For Caroline Woods, a protest-related arrest turned into a weekend of misery inside Richmond’s jail system — and created some long-term health issues. This is her story.
What they put us through was psychological — and physical — trauma for the sole purpose of extinguishing our spirit.
This is how it started. I was crossing the median on Allen Ave, diagonally toward Park Ave, when I saw my friend Oliver* [names have been changed to protect identities] being pursued by about six officers with their guns raised and pointed at him. Oliver is a young Black man, who was shirtless and had his hands raised at the time.
I moved quickly to the area to step between the officers and Oliver. I think I said, “Don’t touch him.” They laughed, said “Okay,” and grabbed me by my right arm. It all happened so fast — I didn’t realize I was being arrested. Officers threw me to the ground, halfway between the curb and the street. I asked them repeatedly, “What are you charging me with? Am I under arrest?” They did not answer my questions. They told me to stop resisting, and I did, then they zip tied my wrists so tightly I couldn’t feel my hands. It started to burn so badly that it felt like everything in my right hand was going to rupture. On the ground at this point. They stood me up, and I was able to work my mask off with my right shoulder (it was a gask mask with respirators, hard to hear through). I was able to scream out, “Call my husband,” repeating his number as much as I could. Three officers marched me across Monument Ave as I was screaming, and someone filming the incident asked how they were hurting me. I told them I didn’t know why I was under arrest, what they were charging me with, and that my hands were numb and painful.
We crossed Monument Ave and I was taken to the corner of Allen and Grace. When I was finally given to the other officer, I was crying in pain. “I can’t feel my hands. Please, please help me.” The other officer said, “Oh my god, that’s way too tight.” It took him three minutes to find enough space between my wrists and the zip tie to cut it off. The officer re-zip tied me, then they patted me down, turned my pockets inside out. They put handcuffs on me in front of my body. They took my backpack off, searching its contents and asking what everything was for. I had medicine, a mask, panty hose, gauze, my phone, and a portable charger.
The cop put me in the front seat of his car. He pushed the seat all the way to the front, and I told him “I’m tall.” He said he didn’t care. Then I asked if I got to sit in the front because I’m white, and he scoffed but didn’t answer. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and I no longer had mine on. They drove me to the Whole Foods parking lot where there were about 20 cop cars (paddy wagons). Everyone waited for others to be brought over. The cop, not wearing a mask or social distancing, patted me down. I asked for the female officer on the other side of the car, and he denied my request. Then I said, “Don’t touch my butt.” He replied, “I don’t want to touch your butt,” and proceeded to touch my butt. I told him someone else had already patted me down — he knew, because he watched it — and he flipped my pockets inside out while the female officer watched. They searched my backpack again.
None of them told me what I was being charged with. I kept asking. They finally did tell me I was under arrest. The cops kept trying to take our pictures with a Canon digital camera. I said “I don’t consent” and they laughed. They kept trying to take it, so I closed my eyes and bowed my head so my hair was in my face. They gave up, and tried to take photos of other people under arrest.
I watched an undercover agent talking with other officers. He was a tall, lanky man with a mask on and tattoos, wearing all black. But he had a police badge on.
At this point, they put me in the paddy wagon and closed the door to the “cell” on the right side. I was by myself, and they left the vehicle’s back doors open. They put a guy named Charlie* in the wagon with me on the left side. After 30 minutes in the parking lot, they closed the doors to start driving but wouldn’t tell me where we were going. Charlie and I got to talk a little bit. I gave him my lawyer’s number, and had him memorize it.
They brought us to the jail. It was a garage, like a bunker. They took us out, still handcuffed, to ask questions. I gave them my full name and reminded others that’s all they had to give. That pissed the officers off. They tried to take my photo again, and I was not consenting. I gave them only my name, date of birth, and zip code. And they were livid.
They took all the men inside, then one officer asked to talk to me. I agreed — he could talk to me all he wanted — and I asked for a mask since we’d be speaking in an enclosed space (his car). He gave me one with his bare hands, so I asked for a sanitized mask. He said, “Thank you for agreeing to talk with me. I want to understand from an insider what is going on. All I’ve been getting [is] vitriol from the right wing.” He let me know before we got started that I had the right to remain silent, so I said I’d like to speak to my attorney. He sighed and said that I could go.
