Laughing with handcuffs

by Eric Ginsburg

I admit that I laugh at cheesy jokes and puns. When a friend rolled their eyes at the name of a fundraiser baseball game played by the police and fire departments, “Guns and Hoses,” I chuckled, and I still think it’s pretty ingenious. Recently the Greensboro Police Department held a fundraiser entitled “Run from the Cops.” I’m sure someone thought they were being clever, but it made my stomach churn. Are we really going to turn the misfortune of others into a joke, where people who don’t live with a fear of police can run alongside officers in a lighthearted fundraiser? Yet the police fundraiser has nothing on the so-called humor displayed by Sheriff Barnes towards people in jail. I was taken aback when he referred to the jail as his “bed and breakfast” during an interview with me, and shocked that he actually went ahead and printed napkins with the phrase for the new jail’s opening. The napkins had a stereotypical image of an inmate clad in a black-and-white-striped jumpsuit and looking mean as can be. The napkins aren’t as repulsive as the planned overnight at the new jail, which I detailed in my March cover story. As a fundraiser for the county and to test the guards and systems, benefactors can pay $100 a head to be processed through the jail and spend the night. The experience that is a nightmare for anyone that actually has to go through it has been turned into a commodity where rich residents can say they’ve experienced a slice of how the other half lives. When asked why anyone would want to spend a night in the jail, let alone pay $100 for it, Barnes said that it would make a heck of a dinner-party story. I can picture it now: after raising wine glasses for a toast, guests size up the food and decide whether to try the organic greens or the smoked salmon first. As the conversation lulls and people dig in, a man leans towards the person across the table and, loud enough for all to hear, says, “You know I went to jail last week?” Barnes even has cards to hand to the paying guests, with the same cartoon prisoner on it, that say “Get out of jail free (not really).” When the jail visitors come for a stay in his “B&B,” each will get a card, and if the experience of one sleepover is more than they can handle, they can present the card and be released. I don’t know whether to describe it as voyeurism or sheer madness, but the entire scenario is absurd. It reminds me of the incredibly depressing and uncomfortable tour I took through the dump in Guatemala City. We rolled through the sprawling heaps of trash, first watching people picking through the trash and then arriving at a row of shelters. From our air-conditioned, cushioned seats, we looked out — and literally down — at people who live in the dump. I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt more uncomfortable. It’s one thing to want to know how other people live and to learn about experiences other than your own, but some approaches reek of paternalism, racism and privilege. Spending a night in the jail with the option to leave if you can’t hack it is as close to the real experience of being imprisoned as my brief jaunt through the dump was to actually living there. The two experiences have nothing to do with each other, and if anything skew the visitors’ perspectives. I can imagine the same dinner party guest telling his audience that jail really wasn’t so bad and making other proclamations using his expert credentials from one night. Quips about the jail being a bed and breakfast or running from the police are only funny to people who have never experienced, and assume they never will experience, either in real life. Maybe there’s an attitude that people in jail or who run from the police are only getting what they deserve. People don’t always break the law for the best reasons — like stealing food for their children when the food stamp system glitches — but I would hope we are better than turning the plight of others into comic relief for ourselves. It isn’t cute or amusing, it’s just dehumanizing, and we diminish ourselves in the process.