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What Is Jail Like? 11 Misconceptions Everyone Has About Jail

By / 08.06.14

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What is jail like? Some of our readers have spent a night in jail. They will get some of these. A few of our readers have spent –more- than a night in jail. They will probably get all of these. Most of you have never, and will never, set foot in a jail. A lot of people don’t fully understand what a jail is and what it is for. This is for you.

Jails are for housing the recently arrested, those awaiting trial, and those serving shorter, mostly misdemeanor sentences. Prisons, on the other hand, are solely for housing convicted felons.

“Work release” is a program to allow people with jobs to go to work, but spend the night in a monitored dorm.

I blame Hollywood, mostly, for the cultural misconceptions we Americans have about jail. Too many cop shows on TV and too many unrealistic movies have confused us. And, while all jails are different, there are things that are always the same when you lock people up. I have spent many nights in jail. Of course, I was getting paid, but I know what goes on.

Here’s the real story. 

11: You get one phone call.

I’ll start with the most widespread, the “I want my phone call” myth.

You will get more than one.  As a matter of fact, if you’re arrested on a charge that has a bond, you get as many as you need (within reason) to get someone to post your bond.  And even if you are arrested on a felony, there’s likely going to be a phone in the cell you sleep in that night.  For longer-term inmates, our jail even has a “Skype-like” system called “Telmate.”

Be warned: you can only call collect.

Which brings me to:

10: “How much is your bail?”

“Bail” and “bond” are somewhat confusing. Bond is the amount of money you pay to get out of jail before your court date.

When you get arrested for something, most jurisdictions have a “bond schedule.”  This is simply a list that enumerates the amount of money you have to pay to get out of jail for various offenses.  For example, here in my county, a first time DUI is $300.

What you are doing is giving the county $300 as a promise that you will show up to court on your charge.  If you show up to court, you get your money back.

Some places arrest on mere speeding and other traffic violations, and when you post bond and don’t show up, they just keep the money and call it good.  They see it as just a guilty plea where you have already paid the fine in advance.

Bail is a different matter.

If you don’t have $300, and you don’t know anyone who does, you can call a “bondsman.”  He will charge you a fee, based on factors like if you are employed, have a permanent residence in the area, and number of monochromatic neck and face tattoos, to post your bond.

You pay bail to a bondsman to bond you out of jail.  This is colloquially referred to as “bailing someone out of jail.”

If you don’t show up to court, your bondsman will hire a bounty hunter to drag your butt back to jail so he won’t be out the money he posted for you.  “Dog the Bounty Hunter” is also Bondsman.  He doesn’t hire them, he does the job himself.

9: “Don’t drop the soap!”

You aren’t going to get raped in the shower in jail.  The showers are like the ones in your high-school gym with shower nozzles arranged around a single post.  Inmates try to respect one another’s privacy as much as they can, but they still have to shower together.  Besides, the showers are monitored to prevent stuff like that from happening.

Rape is not nearly as widespread in jail as you might think.  Prison is a bit of a different matter, but inmates in jails generally have way more supervision and less free time than inmates in a prison.  I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but Bubba is really much less likely to try to have his way with your anus if he’s only in a local county lock-up for 10 days for a battery beef at a bar than if he is doing 15 to life at Folsom for an armed robbery conviction.

8:  Orange is the new black.

No, it’s not. The jail clothes you will be issued when you are booked will have been worn by at least 3 million other people before they got to you.

They do not fit properly.  They do not look good. On anyone.  Ever.  You will not have a belt.  You will pull your pants up all day.  The only underwear they have are tighty-whiteys.

7: Jail is a barren existence with absolutely no comforts of home.

Like the rest of America, jails are about MONEY.  Most every jail in the USA has “commissary.”  What you can buy at the commissary varies wildly on your “security level.”

Our jail has levels 1-9, with 1 being the hardest, most badass thugs who’d kill you with a plastic spork if they could and 9 being the guys who are allowed outside unattended to empty the trash cans.

As you can imagine, level 1 guys can’t buy a whole lot and level 9 guys can buy everything on the list…assuming someone on the outs likes them well enough to “put money on their books.”

Some items offered are transistor radios, prayer rugs, sports bras (for women only) and better toiletry items like brand-name toothpaste and shampoo, as well as all manner of college-fare type foodstuffs, ranging from Ramen noodles and Cup-a-Soup to Mountain Dew and Doritos.