In the facility, they sat me with everyone else. They ripped the mask off my face with their bare hands and started to take pictures of me. Not mug shots, just pictures. When I finally got processed, they put me through an x-ray machine that moves back and forth, similar to the airport. They took us into a secured lobby, and everyone else already had their mugshots and fingerprinting done. I still didn’t know what I was being charged with. They put me in a cell for about an hour with nothing (not even a mattress). On the way in, a woman behind the desk — who I later learned was Sgt. Cooper* — said “This is not a joke, this is real life.” She mentioned that someone was firing live rounds; we could hear either fireworks or police artillery going off outside.
After taking my photos, they made me watch a video about prison rape, “The Prison Rape Elimination Act.” They took me away before it ended. Finally, after seeing the magistrate, I was told that I was being charged with “unlawful assembly” and that they had decided “it is such an egregious offense, that for public safety we are holding you without bond until 9am on Monday.”
A Black woman at the lobby desk asked me, “What do you think of the monuments?” I replied that it’s not my call as a white woman, I don’t get a say. She and the white male behind me said the monuments have been there for 100 years, and it’s a part of history. They asked what I was protesting for if monuments weren’t the issue. I said I was fighting against the systemic oppression of Black people, which led us to George Floyd. “He shouldn’t have had that fentanyl in his system,” the white officer said. “I don’t think he would have died had Chauvin not pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nine minutes,” I said. He said, “I guess we’ll never know.”
Sgt. Cooper told me they found police reports I made, and they have “all of my information.” I was taken to a separate room with a Black male officer and made to sign forms for forwarding mail, using Apple tablets in jail, and other odd things. An officer asked if I had been hit by a rubber bullet, and I said, “Yes, one grazed my elbow.” He said, “When they first got them in, originally we were going to play paintball and decided to try out the rubber bullets. But each officer only had to be shot once, and none of them ever wanted to do it again.” He said he got hit in the solar plexus and it hurt for days. He was a big, burly man.
They took me to medical and I spent about an hour there. The nurse was pretty young, and had blue hair. Corporal Robinson sat in with me, taking my civilian clothes, jewelry, hair tie, and socks, and watched me bend over and cough three times. I was given my orange jumpsuit. I thanked her for being with me instead of a male — she said that was protocol — and she made a surprised/disgusted face when I mentioned the man who searched me. She didn’t say any more. I was taken into another room with the nurse.
Cpl. Robinson was seated in the medical exam room as we went through the process. They took my vitals and looked at my police brutality wounds. Got my medical history, had to sign release forms. They asked about my medication, surgeries and medical history, and dietary restrictions (I am dairy- and gluten-free). They said it was too late at night for medicine, but I’d get it tomorrow. I told them I have an autoimmune disease and that my medication is vital. A nurse offered to ask her friend to get the doses of medicine in my backpack, but I never heard about it again.
They walk me to my cell to drop off blankets, sheets, underwear, bras, and socks. I was released quickly after being put in, and given my first phone call around 4:58am. I called Eva, my lawyer, first. Breakfast was frosted flakes with local dairy milk, pancakes, muffins, and some other carbs I can’t eat. I wasn’t fed again until 11am for lunch. No one told me who they were, or the process for getting in touch with anyone. All I knew was that I was getting out at 9am on Monday.
I was given a kit without soap or toilet paper. The cell was 11 x 6.5 ft. I spent my time sleeping or singing while I was awake. I had no reading material, and the lights were on 24/7. There was no clock. It was a tall ceiling, 13 concrete blocks high. I occasionally stretched, but my body was stiff and I was exhausted.
To entertain myself, I came up with a way to list the cell for AirBnB:
“Quaint efficiency. Stainless steel appliances with all of the essentials. Modern concrete floors. Post-industrial modern feel. Tall ceilings. Well-lit. Excellent acoustics. Fresh paint. Low-crime area. Free security.”
Eventually they brought lunch — two hot dogs, white bread, macaroni and cheese, and a corn muffin. I could only eat the hot dogs. They knew about my dietary restrictions. I didn’t interact with anyone.
The pretrial interviewer came to my cell in civilian clothing. I could tell that he gains information about me to humanize me in court. I gave my social security number and phone info with my hands, so the police don’t overhear, and he told me I was the only one in that whole block of cells/hallway. He said he’s never seen anything like this.
