7 days in SF Jail - arrival

On October 29 I left London for what was to be a month tour of California. On all previous trips I prepared very little. This time though I spent two weeks organizing a Social Web Camp in order to build up contacts in the Bay. But things took a very different turn.

At Hexagram 64 of the Yi Ching - the oldest book in China - entitled "Before Completion", one can read:

The caution of a fox walking over ice is proverbial in China. His ears are constantly alert to the cracking of the ice, as he carefully and circumspectly searches out the safest spots. A young fox who as yet has not acquired this caution goes ahead boldly, and it may happen that he falls in and gets his tail wet when he is almost across the water. Then of course his effort has been all in vain. Accordingly, in times "before completion," deliberation and caution are the prerequisites of success.

Flight to San Francisco

The British Airways flight left in the late morning from London Heathrow. To keep me busy for the 10 hours trip I had bought the UK and US editions of Wired Magazine at the airport to complement the 1300 pages long collections of essays by Francois Jullien comparing European and Chinese approaches to wisdom which I had bought in Paris a few weeks earlier. ( some of these are available on Google Books in English ).

The plane took off and we were a served a very good and healthy lunch - I was pleasantly surprised. The shades were then pulled down to allow people to sleep or watch films. Even though I woke up at 5am that morning, I was too excited to sleep. So I read the easier Wired magazines from beginning to end to help me get back into the Silicon Valley spirit. One article that caught my attention and that was reprinted in both editions was Neil Christy's "Empty the Prisons" in the "12 Shocking Ideas that Could Change the World" Section. The following diagram makes the point very simply:

prison population comparison across countries

The cost of putting people in prisons is very high. Not just the monetary cost, but also the cost to Liberty. The easier it is for the state to put people in prison, the easier it is for this to be abused by underground operatives to put pressure on people to do things they would not have done otherwise. Perhaps there are crimes that should not be crimes. Not impossible: Alcohol was illegal in the 30ies in the US before being legalised after the complete failure of the program.

Yin and Yang symbol

Having finished those mags I started reading a longer article by Francois Jullien on the different conceptions of Evil and negativity in the East and the West. It is an interesting story that goes all the way back to the earliest conceptions of religion. If God is pure good, how does evil enter the world? Is evil just the lack of Good, as Socrates would have had it? Or is the universe a battle between two equal forces, Good and Evil, as Saint Augustin, had been tempted to think in his earlier days as proponent of the Manichean religion. Or as the Taoists would have it, and as is symbolized so well in the Taoist Tajitu symbol, are these concepts such that they cannot exist without one another? Just as light cannot exist without dark, or high without low, perhaps good cannot exist without bad. And perhaps there is bad in the good and good in the bad? Certainly the Good of One can be the Bad of the other, as this poem - which is part of John Cage's Indeterminacy series - so nicely illustrates:

   points         out
               that         a         beautiful

                 who         gives

                                                 to         men

 only                                                                                             to

                             the         fish

                                                                                when         she
                                                                 in         the          water.

Moving away from the desire for purity, may be a very healthy thing to do.

I was tired and would not have had time to finish the 200 page article. Dinner was served. It was then just a short wait till we arrived. The plane dipped. I yawned to relieve the pressure on my ears, and looked out of the window, to what was the only view of the Bay I was going to be allowed to have. The plane landed around 3pm California time, which would have been 11pm London time.


I had not filled in the forms for immigration, so I decided to do that comfortably in the plane. Those are the sheets where you are asked questions such as "Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were you involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?" One has to enter 3 or four times the same information. I had to look up the address and phone number of my contacts in the Bay Area. As a result I was the last person to get out of the plane. A huge line awaited me at the passport control check point, and I was upset with myself for not getting out faster. I still wanted to get my bicycle out of the box, and go to Menlo Park to get a few posters for the Social Web Camp and place them around the Bay Area.