6: You’ll be put “behind bars.”

Cells with bars, where one person is housed, are mostly a thing of the past…or a thing of some po-dunk jail in a west-Texas county with a population of about 200 people that still uses its 150 year-old cowboy-days jail.

Modern jails house a lot of people, and the cheapest way to do that is in barrack-style housing.  The “dorms” in our jail house over 100 inmates on four tiers in one big room.

That said, the “bad guys” (read: see level 1 above) get single cell all to themselves, but even then, the doors are solid metal.  Those guys are fed through a little slot called a  “wickie door”

5: They have cable TV

While this is technically true, and most inmates do get to watch TV, at least for a little while, each day, it’s not like they have a remote and can channel-surf like you do.  Most jails have cable TV.  The dorms in our jail have huge flat-screen HD TVs mounted to the wall, and that sounds really cool until you realize there’s about 75 people who want to watch TV.

If you thought deciding what TV show to watch on a Saturday night with your girlfriend or a few buddies was a chore, imagine trying to get 75 inmates to come to a consensus.  Usually, though, there’s a majority and decisions are quickly reached because the final say goes to the deputy in charge and he’s not going to wait around if the inmates can’t agree, he’ll put it on the Oprah channel and call it good.

4: You sit around all day with nothing to do but work out

While some inmates are housed alone, all follow a strict, daily routine.  You eat when it’s served or you don’t eat.  You take a shower when it’s offered or you don’t get a shower.  Things like that.

In a jail, most inmates have some chores and some inmates have full-on jobs.  Who do you think cooks all the food served in a jail?  Who do you think mops the floors and cleans the toilets?  Seriously, consider the logistics of feeding 1000 people three meals a day.  Inmate workers keep every jail in this country cleaned and fed.

In our jail, breakfast is served at 0500.  To get that many meals ready, the inmate workers are up well before dawn.  They are paid about $10 a week they can spend on “commissary.”

As for working out, well, burpees, air-squats, push-ups, modified pull-ups are the fitness staples in county.  There are no weight rooms or gyms.  Google “inmate work out routine” to get an idea.

Despite chores and jobs, days in jail are long and dreadfully boring.  There are books, if you’re allowed, and some inmates are required to take classes that help re-integrate them into society.  AA is big in jails.  On Sunday, there are church services you can attend.

Inmates who aren’t on discipline are allowed outside for a bit of time each day.  This is called “rec.”  In prison, inmates will have access to weight and sports equipment, but in jail, you just get to walk around in circles inside a big cement box with no roof.

3: You will get strip-searched.

Strip searches happen, and more than one funny thing has been found in a “keister” or a “gravity-box,” but if you’re arrested on a reckless driving charge, chances are you’ll get to keep your clothes on.

If you get arrested for meth possession, though, expect to get naked in front of someone while assuming some rather embarrassing yoga-like poses.

2: Jails are filled with criminals.

No, they are not. “Real” criminals make up a very small percentage of any jail’s population. Jails are filled mostly with people who are just stupid, have substance abuse problems, lack impulse control, or are otherwise unable to just stay out of minor trouble. We all have that one friend who thinks nothing of getting caught driving drunk and then spending a week in the slammer for it.  The deputies at your local jail know him by name.

1: Jail food is horrible.

You’ve all heard horror stories about jail food, about how it is inedible mush, bought in bulk and at the lowest bid, right?

OK… well, maybe some of your fears about jail are true.  Oatmeal is the breakfast standard.  PB&J sandwiches and a piece of fruit is what passes for lunch.  Supper can range from burritos to burgers.

These are prepared in bulk, usually by other inmates.  Think about the food served in your jr. high cafeteria, only worse.  Much worse.

Note: None of this applies if you are stupid enough to commit a crime in Maricopa County, Arizona. Sheriff Joe Arpaio runs “The Toughest Jail in America” and the inmates wear pink and sleep in tents pitched in a compound out in the desert and eat bologna sandwiches. Fun times! 

I hope this article has been informative and educational and convinces you that, while you may be a little confused about what jail is really like,  you don’t want to go there because it will suck.

Stay out of trouble.

 

Jail pic via Shutterstock


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