The Marshall Project, The City
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
The arrest and arraignment of former President Donald J. Trump may have been an unprecedented moment in American history, with seismic implications for the political process. But as a legal process, it was more routine: On Tuesday, he became just another one of the roughly 31,000 people arraigned for felonies in dreary courtrooms across New York State each year.
Constitutionally, those people are entitled to equal treatment — but practically, we all know that’s not true. Usually there are handcuffs and mug shots, two indignities Trump himself avoided. (Law enforcement officials told the New York Times he wasn’t considered a flight risk.) But he couldn’t get around the fingerprinting.
There’s also no evidence that Trump spent time in an overcrowded holding cell, an experience that seems to cut through the haze of memory for many defendants, who described moldy sandwiches or pee-filled plastic cups.
By contrast, Trump was allowed to self-surrender and arrived in a multi-car motorcade, escorted by the Secret Service officers routinely assigned to a former president.
We asked people what the experience is like when you’re not a high-profile White defendant, arrested for a white collar crime, with access to top-flight lawyers, campaign donors, crowds of well-wishers and supporters. Some were indicted before their arrest, some after. The picture they give — as mostly defendants of color, mostly arrested for violent crimes — is of disorientation and hopelessness.
And usually the world is not paying attention.
I was incarcerated in 2002 at the age of 19. I was pregnant, but I didn’t know I was pregnant. I had to turn myself in with a paid lawyer, because I had a high-profile case. I was a kid, I was confused. People in my family had been incarcerated before, but I hadn’t experienced that.
The detectives were all White. They were not kind to me; they prejudged me based on my crime. [Police] treat you like you’re automatically guilty as soon as you step foot in that precinct, until somebody says otherwise. But that could be months down the line. They don’t care what you do, what you say. They treat you like you are a criminal. Like you’re just another Black person to them.
My mother and cousin came and got me from the Port Authority [bus terminal], because I was out of town. They took me to the lawyer’s office in Queens. From Queens, all of us drove to the 61st Precinct [in Brooklyn], and the police questioned me in front of the lawyer. They only questioned me for 15 minutes, because they already had my co-defendant. He had given them a statement. I was held at the precinct for over 24 hours, until I was picked out of a lineup. I wasn’t given anything to eat in that time. After the lineup, they handcuffed me, and I was taken on a bus to central booking in downtown Brooklyn. There, I was held in the cell alone, given moldy, stale sandwiches that I didn’t eat and slept on the floor. The next day I went in front of the judge, and then I went on a bus to Rikers Island. I was at Rikers for 16 months.
Naquasia Pollard is the founder and executive director of PureLegacee, an alternative to incarceration program for young women. She served 15 years in New York state prison for robbery.
I only knew I was under investigation when [the detectives] arrested me for fraud. I was at T.J. Maxx, coming up the escalator, and there were two detectives standing there. I was trying to leave the store when they stopped me and said, “You’re Deshanna Graham. You are under arrest. We will tell you everything that is going on when your arresting officer gets into work.”
They cuffed me behind my back, read me my rights, took me down to the 24th Precinct [in Manhattan], and put me in a holding cell. I was just sitting in there by myself all day trying to figure out what was going on. I called my mom and she came and brought me a sandwich and something to drink.
Once he got to work, the arresting officer took me out of the holding cell and took me into a room where he showed me all these surveillance pictures. Of course, it’s me in the pictures. He also showed me another stack of surveillance pictures of other people and asked me if I knew them, to try and help make a case against other people.
I got arrested in the afternoon. I left the precinct around 10 p.m. that night. They cuffed me again and placed me in the back of a police car to take me down to [New York County Criminal Court] at 100 Centre St. That was the pits. I was with a bunch of women in a holding cell overnight. It was unsanitary and full of homeless women. It was disgusting.
After the judge set bail, I went to Rikers Island.
Deshanna Graham was charged with criminal possession of a forged instrument in 2015, and served two years in prison.
In October of 2002, me and three of my friends committed a robbery in Manhattan. We get into a car chase, and we end up going down Park Avenue and getting into an accident with another car. We all get out and run separate ways. I was apprehended at the scene. They [the police] roughed me up. If you look at my mugshot, I have a bruise on my cheek. I get brought into the precinct. They handcuffed me in the back as tight as they could, fingerprinted me. I did not get a phone call. The only time I got a phone call was when I finally ended up at the courthouse. I didn’t have a lawyer [with me]. They separated me and my co-defendant. We could see each other, but we couldn’t talk.