I arrived at the control point, gave the officer my passport and cards. But I had forgotten to enter my birth date on the back of one form, so he ordered me to the side to do that, while he dealt with another traveler. I came up, he processed the forms, asked me to put my hand on a fingerprint machine. Something beeped. He did not seem too happy, and told me to go down to the corner of the huge room, to the door I could see in the distance. "Straight down there", he said. I wondered what that was about.

As I entered the room I first saw a row of benches with a little under 10 people sitting there waiting to be processed. I was told to put my passport in a slot and sit down. I thought I could perhaps phone someone, but one was not allowed to make calls there for some reason. I did not want to bother anyone before I knew what the problem was anyway, so I just waited. Slowly people were processed. Some came out of interview rooms. A Woman was asked if she knew someone the Bay Area. She seemed not to understand. An interpreter came around. Her son was called...

I was asked to step to the back office, where they passed my hand through a machine which took the prints of my whole hand and of the side of my hand. They took a few photos. Then they asked me if I knew why I was arrested. No I did not. I thought perhaps I had failed to pay a parking ticket, but I could not imagine that that would warrant my being stopped at the border. So no, I did not understand.

It turns out that a case from 2001, which I was certain had been closed had popped up in their systems. This was from my last year working in the Bay Area, when I had moved to San Francisco to work for E-Translate, at the end of the dot.com boom. So quite some time ago. I had come to the Bay Area three or four times since then, which seemed to shock them, as much as their bringing this issue up shocked me. I told them this was certainly a mistake. Everything had been taken care of. I would be certainly very happy to get this problem cleared up at the courts, and I told them it would very certainly not take much time - Indeed when 6 days later I saw the judge it took him 30 seconds to clear the case. But the officer in front of me did not know that. The information against me on the computer looked bad enough for him, and that was it.

By this time they had taken my telephone, passport and other material, and I was no longer in a position to get advice. I certainly had never been read any rights, and I could not ask anyone for help - I suppose that is just for US citizens. In fact by signing the entry papers I had waived my rights to an immigration court hearing I was told. The interrogating officer, very slowly typed up a report. The first question on the report was: "How are you feeling?" My answer: very tired. It was probably 3am in the morning UK time.

I had pleaded with the officer that I had come just to talk at a conference which I had organized, and to then present talks in different venues. My interest was to have a clear record, and so I would certainly show up in court. Somehow he made me think that I could get bail, and that from there on I could organize the hearings. That seemed like a good enough solution. I felt relieved. Shit happens. At least I'd get a free ride in a cop car.

Ride in a police car

After another long wait, I was asked to remove my shoe laces, empty all my pockets, was handcuffed and walked out to the front of the San Francisco airport. There a couple of policemen were waiting for me. I squeezed into the back seat on the very narrow bench separated by glass and metal from them. They closed the door and drove off, the bag with my cell phone, passport and other bits and bobs with them in the front seat.

They were quite entertaining. One of the officers asked the other if he wanted to go for a pizza, to which the first officer replied that he could no longer eat greasy foods since his appendicitis operation. He went into detail to describe both the cause of appendicitis, the operation, the stones they found in the appendix and the whole trouble that this caused. His colleague did not abandon the pizza idea, and described in detail a famous low cost pizza place where there were only 4 types of pizza available, and where you had better be careful not to ask for anything else. I suggested that I would not be against going for a pizza, to which the pizza loving officer responded jokingly that that clearly showed that I was evil: trying to kill his appendix missing colleague with fatty foods!

We arrived at the San Mateo police station. I had been taken to this station I was told because the San Francisco airport is in fact located in the San Mateo district. They would have to send me over to San Francisco within 5 days. How long that would take would depend on the space available there. I was hoping I could bail out before hand I told them, to which they replied that I would have to talk to the officers in the San Mateo station, they would help me work that out.

San Mateo police station

In San Mateo I was then asked a lot of details all over again. Contact details for people in the Bay, what I was doing here, if I was suicidal, and so on. If you think that the checks at the airport are intrusive - when they ask you to clear everything out of your luggage, and remove your shoes - then you may not want to read the next paragraph.

