Light in the Jail Cell


As a scientist would proclaim, “In the absence of light, every object shows its true colors.”

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 after being mistaken for someone else.

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…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.