Paul Curtis was having a quiet Friday evening. He’d decided to stay in and keep his elderly cat company. As he reclined on his couch with his ancient and arthritic cat contentedly curled up on his lap he read an old book that had come down to him from his grandfather. The story was ridiculous swashbuckling and daring do that he had read before, more than once. He read it yet again to enjoy the feel of the leather binding, the vanilla smell of the yellowing pages and the sense of nostalgic connection to his late father and grandfather.
There was a knock at his apartment door.
He gently put a bookmark in place and even more gently moved his frail old cat off his lap. ‘Who could be knocking on my door without having first buzzed into the building?” he wondered. Presuming it must be a neighbour come to borrow some small thing, his heart sank when he peered through the peep-hole and saw police uniforms.
Part of him wanted to simply not open the door and hide, but he knew he had already revealed his presence with creeks in the floor and darkening the peep-hole. He then desperately consoled himself with the hope that they were just warning people in the building of some monstrous threat. But he knew better. He knew the police at his door would be worse for him than news of, for example, a rash of break-ins in the neighbourhood or even news of serial-killer prowling around. That’s just how it was when the police came knocking.
He opened the door and one of the police officers asked, “Paul Curtis?”
“We have a warrant for your arrest.”
His heart sank and his shouldered slumped. “On what charge?”
He opened the door further and invited the instruments of the law inside. He knew he had committed worthy of the accusation being leveled at him. There was no point, however in trying to argue that with the police. It wasn’t their job to determine if the warrant was justified. That’s what judges were for. He looked at the pistols and truncheons sheathed at the waists. They were there to exercise the warrant and take him. There was nothing he could do for himself.
“Can I use the washroom and make sure the cat has food before we go?”
“The cat will be fine,” said the older of the two, who had not spoken anything yet.
“He’s 20 years old.”
They looked at eachother and agreed, so he led them deeper into the apartment.
At the sound of four heavy boots walking in the cat woke up. At the sight of the two strange men the cat struggled to his feet as fast as his poor old body would let him, painfully descended from the couch and ran as best he could to another room to hide. As the cat passed Paul worried for a split second that one of those four heavy boots would accidentally, or worse, purposefully, kick his old friend. The cat successfully navigated their six legs and made good his retreat.
The older officer said, “I’ll check if this is alright” and motioned toward the bathroom. “You take him to check the cat food. Don’t let him touch anything in the kitchen.”
Without being asked to, to ensure his captor did not feel threatened, Paul held his hands up, fingers spread as he peered at the cat’s bowls. There was enough food and water for the night still in the bowls, so he stepped backward, raising his hands slightly higher while doing so, acutely aware of the armed man behind him.
The elder cop was standing outside the bathroom with a clear plastic bag hold Paul’s razor, a half-empty cartridge of replacement blades, a small pair of scissors, fingernail clippers, and a bottle of aspirin. A sense of violation washed over Paul, knowing his medicine cabinet had been rummaged through, but he tried no to show it as he entered the bathroom.
“Don’t lock the door,” the elder cop instructed.
Paul hadn’t been feeling entirely well for a couple of days. His stool was loose. He knew he had been in the bathroom for an unusually long time and feared the elder cop would become impatient and open the door while he was still wiping.
Upon exiting the bathroom Paul was instructed to put on his shoes, was allowed to put on a sweater since it was a chilly late-fall evening, and told just to bring his I.D. and keys to get back into his apartment so the clerk at the police station wouldn’t have to catalogue any unnecessary items. Paul obliged.
He extricated his driver’s license from his wallet and handed it to the police. Paul locked the door, and quite habitually put his keys in the front pocket of the jeans he was wearing. A few moments later he was standing, handcuffed, in front of the three-story walk-up in plain view of his neighbours, waiting for the police van that would take him away.
Trying to stay calm and not panic, Paul and the younger police officer chatted about cats. The officer even apologised that the van was taking so long.
When it finally did arrive some, without sun, watch or phone to tell, who knows how long later one of the two doors on the side of the van was opened and Paul was placed in a small chamber just big enough for one person to sit in. Paul was somewhat relieved that the interior was not like in the movies with two long benches on either side of the van and that he wasn’t crowded in with whoever else was in the van.
