Surrealism on the Big Screen

Sometimes it’s all about the photograph, but sometimes words can paint the more complete picture.

I was in court this afternoon and happened to sit in on the arraignment of a young woman charged with stealing a credit card and using it three times. She looked to be in her early twenties, with long brown hair and glasses. She looked like she could easily have been on break from college, only the prosecutor said she isn’t. She also isn’t employed, and she was already out on bail for burglary charges. I wasn’t there for the young woman’s hearing, but the clerk would be busy until it was over so I figured I’d sit through it rather than wait in the hall.

The proceeding was different than others I’ve been to. Instead of a judge sitting at an elevated desk at the front of the room there was a large screen television mounted at the witness stand. The court was doing a video arraignment, the clerk told me, something they’d just begun within the last month. On top of the television was a cylindrical camera, roughly the size of a soft drink cup, what pointed at the defendant. In the lower right corner was a square showing what the camera was capturing. The rest of the screen was for the judge.

A judge an hour and a half away came to the screen at the push of the button, and everyone in the room rose as if he had just walked in. The judge’s clerk (there were two — one in the room the young woman, the prosecutor and I were in, and then one with the judge) read the charges the young woman was facing — one count of theft and three counts of credit card fraud. The prosecutor, a sergeant with the Conway Police Department, read an affidavit that said the woman stole the card from an associate and charged $500 on it. He also mentioned her other pending cases, and that she was after money for drugs.

This girl looked like she could have been taking classes at any university, or working in the coffee shop down the street. I’m not sure exactly when, but around the time the prosecutor asked the judge to set bail at $5,000 cash she began to cry.

She continued to cry as she stood and pleaded to the television that she did not want to go to jail. “I just want to go home,” she said, her voice broken. I wonder if she noticed the bailiff, just in front of her and to the right, sending a text message on his cell phone. “I have no one here,” she said. $5,000 would be too much.

I’ve never had to post anyone’s bail, but as I sat there watching her cry I considered it. They will eat her up in jail, I thought. The judge listened as she cried and spoke. Her back was to me, but I could see her reflection in the television screen as she wiped her eyes. I had to look away. And I wasn’t alone. There three other police officers in the room, and they all were looking at their feet, at the ceiling, anywhere but at her, embarrassed and sad for her but at the same time mad at her.

The room felt cold. I couldn’t help but envision the photo I wanted, the photo I knew would capture the inhumanity I was watching. It would take a wide angle lens, and it would be in black and white. In the foreground would be the bailiff’s phone, open in his hand, held next to his leg. Beyond him would be the young woman, slightly out of focus, her hands over her face. Beyond her, in the middle, would be the judge, just inches tall on the television screen deciding her fate.

I’m not sure what I saw in that room, what it says about humanity, the electronic age or the future of justice. But I did see something that struck me as an opportunity for art to make its social commentary. The room felt cold, the justice system felt cold, in a way it never has when there is a human sitting at the front of the room.

This young woman didn’t get that, however. She got a $5,000 cash bail. And with that she got a free ride to the house of corrections, and orange jumpsuit and shackles.

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