They do that kind of time deprivation thing, where you lose track of time. I would assume I was there for 12 to 18 hours. You’re in a holding cell that holds maybe three or four people. They keep you in there until they’re ready to question you. For some portion of that time they also had me in a room isolated by myself, for maybe three or four hours. In these rooms there’s no windows, nothing to identify anything about what’s going on or how much time has passed. The lights are on.
Eventually I get brought to the courthouse where I’m going to have my arraignment. They put us in a vehicle and brought us to the courthouse. They ask you your name, date of birth. Then they brought us upstairs in front of a judge, who gave us both bail: $10,000 each. It was my first time, it was my co-defendant’s first time.
Then they brought us to The Tombs [the jail in lower Manhattan]. It takes a while for your family to post bail and for it to go through. They could have moved me to Rikers if my family had taken too long. Sometimes you have people who post bail and it takes days for it to clear. We both made our bail and were released a few hours later.
Khalil Cumberbatch is the director of strategic partnerships at the Council on Criminal Justice. He served nearly seven years in New York state prison for robbery.
I turned myself in after a detective repeatedly showed up at my fiancée’s house looking for me on a weapons charge. I didn’t know anything about any indictment or grand jury — I just knew they were looking for me, and I wanted to be a law-abiding citizen, so I went to the station.
I was arrested and handcuffed behind my back. The holding cell in the precinct was almost as small as a phone booth, and there were three of us being held. There was no bench, and we were standing for the whole four hours I was in there. There was no toilet — I tried to call the officer over to let me go to the bathroom, but he didn’t hear me. Eventually, I had to go so badly, I just went in a plastic cup.
After I bailed out, my case was adjourned over and over again for about a year. Eventually, I was offered a plea deal, and I took it on the advice of my lawyer.
Shemaah Waldropt was arraigned in 2021 and is serving a seven-year prison sentence for criminal possession of a weapon.
I was arrested in 1981 in connection with a double homicide. Police knocked on the door of my mother’s Harlem home, came in and said, “Which one of you is Greg Mingo?” That was the first I’d heard about any of it, no one reached out to me before they showed up to let me know I was a suspect or that I’d been indicted. They read me my rights on the way out and took me from Manhattan to Queens. I was handcuffed behind my back, and they took my picture and fingerprints at the station.
I was denied bail and spent two years on Rikers Island fighting my case. For months, my court appearances kept getting adjourned; each time I had a court-appointed lawyer filling in who didn’t know anything about my case.
Eventually, my family sent a lawyer to represent me. At the first appearance with the new lawyer, the judge said the trial would begin the following day. I hadn’t had a chance to meet with my lawyer yet, and no one had come to Rikers yet to speak to me. The judge denied our request to have a week to prepare.
The first trial ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked. The second time, I was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life. I served more than 40 before being released.
Greg Mingo was released from prison in 2021 when he was granted clemency by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He served more than four decades after being convicted of second-degree murder.
The holding cell was completely filthy. There were a bunch of women in there, maybe nine or 10, and it smelled terrible. I had to strip, and I had to squat and cough. It was just a really awful experience. There were not enough benches for all the women in there. At one point, I was so exhausted that I took my pants off and spread them on the dirty floor so I could lay down and go to sleep.
It’s important to talk about, because one shouldn’t be treated like an animal just because they are believed to have committed a crime. I didn’t deserve the treatment that I experienced throughout my case.
Makeda Davis was initially released from prison in 2008, after her 2006 indictment on assault charges was reversed on appeal. She was reincarcerated three years later when her nine-and-a-half year sentence was restored by a higher court. She was released from prison in 2019.
I was in the dark. I didn’t know what a grand jury proceeding was or what an indictment was. The information and that whole proceeding is kept completely separate from people that are already detained. As far as I knew, the charges came from the precinct, and that’s what I was going to court for.
When they bring you in for arraignment, they keep you in the bullpen at the court; it’s literally a holding cell. It has some benches, and in Manhattan, it’s probably built to handle 25-30 people. At any given time, one will probably have more like 50 or 60 people in it. There was one that was so overcrowded that they tried to see if I could fit, and just took me to the next one.
If you use the bathroom, you’re literally using it in front of 50 or 60 people. The bullpen was filthy because think about it: If you have a 24-hour process that is a continuous cycle, when do you have time to clean something like that, and who cleans it? Because the officers aren’t going in there.
Freddy Medina was arraigned in 2001 and served nearly 17 years for manslaughter. He was released last year with earned time-off for educational attainment.