I was placed into a room and told to strip naked. The officer then frisked my body, then my balls, then asked me to turn against the wall, lean over, spread my cheeks and say "ahh". Not sure what the "Ahh" was for. It did not seem like a good idea not to obey. "Nothing is hidden" as Wittgenstein so well writes in the Philosophical Investigations. I was just happy that the officer did not have to make his blue plastic gloves dirty. As Scott McNeally once quipped: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it". So I did.

I could then put my shoes and clothes back on. I was sent to a window where a nurse asked me to fill out a form for diseases I could have, if I practiced safe sex, if I was gay or straight, if I was suicidal, and so on... I then had to go through a hand scan and fingerprint scan once more. Then I was sent to a glass protected cell facing the police office, with a small hard bench and behind a low wall, a metal toilet.

In the room was a telephone attached to the wall for collect calls only, and plastered against the wall was a list of bail agents and their telephone numbers. These could be called to borrow money for bail. They take 10% of the money lent. I called one of them to see if and how they would be able to help. Nope he said. We don't help foreigners. Mhh. Well I could pay for bail myself if I had to.

The Drunk Depressive

As I was doing this, the door opened, and I was joined by a strong, slightly overweight and effeminate man, with a bit of a South American look to him, but unusually well dressed. Not very well dressed, I should add. Just that he had a striped office shirt, and clearly paid attention to his looks.

"Burn, burn. They should all burn in hell", he said, which made me just a little uncomfortable.

"People are bad. They deserve to die.", he continued. "They all deserve to die, each one of them.", and after a pause. "We will all die". This he repeated quite a lot.

I let him go on like this, looking through the window. I wanted to find out how I could get bail, as I was quite keen to leave this place. If I could get out of here then I could find hotel close by, and prepare for my talk on Monday. There was still time.

I knocked on the window, as an officer passed and asked how I could find out about bail. They told me to wait for the O.R. people, and pointed to two women working diagonally across the room. I tried waving to them. Time passed.

I found out that the guy in my cell had been arrested for Jay walking and being somewhat drunk. Though to me he seemed more depressed than drunk. He certainly did not smell heavily of alcohol. I did not know Jay Walking could land you in Jail. I never heard of anyone in France being booked for that. It is also I think quite rare for people to be sent away for being tipsy, unless they make a lot of noise, in which case they would be sent out for being a public nuisance I suppose. He wanted to go home, because he had to work at 5 or 6 in the morning at what I understood to be something like a cafe. He had been unemployed for a while, and this was his first job a lady had helped him get. So he had just been celebrating his new job that evening, and things had turned bad.

No exit

"Look at them, they are like children", he said pointing at the officers. "Playing their little games, so sure of themselves. They don't care. They don't care at all. Playing sheriff. Look at that one..."

And it is true they did not seem to care. It must have been 11pm now, and I had been up for over 26 hours without sleep. I was wondering when I could get bail! I might as well sleep here I thought, that would save me a night at the hotel. I started to get worried, so I called the friends in California, whose number I was had written down on a scrap of paper they had left me - I thought someone at least ought to know where I am.

At some point, one of the women came up to the door, and told me I could not get bail. The immigration officers had put an ICE hold on me, disallowing that. I broke up in tears, as I felt the doors close one by one on me.


God Bless America, they really need it

Posted by antonio on November 09, 2009 at 06:45 PM CET #

I'm so sorry to hear this.

Posted by Marie on November 09, 2009 at 07:46 PM CET #

ummmm ... you completely gloss over the "case from 2001, which I was certain had been closed had popped up in their systems."

This is an important detail (in fact, probably the most important detail) as entering our country (and most likely yours also) as a felon is probably illegal.

While I don't deny you probably had a very bad experience, having been detained in several countries, this happens everywhere you don't follow the rules.

Posted by k on November 09, 2009 at 09:16 PM CET #

Hi k,

I say enough about the 2001 case: it had been dealt with a long time ago. The case had been closed.

This was confirmed when I finally saw the judge the following Wednesday. When the facts were in front of him, it was obvious that there was nothing else left to do, but to close the case again.