The ride was interminable. With no window he had no way of telling where they were. All he knew was the first few turns were not the right ones if they had been going directly downtown. The van making a few stops told him that there were other people being picked up. His shoulders were aching and it felt like felt like the cuffs had tightened around his wrists. On hand was numb.
Eventually the van stopped and the door to his chamber was opened. He could see immediately from the surroundings that they were still not downtown. They were closer, but still not there. He was directed out of his chamber by an officer he had not seen before and walked around to the back of the van. The double-doors at the back were opened and there was a bench running the width of the van with four people already sitting on it. He was squeezed onto the end of the bench, and sitting there, thigh to thigh and shoulder to shoulder, all of them with their hands cuffed behind their backs, the new cop instructed, “No fighting,” and slammed the double doors shut.
The five of them sat in absolute silence. There was nothing to say. They all looked at the back of the windowless doors without so much as a glance at eachother as another indeterminate amount of time passed.
Finally the doors were opened and Paul was directed inside a concrete building of the Brutalist style. His handcuffs were removed and he was pushed into a small room by himself. The room had concrete walls that were tiled with green tiles up to about one and a half metres above the floor. There was a yellowing, heavily scratched up plastic bench embedded in the wall the length of the room. The floor was heavily stained, once upon a time polished, concrete with a drain in the centre. The smell of urine was not subtle.
He sat on the bench and perused its scratches and the scratches in the wall about the tiles. Earlier that evening he had been with his cat, delightfully reading an old book and enjoying the smell of the paper. Now he was in this room, with the urine smell burning inside his nose, a camera staring down at him, and reading names and dates and variations on the theme, “Fuck the Police.”
Time as meaningless now. It was still night on the evening he was arrested--of that he was sure. But whether it as 11 or 1 was unclear. Simply ‘next’ he was led from the small room to another small room. This one had the same style bench and tiles, but no door. There were already to cops in the room. The one that had led him in instructed him to remove his shoes and belt. This was expected. Then they asked for his glasses. This was horrifying.
Paul was extremely nearsighted. Without his glasses he couldn’t focus on anything further than 15 cm from his face. Being of an age where presbyopia was also a problem, the lenses in his glasses were specially made, fragile, and more than he could currently afford to replace, having recently gone through a divorce. He feared that his glasses would get broken in the careless care of a lackadaisical clerk. He was also thoroughly unable make out his surroundings now.
As bad as being handcuffed and locked in a van had been, it was now that he felt truly helpless. Faces more than a couple metres away were undifferentiable other than by colour. He could read nothing. Any and all signage was useless. The cop that had led him into this room led him back out and pointed to some indistinguishable place across a large room populated here and there with blue smears topped with blobs of pink and brown where he was to be finger-printed.
“Where?” Paul asked timidly.
“Right there. Across the room. Under the sign!” barked the cop, wiggling his arm to make the pointing more emphatic.
“I’m sorry,” apologised Paul, “but I can’t even make out were the sign is from here without my glasses.”
The cop sighed like a child being told to eat their vegetables if they wanted dessert. He grabbed Paul’s shoulders from behind, turned him roughly and guided him across the room at a pace that was too fast to be comfortable for someone in sock feet that couldn’t not see where they were being led to.
His fingers were one-by-one rolled in sticky ink and then rolled on a piece of paper that Paul could just make out was some kind of form with something written at the top and ten rectangular spaces for the finger prints.
At the end of it he was instructed to go wash his hands in a sink.
Paul apologised again, “I’m sorry. I can’t see where the sink is without my glasses.”
The fingerprinter was less gruff than the cop that had taken his glasses away. He gently turned Paul in the right directed and asked, “Can you see the white thing against the green wall? That’s the sink.”
With trepidation Paul crossed the room. He could feel the eyes that he knew were in pink and brown blobs over the blue smears burning into him. He made it to the sink and by squinting and leaning in he figured out which container on the shelf above the sink as the soap he should use. Once his hands were as clean as he could get them, he turned around and faced back to where he and come from, literally unclear on what he was to do next. He couldn’t tell one blue fuzz from another.