The first time I saw the judge, I was numb to everything. I felt like it was game over, and there was nothing to say to anybody. I felt like the only time that there’s really any emotion, really, is when you have a feeling of hope, and I didn’t have that. I completely lost track of time in the holding cell, I have no idea how long I was in there.
It’s funny when you hear about people who have more money. You don’t think about them going through these situations the same way we do. I was in this thin paper suit — it felt like it was made out of a dryer sheet — because they took all my clothes, and I was just in that holding cell just freezing for a long time.
Darrian Bennett was arraigned in 2008 for second-degree murder and served over 14 years in prison. He was released early in December 2022, with earned time-off for educational attainment.
The arraignment process starts with a judge who has tons of cases, and not a lot of time or information — just reads the charges off real quick. The prosecution does or does not request bail depending on the offense, and the defense attorney — who often doesn’t have a lot of information either — responds. It was just a very convoluted, run-of-the-mill type of thing. Most of the lawyers didn’t speak for more than three minutes per case during the arraignments before they shoved that person along and then moved on to the next case.
It looks very different from what we’re hearing about the indictment of Donald Trump, and it makes me wonder: If I were being arrested would I be scheduling how things go, and having people checking with me to make sure I am comfortable?
That process, as we know, it is not comfortable: being arrested, being fingerprinted. But, you know, people have to be held accountable for their decisions and their actions.
Dominic Dupont was arraigned in 1997 and served roughly 20 years in prison for second-degree murder before being granted clemency by Cuomo in 2018.
The indictment was sealed, and it was not public — I didn’t even know I was indicted. I found out when I had an encounter with police in Virginia, and they said, “You’re wanted for murder in New York.”
I was going to the DMV, then they knew I had a warrant, then they just took me in. The police was there. They knew I was wanted for murder. They didn’t know I was coming. I was handcuffed, taken to the jail.
That was it. They just had a warrant for my arrest. They didn’t know where I was at. They were slower then, not so much technology. They held me in Virginia, I didn’t fight extradition or nothing like that. I got locked up Dec. 19, so you know the holidays was around then, so I came to New York around Jan. 6 when they flew me out. And then [by] August, I was up north at Elmira. That’s how fast everything got done.
Ariel Beltran has been out on parole in Brooklyn for 15 months after serving 25 years for second-degree murder. He currently works at a homeless shelter in Queens.
I was in the Dominican Republic because my father was in bad condition, health-wise, when there was an indictment. I was brought in shackles, leg irons, the whole process. My charges originated in the Bronx and in Brooklyn.
I did not know about this new indictment, I had no clue about it. I knew that a group of guys that I was with had been arrested prior, but I didn’t know I was involved until they snatched me up and told me this is the indictment they were going to put you under.
I was actually at the airport because the mother of my children was actually traveling to the Dominican Republic to spend time with me, and the national police basically held me. Since I was waiting by the carousel with my wife, they basically jumped me. It was like five or six of them. I didn’t know what was going on. They were like, “We arrested him. We arrested him,” and they handcuffed me, handcuffed my ankles. How can they expect me to walk? They said, “You’re gonna hop.”
They put me over in this room with double mirrors. They showed me a picture, and actually it wasn’t me. The officer kept asking me my name. I told him, “Jimmy McCullen.” He said, “That’s not your name,” and he smacked me.
From that back office, they brought me to my Jeep. I had my Jeep in the parking lot. They found some stuff. They found a gun. I had some money I had put away. I had a television. They kept everything.
When I got back, the newspaper front page was, “We Got Him.” I was on different news channels, I think Fox, ABC, NY1. They made a big deal out of catching me.
It was a three-day process. I was arrested and detained in the Dominican Republic and held for three days while they processed the paperwork, and then the American authorities went to pick me up.
I went straight from the airport to court, shackled up. I slept in court. We got there at around 9 or 10, and they left me in the bullpen, and the next day was the arraignment.
They’re not gonna put [Trump] in the bullpen, I can guarantee that. He’s gonna be out of there in three minutes. I’ve seen his cronies get opportunities to turn themselves in. Regular guys I know have had their doors knocked down with their children inside their houses.
Jose Llaca was arraigned in 1994 and is serving a prison sentence of 116 years to life for murder and conspiracy.
These interviews were condensed and edited for clarity.
Marshall Project staff members Jamiles Lartey, Maurice Chammah, Alexandra Arriaga, Lawrence Bartley, Geoff Hing, Nicole Lewis, Weihua Li and Christie Thompson contributed to this story.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.