But you are right, I can add one more thing, which I was going to add a bit later in the story - it took some time for me to find this out! The reason the case had been reopened, was that I had to present myself in person in California in 2002 AFTER my H1B visa had expired. Of course I had left the country by then - there was no other thing I could legally do.

So this whole story resulted from a technical detail. Why it took so long to reveal itself I don't know though. Why I had received no mail about it, I don't know either. Was it really worth spending all that tax payer's money locking me up? I don't think so. Was there a felony involved? No.

The US legal system is just way too strongly tuned to put people in jail. That is why they have 10 times more people behind bars than most European countries. And they are not much safer for it - much less so in fact.

Posted by Henry Story on November 09, 2009 at 10:50 PM CET #

Wow, what an incredible story...
The detachment with which you're writing it seems to indicate it didn't cause you any trauma at least...

Posted by Pascal on November 10, 2009 at 02:14 AM CET #

Very sorry to hear about this awful experience, Henry. Thanks for blogging it in such detail - I hope doing so provided at least something of a catharsis for you. You clearly had a far, far worse experience than the chap we were talking to in Crete in the summer - plenty of laughs there but none here.

Posted by Phil Archer on November 10, 2009 at 02:50 AM CET #

Detached, but not funny enough. :-)

Well this is just day 1. I am working on the next days. I thought I had introduced a bit of humor above, but perhaps it was not noticeable enough...

Thanks for reminding me of the story we were told this Summer in Crete, by the American who was arrested for juggling in the 60ies during the reign of the dictators whilst visiting the Greek Island. Very good story :-) If I remembered he was quite frightened for a long time - and rightly so: due process at that time in Greece must not have been a very developed concept - but he managed to get a lawyer who freed him by making the judge laugh...

Posted by Henry Story on November 10, 2009 at 03:06 AM CET #

I think you did manage to get some humor in, Henry. I laughed out loud at your description of the Drunk Depressive.

Posted by Marie on November 10, 2009 at 05:27 AM CET #

Jeez Henry, sounds terrifying. I assume you're out and all's well now..?

Posted by Danny on November 10, 2009 at 07:41 AM CET #

What an incredible and terrible adventure. Your style and descriptions are remarkable. Thank you for sharing. I hope it makes it to people's awareness.

Posted by Coralie Mercier on November 10, 2009 at 07:59 AM CET #

Looking forward to episode 2.

Posted by Matthias Samwald on November 10, 2009 at 08:22 AM CET #

I'm rather surprised you hadn't considered contacting the British Consulate (although as you were arrested prior to properly entering the country, there might not have been that much they could do?)

The real problem is that it is far too easy for a minor incident like that to blow out of proportion as it did here in the states.

Posted by Ian Jacobi on November 10, 2009 at 08:43 AM CET #

Wow. I'm stunned. It seems so unbeliviable from my little Frenchy point of view... It is really fritghning.
Hope that now you are well. I'm waiting for next episode.

Posted by Francois on November 10, 2009 at 09:30 AM CET #

You're a Sun employee but not a US national travelling in the US on business and have a legal problem? I'd have thought the first step would be to contact Sun for help. Certainly the few times I visited the US when I was an HP employee that would have been my first thought if anything of the sort went wrong.

Posted by Ed Davies on November 10, 2009 at 10:36 AM CET #

The British Consulate comes up in my next post.

I did manage to get hold of someone at Sun, but only the next day.

Don't forget that they removed my luggage and all my belongings - including my cell phone - at the airport. That is where I have all my contact numbers. And then even though there was a phone in the cell, it is not easy at all to get numbers. You can't phone directory inquiries. You either have to know the numbers by heart or you have to know whom to ask and how. And even then you usually cannot reverse charges on cell phones, and many other phones don't allow reverse charges either. There is a complex procedure that they let you know about, that the recipient of your call has to follow to receive calls from Jail. But how are you going to tell him what those procedures are if you can't call him?

I did not want to bother my friend in California too much either, as her husband is in a serious medical condition.