In a moment one blue fuzz barked, “What the fuck are you doing? Get back here.” He could hear what direction the sound came from well enough, and he could make out a small pink blob moving in front of a blue smear that had to be a gesturing hand. There was more barking and pushing, a short elevator ride one or two floors up, more barking and pushing, then he was handed an energy bar, a juice box and a blanket and pushed into a cell.
The cell wasn’t like the movies. There were no bars. It was an enclosed room with one small window in the door. There was a camera in one corner staring down at him like in the first room. There was a bunk-bed built into the back wall. It was a solid wooden thing with no springs or slats or anything that could conceivably made into a weapon. The mattress was a piece of foam about 5 cm thick and covered with very thick vinyl, obviously designed to be easily wiped clean. In one corner was a stainless-steel toilet with an utterly useless “privacy” screen beside it. The toilet was completely visible from the bunks, clearly visible to any cell-mate. Paul was glad of the small mercy that he was alone in the cell. The screen was not high enough that the camera could see over it. Likewise anyone looking in the little window in the door would also have a clear view. Paul was now very glad that the arresting officers had let him use his own washroom.
He put his blanket down on the vinyl mattress, still folded, and examined the energy bar and juice box at a range where he could read the wrappers. The bar was plain oats and proclaimed itself gluten-free, peanut-free, sugar-free and there was a kosher mark as well. There was no brand name. The juice box had a brand name. It was orange juice. Also unsweetened. And the straw had been removed. Paul wondered how dangerous a juice box straw could be and wondered more about how to get at the juice with nothing to poke out the straw hole. He also wondered if enough time had passed that this was breakfast.
He ate the oat bar, which was virtually tasteless and managed to make a hole in the juice box by pulling up one of the top flaps and chewing the end off it. He folded his folded blanket one more time to make it thick enough to use as a pillow and was glad he put the sweater on to keep him warm. There were sounds of people who were less placid in their cells than he was, but he did manage to sleep a bit. When he awoke he had to urinate and managed to stand between the toilet and the useless privacy screen with his back to the camera. Shooting sideways across the toilet and without his glasses he did miss at first. He felt no remorse out the mess. Instead it felt like a tiny protest since he shouldn’t be there in the first place.
He lay back down and unmeasured time passed. His cell door opened and a blue smear informed him that he was now going to be taken to “video court” but first was going to be given a defence lawyer to talk to. Some pushing and barking ensued when Paul taken to a wide hall with doors on both sides, was instructed to go to certain room number and he explained he could not see the numbers on the doors.
One in the room he was seated at a small table where he waited. Man came in the room, not a blue smear. This was the lawyer. He had some papers in a file folder and sat across the table from Paul. Since the table was small Paul could just make out the features of his appointed lawyer by leaning forward and squinting. He was much younger that Paul, yet still managed to look tired and broken. It didn’t take much more to infer that he hated his job and it was wearing on him.
“Mr. Curtis, do you understand what you have been charged with?”
Paul had a pretty good grasp of what “Criminal Empathy” was, but he let the lawyer explain nonetheless.
“‘Criminal Empathy’ is the act of encouraging or abetting criminal activity with the notion that criminals can be reformed or rehabilitated, and the punishment for this is the same as any other criminal act.”
Paul nodded, “But I haven’t done that.”
“Good,” said the lawyer. “Given the seriousness of criminal punishment you should never plead guilty, ever. It’s in your best interest not to speak at all and let me speak for you. If the Crown does not have credible evidence against you you’ll be fine. You’ll be released immediately after video court.”
“What is video court?” Paul asked.
“The judge, the Crown prosecutor and I will not be in the same room as you. You’ll attend via closed circuit video to the courtroom. Basically a teleconference. They started doing it so they don’t have to have security in the courtrooms for violent criminals or in case someone reacts violently to the judges decision.”
“Can I have my glasses back for this so I can see the screen properly?” Paul requested.
