I’ll never forget my first day in county jail. I’d stepped into a world that I only knew from television and Hollywood movies, and like every Hollywood movie about crime & punishment, Hollywood’s depiction is nothing like reality. The only thing Hollywood gets right is the fact that it’s stressful. This is especially true if you’ve never stepped foot into a county jail–any jail, for that matter–because this is the day you were arrested.
One of the truths about jails is that they’re rough places. Rough in every sense of the word. They’re filthy, noisy, dingy, and cold. You’re thrown in with criminals of all ages and from all walks of life without concern for one’s needs or struggles.
There’s constant stress and tension.
There’s that one idiot who’s there because he couldn’t pay the $1,000 fine he earned showboating in daddy’s corvette, and those who’ll talk you to death about why they shouldn’t be there and have somehow been wronged. There’s drunkards, thieves, con artists, spouse abusers, drug addicts and all manner of life’s greatness.
There’s convicts with lifelong histories of penitentiary stints working out in the corner all day long, and informants lurking on the periphery of your discussions hoping to save themselves from whatever shit pile they’ve buried themselves under. These are easy to spot. They’re the shifty eyed, sneaky ones slithering about within earshot of everyone’s conversations.
Your experience is largely based upon the geographic that the county jail serves. A small county jail in a modest town has less of the unsavory elements, whereas a big county jail like Miami Dade has all of them and then some. In Miami Dade I watched one of the sheriffs pick up a prostitute that was brought in; men assaulting another prisoner while the sheriffs intentionally turned a blind eye; and even a sheriff punching and kicking a prisoner who refused to strip down to his birthday suit in a room full of men in their birthday suits. All before I made it through receiving.
Jails like Miami Dade are rough places. There’s racial tension, fights, assaults, robberies, and crooked guards. Everything mirrors what you’d experience in the state’s prisons.
By contrast jails in small counties are the complete opposite. I once found myself in the Conroe, TX county jail. It was a small, clean jail on the extremes of the country county it called home. I faced no racial tension, witnessed no thefts or assaults, and the guards were pleasant enough if not caring and helpful. Even the prisoners were a friendly lot. The most difficult part of being there was the boredom. However, jails in big cities like Miami, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis are always the way I previously described. Very filthy, unpleasant, violent, and corrupt.
Jail food is poor in quality and portion. A grown man goes hungry between meals. If you have money you can buy snacks from the jail commissary. Everything is priced 200%-500% higher than what you’d pay in a grocery store. It’s legalized robbery. Companies and county jails preying on citizens at their lowest and most vulnerable time.
The very companies serving major metropolitan jails are often the same predatory companies catering to state prisons. Read about some of them in my post titled “Captured Clientele” Captured Clientele
You’ll spend the first day talking on jail phones with spouses and family trying to arrange and pay for an attorney to represent you. Sure, when you’re initially booked you get that one phone call, you know the one just like you see in the movies. But what you don’t know is that if nobody answers you don’t get to redial, and if someone does you get a few minutes at best. Fail to complete your business in those few allotted minutes and you’re left needing to make collect calls from the jail phones. Getting a jail phone is an exercise in stress management.
Jail collect calls cost your family and friends $5.00 local for 10 minutes to $25.00 long distance. Family is upset. Friends are at a loss. Calling home nightly to calm the children, to help the spouse cope while trying to keep everything from falling apart rings up phone bills in the hundreds of dollars. All of it compounding your already worsening financial situation.
Dont expect to get much sleep either. You will sleep on a paper thin mat in a noisy cell or jail dorm. You’ll hear toilets flush (smell them, too), and you’re surrounded by constant clatter and activity. If you’re someone who needs peace and quiet at night you’ve made a terrible mistake coming to jail.
You’ll be glad when the first day passes. You’ll mark every day thereafter on the homemade calendar you’ll inevitably make. Counting down the days until your release. You’ll discover sleeping all day makes time go by quicker, and that reading the random books the jail provides distracts you from your situation long enough to stave off boredom. Reading about the history of the British colonization of Africa never seemed so much fun until you came to jail.
(This post is part of the ”1st Times” series. Read more about first time experiences in prison by reading the postings in the ”1st Times” category)
If you enjoy the essays and stories on this blog you can now own them, along with every post from March 2019 through April 2021, in the book titled ”Behind The Wall: A Prisoner’s Journal ($11.50, 483 pgs. Amazon.com) (eBook $1.99) by Christopher Monihan. Buy one for yourself or give a couple to friends, but most of all THANK YOU for following.