They are really not helpful at all. The whole system is set up to make life difficult for honest citizens. Gang members know all the tricks.

I think I did in fact manage to get hold of someone at Sun by pure luck once in the San Mateo Jail. The person answered someone else's phone and passed on the message. But her phone number was a cell phone, so I could not follow up in any way.

Don't forget I also thought I would be able to bail out. If that had been possible then there really would not have been much of a problem.

But yes, I'd be interested to know what a lawyer would have told me to do. Perhaps at the Airport I should have insisted on speaking to one...

Posted by Henry Story on November 10, 2009 at 11:01 AM CET #

Utterly dreadful!

Posted by Bijan Parsia on November 10, 2009 at 11:19 AM CET #

Sorry, Henry. Truly sorry. Peace.

Posted by Uche Ogbuji on November 10, 2009 at 06:46 PM CET #

[Trackback] I was deeply saddened to read "7 days in SF Jail" http://blogs.sun.com/bblfish/entry/7_days_in_sf_jail . Peace, Henry.

Posted by uche on November 10, 2009 at 06:50 PM CET #

This is somewhat tangential to your story but your comment on the Wired chart, "makes the point very simply" surprised me.

The per-capita prison populations of the US, Russia and Rawanda dwarfed the populations of the other listed countries to such an extent (which bear in mind, is the basic point to be conveyed) that they wrapped them over two lines to fit them onto a single page. This distorts the comparison which is otherwise a simple bar chart.

You'd think making it prisoners per 20,000 people would have been a simple change.

Posted by Bod on November 11, 2009 at 09:47 AM CET #

Damn. I was in San Francisco most of last week with 4 UK friends for a conference. If we had known, we could have come down gangbusters style in our super-cool Dodge Minivan and, err, broken you out 'The Great Escape' style! Or at least tweeted up a storm and gotten the British Consulate to get you out.

Next time I think of going to the US for conferences or on holiday, I'll be thinking of this. Time to spread this story far and wide.

Posted by Tom Morris on November 11, 2009 at 02:20 PM CET #


My friend, really horrible to hear what happened to you. Wow!

Periodically, I encounter problems entering the U.S. -- where I am now a permenant resident -- based on an embassy incident eons ago where one of the clerks actually said this to me, during an interview: "You don't look like a CEO".

Until now, I've never realized the thin line that separates those arrival interogation rooms from actual jail!


Posted by Kingsley Idehen on November 11, 2009 at 02:47 PM CET #

Bonjour Henry,

très sombre comme histoire malgré le détachement avec lequel tu la relates.
J'espère que cela ne t'a pas trop affecté.


Posted by thierry on November 12, 2009 at 12:47 AM CET #

I am so sorry you had to go through this Henry.

Posted by Neeraj Mathur on November 24, 2009 at 02:34 PM CET #

Dear Henry:

I apologise most sincerely on behalf of the United States.

That is an awful story amongst thousands if not millions of stories since 2001 of a similar or most likely worse nature.

I like the idea that Alexei Sayle has mooted with regards to Israel. His idea is have a cultural boycott of Israel until they pull their head in.

We should have a cultural boycott of the US until they pull their heads in.

Until then, avoid the place like the plague.


Posted by Mark on November 25, 2009 at 03:51 AM CET #

quite terrible to hear.
All my sympathy.

Posted by Giovanni Tummarello on November 25, 2009 at 06:39 AM CET #

Interesting article by dropsafe on why Jaywalking does not exist in the UK


Thanks all for your support. I should add a few more shapters to this story. Just wanted to get on with life a bit too.

By the way ubervu is a very nice service for following the microblogging buzz of a resource on the web. For this blog post there is:


Posted by Henry Story on November 29, 2009 at 05:13 AM CET #

I have a simple policy when it comes to US immigration... don't go to the US. EVER!

The US will never see any of my tourist dollars whilst this kind of atrocious abuse of human rights continues.

Posted by Ben on November 29, 2009 at 07:08 AM CET #

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