Maybe around 4pm, I was let out to see my lawyer. I finally saw the other people in jail clothes who were arrested with me. I saw a guy with an ice patch on his shoulder, another with a visible bandage on his head (he was shot by a rubber bullet). The boys started discussing their arrests, and I tried to tell them we can’t — anything we say can and will be used against us. I was called in to talk to my lawyers, and they give me a rundown and took pictures of my wrists. I was taken back after, and could hear everything happening in the lawyer room. It was supposed to be a private conversation.
I was taken back to my cell at that point. Didn’t see anyone. Tried to use the intercom to get toilet paper and pads. Every 200 times I pressed the button, it beeped. Nothing else happened. I was woken up by the girl next to me, whose cell door was pounding. She was just taken in and wasn’t told anything. Sgt. (I think he was a Sergeant) Martin*, comes to her to say, “Banging on this door isn’t going to get you attention. You can’t do that. That’ll get you into isolation.” The officer comes back with a nurse, Nurse McClary*, a white-haired woman. The girl in the cell says she’s going to kill herself, and the nurse nonchalantly says, “Okay, send her to psych.” They brought three other officers to escort her.
Time passed, I’m not sure how much. I was taken out for phone calls. My first call with Eva was not supposed to be recorded, but it was. Fox News was playing on the TV. As I was talking on the phone in the lobby, my dinner was placed next to me — peas and sausage, so I could eat more. I was starving at this point (5pm). I was taken back to my cell with dinner and the trash from my first two meals is still there.
On the way to my cell, I asked again about my medication. I was told they will follow up. Another 5-6 hours go by, and Sgt.(?) Martin walks by. I told him I need my medication. He said, “That’s up to the nurses.” I asked to see one. No one comes. I was starting to feel really sick. I could feel my condition getting worse. I started getting systemic inflammation. I felt out of options because I couldn’t communicate that I need this medicine.
Around midnight, I’d received nothing — no treatment, no medication, nothing for my police-inflicted wounds. No shower, even though we’re guaranteed one per day. No toilet paper. No soap. I read through my rulebook, and tried to get attention without going to psych. I had one window that they patrolled every five hours, So I emptied my diva cup into my styrofoam cup and wrote backwards with my blood, “+ MEDS PLEASE.” After that, I fell back asleep.
There was a shift change. Another cop finds the blood message, knocks lightly on my door, points at me, and brought back four or five people. Through the door flap, they asked me why I wrote it. I said, “I’ve been here for two nights, I haven’t received my guaranteed medication. I have an autoimmune disease and it will get worse if you don’t give me my meds.” Finally, Sgt. Cooper introduced herself and said she’d help me.
I was moved to another cell without anyone around, all the way at the end of the hallway now. The nurse came and said, “Hey, I’m so sorry, they checked with Costco and they can’t give you meds because you haven’t filled your prescription since February.” I knew that was wrong — only one hadn’t been renewed since February — but I said, “It’s a pandemic and I stocked up.” My meds help with my cognition, thinking, and verbal communication, so my thoughts were getting hard to follow, and focusing was difficult. I asked, “Are you going to let me die in here?” The nurse said, “I don’t know what I can do.” They walked away.
A white male officer came to my cell and asked if I wanted pain medication. I said I want my real meds. He says he can’t do that, but he can give me Tylenol/Ibuprofen/Advil. I said yes, and the nurse came with a cup full of pain pills. She said, “You aren’t going to die in here. You might be uncomfortable. There’s a 99 percent chance you’re getting out of here on Monday. If you don’t, you see our doctor, and he evaluates and gives you meds.” That was the first time I received any medication. Sgt. Cooper said I’d be put on a schedule to receive it each morning. I fell asleep. New cell already had used toilet paper and used soap.
Sgt.(?) Martin came by with breakfast. Sausage patty, cornbread and more carb foods, eggs, and some steamed carrots. I told him, “I’m gluten and dairy intolerant and I’ve told his to the nurse.” He said, “Well, I’ve given you two meals already, so why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” Making this my fault. I ate what I could.
