Updated: May 26, 2020
I was a suspect, and I didn’t do anything to deserve it.
I had submitted the usual paperwork to renew my security clearance, as I’d done for the past three years that I’d been leading meditation sessions and teaching the Path of Freedom at our county jail. But this time, something went wrong. I got the call from the administrator in the office that handles our clearances.
“Kathryn, your clearance has been revoked,” Karen said. “Says here that you were arrested for possession.” My first response was to laugh – surely I would have noticed if I had been arrested. Karen must be kidding me. Yet she wouldn’t call for a frivolous reason, and her voice carried weight.
“Are you sure you’ve never been arrested?” Karen asked. Apparently, other people had neglected to report an arrest. I assured her I had not. She explained that someone with my name had been arrested, and I would not be allowed to enter the jail until it could be proven I was not that person. Resolving the issue turned out to be a long haul because of vacations, heavy workloads and the slow processing of paperwork.
Four weeks passed. An arrest record continued to surface with my name. My co-teacher had to run our Path of Freedom class on her own. I grew worried. What if someone had adopted my name in an identity theft? The system moved slowly and there was nothing I could do but wait, feeling frustrated and powerless.
Finally, I learned the only way I could regain my clearance was to have a “suspect ID run.” This required going to the jail to get fingerprinted. I was escorted to the lowest level, to a windowless room with harsh florescent lighting, stark white walls, computer desks for two correctional officers, and several machines. I was instructed to place my fingers, one at a time, on a plate of glass on one of these machines. Watching detective stories as a child led me to expect ink for fingerprinting, but this machine could do sophisticated analysis on the spot just by reading fingertips placed on its surface. Except it didn’t like my fingerprints. A message of “unclear minutia” repeatedly came up. I asked the correctional officer what that meant. He said my fingerprints were “worn.” He kept trying, spritzing my fingers with water and wiping them dry, until a clear-enough set of prints was accepted. I was instructed to sit and wait for the reply from the state headquarters where all prints are checked. Only a few more minutes, I was told.
No response after ten, after twenty, after thirty minutes. The pile of undone work I’d left on my desk weighed on my mind. I sat there staring into a corner of the room that needed a good cleaning and practiced holding my seat. I felt grateful to know this skill. The captain came in to review the situation. He told me it was unusual for a response to take even five minutes, usually took about two. He pulled up the arrest record that had killed my clearance. The woman was of the same race, had the same birth month and day, with a one year difference in our birth years. It was not considered relevant that I’m five inches taller than her, a fact quite difficult to fake. Her arrest had happened several years ago in another state. (There was no explanation for why my clearance was revoked this time and not previously.) Forty minutes into the wait, the captain said I could leave and he would contact me later. Perhaps there was a problem with the computer system. He suggested I watch for signs of identity theft.
On the way out, I passed two glass-walled holding cells. In one, a man lay on a bench, an arm shielding his eyes, as if hoping for the oblivion of sleep. In the other cell, a young man turned to press his hands and face to the glass as I passed. He met my eyes with an expression of such wild desperation that my heart went out to him. I wondered if my long fingerprinting ordeal had delayed his admission. Of course my ordeal was minor compared to what he would likely be facing. And what inner resources did he have to deal with his situation?
I got an email later that day from the captain. No fingerprints matched mine. My clearance was finally reinstated. I would return to teaching with a new perspective. I had heard inmates express feelings of powerlessness and frustration about the glacial pace of the judicial system, and now I better understood their emotional experience.