in the justice system for nearly 30 years. As the founder of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, Randy champions long-lasting change in our criminal justice system through improved law enforcement training. He advocates for new training and curricula based on scientific and proven processes that will truly serve and protect our communities.