They took me from my cell early — around 11 — and I talked to another lawyer, Laura*. She knows Eva, and had me explain everything. She told me I’m brave, and that she’s pissed because she’s never seen this before. She couldn’t believe they wouldn’t let me out with no priors. She said I had a different magistrate than the men I was arrested with. As we were talking, a sheriff opened the door to ask Laura who she plans to speak with today. She rattled off the names. The sheriff said, “Oh, Spencer*? That guy is [does a crazy sign with his hand around the side of his head].” She said, “Thank you for letting me know. I will speak with him last so he has the most time.” We talked more and I got emotional; I think she did too. Very grateful to have her support and help. I didn’t have anything to write with, still, so I tried to remember her advice as best I can.
I went back to my cell. Lunch had been served — a deep-fried hamburger with a moldy bun. Sgt. Martin wasn’t the one who dropped it off. So I said, “Hey, I need a different meal.” And they said, “That’s up to the nurse in medical.”
More time passed. I didn’t see anyone. The pain medicine wore off. I didn’t get my morning dose as promised. I tried knocking, then the intercom, and was told I was paging upstairs. I said, “I need a nurse.” They said, “We’ll try and I’ll let you know.” I don’t know what time it is, so at this point, I emptied my diva cup again and wrote on my window in my own period blood, “YOU PROMISED PAIN MEDS LIARS.”
Sgt. Martin walked by and said, “Clean that up.” I said, “I will once I see a nurse.” He said, “You aren’t going anywhere until that is clean.” Then he sends in four women to bleach the door and make me clean it with my body washcloth. They asked, “Why are you doing this?” I tried to explain I was promised my medication. They said, “Sgt. Cooper can’t make that promise.” I said, “Who is accountable? No one is accountable here.” One woman said, “We’re all accountable, honey.” I said, “Then fucking act like it. I’m grateful that you’re so concerned with my cell’s sanitation, but I need you to be concerned with my health.”
They left and locked me back in. I got my bar of soap, and wrote “NEED NURSE” on my cell again. About half an hour later, Nurse McClary walked to my door, scoffed, and said, “This isn’t how you get a nurse.” I said that I really need my real medication. Again, she says they can’t get it because I hadn’t refilled with Costco since February. “That’s bullshit, I renewed it last month,” I said. “Well, I was the one that called Costco, and that’s the information they gave me. You’ll have to take it up with them,” she said. “No one has told me the truth since I’ve been in here,” I said. “I don’t even want to get into that,” she said. “You’ll have to take it up with Costco. I would prefer that everyone in here got their meds because it keeps them healthier.” She gave me two Ibuprofen and left. I could tell she was lying, but at least I got some meds.
Martin came by again and said, “If you write anything else on the window, I’m going to charge you for it. Stop acting like a child.” I responded, “Start treating me like a human.” He left, came back with another meal I can’t eat. I said, “I need to call my attorney.” He said I had already spoken to her today. I told him the woman I spoke with wasn’t my attorney, and he told me I already used my phone call yesterday. I said, “I’m guaranteed one per day, and I need to speak with my attorney.” “It sounds like you know my policies,” he said. I wish I had responded with “They aren’t your policies, they are laws.” About an hour later, he came back to inform me I had a visitor. It was Eva.
I was brought into the same place I met Eva and Laura before. Two pod supervisors were there to monitor us. Both say, “I was told to be here.” They both shouldn’t be there. They were pissed because they were supposed to be going home at 7pm. They didn’t want to be here. Eva and I were hanging out.
Walked back to my cell by a female cop. I asked if I could get a shower, because I was guaranteed one and hadn’t had any. She said, “You’re on your period, right?” I said yes, and she said they could make an exception. We got to the lobby area, and Cpl. Robinson* said, “I might be able to [get you a shower], but didn’t you do some crazy shit? I heard you put blood on walls, and I don’t want to deal with crazy shit.” I said, “I won’t do that. I had to do that because I hadn’t been getting my medicine. I won’t do that if you help me.” She said, “I’ll see what I can do.” I went back to my cell, stripped, and washed myself with a washcloth. I poured the water from my sink into a cup to wash my hair for appearing in court the next day.
I finally got my pain medication from Sgt. Cooper around 8pm. I tried to fall asleep. Around 1 or 2am Cpl. Robinson let me take a shower. She said, “You aren’t doing that crazy shit, right?” And I tried to explain the necessity. She said, “All you had to do was ask for me.” Then she said, “Oh, you probably don’t know my name,” and introduced herself. I said, “I can’t bang on my door, the intercom doesn’t work, and the officers won’t listen to me. How could I ask for you?”