“Yes, I don’t think that will be any problem.”
Paul was then led to another room. This one was larger than the first room that smelled of urine, but it was “decorated” in the same way. The room was ‘L’ shaped with the inside angle partially clipped to a diagonal. Most of the perimeter of the wall had the same sort of built-in plastic bench that the first room had. One corner near the door did not. There was a stainless steel toilet and useless privacy wall like in the cell. Paul was the only person in the room again. He was too concerned about video court to think about why that might be. The truth of it was that this was a waiting room that was rarely used anymore. Most people were taken directly from their cells to video court. Paul had to wait while his glasses were retrieved.
It was a huge relief to him when the door opened and his glasses were returned, thankfully in the same good state as the were when he had to relinquish them. It was refreshing in a way that he could follow directions to his video courtroom without the baking and pushing.
The video courtroom was an odd room. It was a square room a little less that two metres on a side. In the centre was rounded chair on a single pillar that was affixed to the floor. In front of the chair, embedded in the was an absolutely ancient CRT screen. Above it was an equally ancient camera, entirely too large for its purpose by modern standards. Despite the apparent age of the room from long out of style shape of the chair and the near antique screen and camera, this was the first room Paul had seen in this building that was immaculate. There was some wear on the concrete for and on the plastic of the chair from the unknown number of people that had walked around and sat in it.
Like all the others before him, Paul walked around the chair and sat down. The door to the room was closed behind him. Once again enclosed in a windowless room Paul noticed the stark difference to the first room he had been in. This room smelled as clean and fresh as it looked. He looked up and noticed there was a circular vent in the room with a diameter such that it was almost touching the four walls. Fresh, cool air was being pumped into the room.
Just as he was looking up the screen flickered to life and a small red light came on above the camera. The image on the screen was divided in three sections. The top half was the judge and his bench, with the Royal Arms looming behind him. The bottom quarters had the Crown prosecutor on the left and the defence lawyer on the right.
The judge first asked Paul to state his name for the court. He did. Then the judge began a rote preamble:
“Mr. Curtis, for almost a thousand years our judicial system has struggled with imprisonment as punishment and imprisonment and parole as a means to rehabilitation only to have convicted offenders released to reoffend. Contemporary psychological science has proved that these attempts at correction never work, cannot work. It is recognised that it is a fundamental aspect of the human condition the people cannot be changed nor can they change themselves. With this in mind the sentence for all crime has been standardised in a way to best benefit society. Is this understood?”
Paul’s appointed defence lawyer replied with all the enthusiasm of someone watching paint dry, “On behalf of my client, Mr. Curtis, yes, Your Honour, it is understood.”
Taking the next step in this well choreographed dance, “Mr. Curtis, you are changed with Criminal Empathy. How do you plead?”
“My client pleads not guilty, Your Honor.”
The judge then continued with the next part of the unchanging ritual, “Crown Council, what say you?”
“Your Honour, I have here a text message written by the accused to his ex-wife,” replied the prosecutor.
Paul hung his head down for a second, realising with both grief and anger who was behind his arrest.
The Crown Council continued, “On ______ XX, 2XXX at XX:XX pm wrote the following to his ex-wife:
“Please, give me another chance. People can change. Everyone deserves another chance.”
The judge sighed. “Does the defence have anything to add?”
The defence lawyer sighed. “No, Your Honour.”
Paul, against the advice of his lawyer piped up, “But that was two years ago! I don’t think like that anymore!”
The defence lawyer put his head in his hands and shook it slowly.
The judge spoke. “Mr. Curtis, your text to your ex-wife shows in writing a belief in rehabilitation and change antithetical to this court and criminally empathetic to other criminals. Your outburst shows both that, in keeping with the wisdom of the court, you have not changed and indeed have Criminal Empathy. This court finds you guilty, sentence to be carried out immediately.”
Paul noticed that the fresh air he had been enjoying took on a smell of almond. When he lost consciousness his glasses slipped off and broke on the concrete floor.
A week later his organs had been harvested and distributed to hospitals throughout the province for the general benefit of society and his elderly cat had died alone of dehydration.