You’d think your first time in jail would be memorable. But for many young people it’s all a blur—punctuated by a pounding headache—in the Halifax drunk tank.
Halifax is known for its universities and its nightlife. It can be a messy combination. Every weekend in September, downtown fills with students looking to blow off steam and celebrate their newfound independence. Invariably, some of them will wind up in the tank.
“I don’t want to paint all students with the same brush,” says Halifax Regional Police spokesperson Sgt. Don Spicer. “But, a lot of times, when students are first in town, there are a lot of events for them—a lot of opportunities to party.”
This year, police are prepared. Last month they launched Operation Fall Back, an initiative targeting rowdiness and public intoxication around Halifax’s universities. Spicer expects to see more people in the tank this time of year: “Typically we’ve seen an increase in the number of arrests for public intoxication.”
If you’re looking for an expert on the drunk tank, John Mitchell is your man. Only 21, he’s been in the tank at least 10 times. “I’ve honestly lost count,” he says.
Mitchell says he’s been tossed in the tank so much because he’s conspicuous. He stands well over six feet tall. His spiked mohawk adds another nine inches to his height. He wears a black leather jacket covered in studs and patches.
Also, Mitchell often drinks outside. But he still doesn’t think it’s fair he gets singled out: “Seriously, hang outside the Liquor Dome at two in the morning,” he says. “You could throw every single one of those people in the tank. But they don’t.”
Just being intoxicated in public won’t get you arrested, Spicer says. If your friends pour you into a taxi, or if you can get home on your own, you probably won’t wind up in the tank.
“The arrest is there for your own safety,” he says. “So you don’t fall down and injure yourself. So you don’t walk out in front of a car. During the winter, you could fall asleep in a snowbank.”
Spicer says everyone has a different reaction to alcohol. Each case is unique.
Sometimes drunk people tend to draw attention to themselves, Spicer says. “Someone who’s intoxicated might want to harass a police officer, maybe call them a pig. While there’s nothing illegal about yelling out ‘pig’—well, now you’ve got my attention.”
Here’s how it could happen to you. Let’s say you’re stumbling along the side of the road, hammered. You feel a hand on your elbow and turn around, face-to-face with one of Halifax’s finest. After explaining why you’re being arrested, your hands are cuffed behind your back and you’re put in the back seat of a squad car.
Once you arrive at the booking office, the cuffs are removed. Your hands are placed on the cold steel booking counter while an officer searches you. Your personal property is put in a bag, along with your belt and shoelaces. (It’s for your own safety, Spicer explains. “Certainly we’ve had people who have tried to commit suicide while in custody. Even if you’re not suicidal, someone could remove them from you while you’re sleeping and use them as a weapon.”)
You turn right and an officer leads you down a narrow hall. As the clopping of your shoes echoes off the concrete walls, you pass the holding cells. Inside are people arrested for more serious crimes. According to Spicer, if the holding cells are full, those people could wind up as your tank-mates.
Just a little further and you’re there. Welcome to the tank. The tank is actually two areas. The first, smaller area contains a stainless steel toilet. In the second room a single, continuous bench runs around the walls. It’s made of the same concrete as the floor and doesn’t look comfortable. The air smells faintly of disinfectant. There’s a puddle of mop water by the drain in the middle of the floor. If it weren’t for the grey, metal bars and the surveillance cameras, you might mistake it for the locker room at a particularly dreary health club.
There are two identical tanks at Halifax Regional Police headquarters on the corner of Gottingen and Cogswell Streets. Viewing them in the daytime doesn’t provide much of an idea of what they might be like at night. While the sun shines, they’re empty, clean and quiet.
At night it’s a very different picture, says Spicer: “There are going to be times when people are throwing up on themselves or urinating in their pants because they’re so intoxicated. Generally it’s not a nice place to be.”
It’s cold in the tank. Mitchell remembers the kindness of a tank-mate who lent him a sweater one night when he was shivering. But that kind of generosity can be seen as a weakness. “Then, this other guy who was in there demanded the kid’s pants. He still had his own pants on, just demanding the kid’s pants for no reason.” Mitchell shakes his head at the memory. “He must have thought we were doing hard time.”
Sometimes there are fights. Officers watch the tank on monitors behind the booking desk. Spicer says fights are broken up as they break out. Combatants are usually placed in separate cells.
According to Mitchell, the music sucks, too. He says that for some reason, people love to sing in the tank. He remembers being kept up all night by a tank-mate singing Bob Marley songs at the top of his lungs.
After being held for anywhere from four to 24 hours, you’ll be released. Spicer says it depends on how fast you sober up. Upon release, your property, shoelaces and belt are returned. You may also be leaving with a little souvenir—a ticket for $111.50. But there’s no guarantee of a fine. Mitchell says he’s only been fined a few times.
Spicer thinks that the experience alone would be enough to change most people’s drinking habits: “It sounds corny, but if you’re going to drink, drink responsibly. When you’ve had too much, have the sense to stop.” But he knows that the tank isn’t often empty on a weekend night.
Spicer wants students and young people to know that it’s really no fun at all. “It might be only for a few hours and you might be locked up with your friends,” he says. “But it’s not something that many people want to come back to.”
Originally published August 2, 2004.