I took the fastest shower I could. She took me back to my cell and asked if I was hungry. She brought two full bags of juice, apples, and white bread with bologna. I eat the bologna and apples, and was so hungry I even ate a slice of white bread. It started to hurt immediately. I used the juice as an ice pack for my wrist. Once it was room temperature, I drank it. I had no idea what time it was, just that when I talked to Eva, I’d had 12 more hours until court.
A new day shift. An officer came to my cell and knocked on my door, but I didn’t see him. He asked, “Are you decent?” This was the first time someone had asked me this. He asked if I was okay and if I needed anything. He brought me my breakfast and says goodbye. For the first time, someone treated me like a human. He came to get me for my court appearance, and told me the time — 8:45am.
I didn’t fully understand what’s going on. The judge asked me if I was going to hire an attorney. I said “Yes,” which was the wrong answer. But I had misunderstood, or misremembered, Eva’s and Laura’s advice, and hadn’t been allowed to write it down. I hadn’t had my pills to help with cognition, and I’d been sleeping in small shifts, with no circadian rhythm whatsoever. The judge gave me the loosest restrictions.
I was brought back to my cell and told I’d be getting released, but I didn’t know when. Listening at the door, I saw a glimpse of someone, and knocked on my window. It was the same officer from before, and I asked for pain medicine. He asked if I was decent again before approaching the door, and went to get a nurse. The nurse came to give me my pain meds. A new Black female officer gave me back my civilian clothes, took all of my prison garb, and discharged me.
I waited in the lobby area for 40 minutes, waiting to finish my paperwork. Fox News was still playing. The officer walked me to the end of the hall. I told him he was, by far, the kindest person I encountered there. He didn’t know what to say. He told me to stay blessed, and left me in the actual lobby, where I saw outside for the first time since Friday. I walked out the door. I didn’t know who was meeting me, or where I was. I still didn’t have my phone or any of my belongings. Someone told me that I could go to the end of the parking lot, and then I saw friends and Michael, my husband.
Perhaps it’s retrospective paranoia, but it really felt as if they were excited to watch us break. I never wanted to give them that. Whether or not I did is questionable, but even though I resorted to some “crazy” tactics to get the attention I needed, I felt I still held my dignity. I was just pissed off and angry, not weeping and sad — at least not when they saw me. I cried singing some of the songs I sang alone in my cell.
I learned that the system mandates that you act out and/or re-criminalize yourself to get help. Or it uses your medical history against you, and tries to re-incriminate you that way. One of the men I went to jail with had schizophrenia, and he was denied his medication as well. It seems like a recipe for holding him as long as they wanted. The whole thing was sickening and dehumanizing, and I wasn’t even convicted.
Right now, I have hypertension. Before this, I don’t think my blood pressure had ever tested above 120/60. At the doctor recently, it was around 148/83. I have a sprained wrist, with nerve damage from the zip ties. I still can’t feel all of my thumb or index finger, and when the doctor took my pulse, it sent a wave of pain up my wrist and down to my elbow. I still can’t sleep through the night. At the doctor’s office, after being released from jail, I was triggered by a nurse walking down the hall with a set of keys. The jailers who patrolled had giant key rings, which you could hear jingling from far away. I broke down and sobbed in the exam room. Bird calls scare me outside, because VSP and RPD use them before they move in and out of the circle — I guess it’s a military thing.
Police and media both misreported my charges, stating I was being charged with both unlawful assembly and obstruction of justice. I was only charged with the former.
Any trust or faith I had in our justice system, policing, and elected leaders has completely eroded. I recognize that, despite what I went through, my privilege did help to protect me. If I am what our policing is built to protect — a young cis white woman — and I was treated this way, I cannot even imagine the way that marginalized people are treated by law enforcement. No one deserves to be treated the way that we were, and the truth is that many people have been treated much, much worse by RPD, VSP, and the Richmond Sheriffs.
I’ve never had more compassion for the people who get locked in that system. Now I understand that it has less to do with whether or not you are guilty than with trying to keep you in the system. They profit off of you. That’s why they don’t want reform.
Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect editorial policy. Names* have been changed for privacy.
Top Photo by Royce Rozzelle