“Light in the Jail Cell: Finding Myself Behind Bars”


As a scientist would proclaim, “In the absence of light, every object shows its true colors.” With this statement of blackbody radiation, we find parallels within ourselves. In discovering who we are, we find our true nature in times of struggle. We address our issues as they are, and we can come closer to who we are as humans. As a result of this, in a nation of second chances, the punishment should fit the crime. But punishment can be insidious, never-ending. It can transcend the torment of everyday experiences into something greater. It shakes the individual at their core and leaves a mark on the American soul. Freedom tries to break the shackles. But despair lingers. I want to share this episode of despair when I was arrested on account of mistaken identity.

My upcoming book Light in the Jail Cell: Finding Myself Behind Bars recounts my experience detained for a week in 2014 in a Detroit correctional facility during the summer after my freshman year at Indiana University-Bloomington.

I am an Indian American Muslim from a middle-class suburban family. Like my friends, I grew up as a kid with a US Passport and the expectation of traveling freely. When returning to the US (after a visit with family members in Canada), I was detained at the border and remanded to a correctional facility. I have written a manuscript that tells this story. It explains what happened to me and is happening to many other Americans — young, old, healthy, and infirm — because of their names and skin color.

In a jail cell, you’re confined from the world in one sense, but, in another sense, you’re free. When my stomach churned and my body lay on the concrete bench at Mound Correctional Facility, I yearned for a personal freedom in this scary world.

Poet Claudia Gary endorsed the manuscript. She wrote:

Hussain Ather’s “Light in the Jail Cell” must be read by anyone who doubts the humanity and wasted potential of many whose lives have been swallowed up by the prison-industrial complex. The ebb and flow of hope, and how profoundly its fluctuation can affect perception and behavior—including those of the narrator—is a crucial question that Ather has rightfully placed in the foreground of his powerful memoir. His keenly observant, timely, and compassionate account of the people he encountered when he was wrongfully imprisoned as a 19-year-old student, along with his candid self-awareness of how the six-day experience changed his life, make this a compelling narrative. A conscientious messenger for those who cannot tell their stories, he has combined theirs with his own in the remarkable voice of a young scientist-philosopher-poet.

Similar to the trial of Adnan Syed in the first season of the podcast “Serial,” I share a personal account of this arrest. Unlike Syed, though, my arrest was ruled as a case of mistaken identity. In the wake of today’s Islamophobia and racism, I hope to raise awareness of these everyday injustices.

Having said that, it is not a sob story. I understand that being wrongfully arrested for a week is nothing compared to what other individuals have faced. Instead, I focus the story on how I critique and reflect upon my own actions and behavior rather than begging for sympathy from the reader. The story is about how I wrestled with reality in a coming-of-age narrative to overcome the struggles I faced.