Close your eyes and imagine you’re in the filthiest public restroom you’ve ever visited. Take a deep breath while conjuring up a stench that lingers in places where only roaches and vermin dare to trod. Combine those odors with the scent of dirty sweat socks, t-shirts and underwear, cooked popcorn, urine, and steaming chicken-flavored Top Ramen noodles.

Picture living or working where every breath is similar to what I’ve described above. Never a single mouthful of fresh air. Could you drink water from a sink that was used to wash the feet of a man who just finished working on a roadside work gang for eight hours in ninety-degree heat—a sink positioned two feet above a toilet that’s used several times a day by three people, but is only capable of being flushed twice in eight hours?

How about sleeping in a six-by-nine room with two other large men who haven’t bathed in several days during the hottest time of the year. There’s no ventilation. No windows to open. How about sleeping on the floor with nothing between you and the grimy concrete surface but an itchy, wool blanket? Roaches, rats, and mice darting from gaps between rusted plumbing and cracked cinder blocks. Dried blood and vomit are the only splashes of color on drab walls. HGTV it ain’t.

What I’ve just described is jailing. Serving time. Marking the calendar. Doing time.

Of course, conditions are better in some facilities than others, but many are just like I’ve described in the paragraphs above. Some are worse. Much worse.

The photos below were taken in one of the cleanest jails I’ve ever seen. It’s also a very well-run operation. The staff is well-trained, and for the most part, the prisoners seemed to be in good spirits considering their circumstances.

A brief tour of a county jail:

Deputy sheriffs  monitor and control inmate activities and movement from inside a master control room. All doors are operated electronically by the officer seated at the control desk.

Inmate Movement Control

Female dormitory

Some prison dormitories house over one-hundred prisoners in a single room. Many times, a single officer is assigned to supervise the activities of one or more dorm rooms. Only non-violent inmates are assigned to dorm-style incarceration. In many federal prisons, dormitory-style housing is quite common, especially in the low-security facilities and prison camps.

Correctional officers day

Each inmate is responsible for keeping her personal space clean. Cleaning the overall dormitory is a shared task.

A very happy prisoner. I asked why the big smile. Her reply was, “Things could be worse. At least I’m alive and healthy.”

The silver, metallic cable you see on the right is a telephone cord. This jail features a phone in each dorm. Inmates are allowed to make collect calls during approved times of the day only. The phones are switched off from the control booth during the “off” times.

Jail Library

Books are often donated by local community groups, families of inmates, and even the prisoners themselves.

Jail Library

Cell block

In the photograph below, a deputy sheriff makes his rounds inside a cell block. He’s actually inside a day room that’s normally occupied by several inmates (they were made to go inside their cells while I was inside the day room). The area outside the windows to the left is the common area hallway that’s outside the locked cell areas. The doors to the deputy’s right and straight ahead are inmate cell doors. Each morning those doors are opened, allowing all inmates into the day room where they play cards, watch TV, eat their meals, and socialize. They return to their cells at night.

Inmates are not allowed in their cells during the day. Sleeping or lounging on their beds during the day is not permitted. Having all the inmates in the day room also allows the deputies to see their every movement. The only exception to the rule is when an inmate is sick. However, the illness must be verified by a jail nurse or doctor.

Looking out

An inmate’s view through the window in his cell door out into the hallway. Many dreams and fantasies of life on the outside begin at this very spot. The door across the hall is that of another inmate’s cell. The checkered grate at the top of the picture is the only source of ventilation in the cell. It’s also a means for the jail staff to communicate with the prisoner. Jail doors are heavily insulated to retard fires and noise.

Just as I clicked off this shot, a group of deputies ran past to quell a disturbance in an area I’d just left. The problem—an inmate was having an anxiety attack from being in such tight quarters. He’d become quite violent and was tossing things around. His troubles reminded me of how much I appreciate the little things—trees, flowers, family, home-cooked meals, wine, and flushing my own darn toilet whenever I want.

Inmates who commit violations of jail rules, or exhibit violent behavior, are sometimes placed in segregation/isolation. That section of the jail is often called the SHU (Special Housing Unit) or The Hole.

I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

 Overcrowding is a huge problem in jails and prisons. This jail was forced to hang metal beds from the hallway walls when their cells reached capacity—three men in each two-man cell.

Another answer to overcrowding is to convert the jail parking garage to living space. By bringing in shipping containers (like those you see on cargo ships and the backs of tractor-trailers) and converting them to individual housing units, this jail was able to safely increase it’s capacity by 100 inmates. A chain-link fence circles the mini-compound.

Each module is a self-contained unit equipped with air conditioning. A deputy sheriff monitors the parking garage jail from a small booth positioned outside the fence. Cameras are placed throughout the module areas.

Inside, the modules are narrow, but adequate. Bunk beds for ten prisoners, storage lockers, and a shared writing desk made from a single piece of lumber.

pod-recreation-area.jpg

The space between two modules serves as the recreation yard. Remember, just a few months before I snapped these photos, this space was a parking garage for the jail staff and visitors.

Visiting Room

Prisoners are brought to these small rooms where they “visit” with family members seated on the opposite side of the window. The family’s room is a mirror image of the inmate’s visiting room. The view below is from the inmate’s side of the glass.

visiting room

*By the way, prison and jail are not synonymous. They’re entirely different animals. But that’s a topic for another blog.

  1. Jodie
    Jodie says:

    Lee, thanks for the info. I hadn’t thought of a power outage, but that, too, has possibilities.

  2. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Jodie. Yes, there are backup generators, but they’re normally for lighting and communication. However, there are also manual controls/locks for each door.

    By the way, can you imagine what would happen and how eerie and dangerous it would be if the place went dark? Remember, there are few windows.

    When the power goes down there are special emergency plans in place that change everyone’s game plan. No electric sensors on the fences. Possibly no cameras, etc. Officers normally and automatically begin a patrol of the perimeter. Everything is locked down. Tower officers are on alert. Absolutely no inmate movement, etc.

  3. Jodie
    Jodie says:

    Lee, thanks for sharing this with us.

    I have a question (OK maybe two or three) about the master control room. What happens if the power goes out? I’m assuming there’s a back up generator or something. Also, would there be a way for someone outside the jail to interrupt the power, so the guards had no control over the doors–even for ten seconds? A story is brewing in my head. Can you tell?

  4. Lynda Fitzgerald
    Lynda Fitzgerald says:

    Lee, as usual, you bring home the truth to us. If we’re to write realistic fiction, these are the details we need. Although I usually visit my locations personally, I’d rather get this particular insight from you. Thanks again.

  5. Helen McMullin
    Helen McMullin says:

    As a Park Ranger, I worked a year with the U.S. Park Police in Washington, DC. One night shift, I had the “pleasure” of riding to the womens’ detention center in the back of a DC paddy wagon with several prostitutes who’d been arrested. Interesting trip – the other occupants were quite entertaining and quite entertained by my uniform and the idea of a “training ride”. All I could think of was “those two Park Policemen I was riding with had better show up to explain who I was.” Uniform or no uniform, I was sure the matrons had seen stranger come in. I also got a tour of the DC mens’ prison – an old rock building near RFK stadium, a dark, damp, depressing place. I was never so glad to be able to walk out of a building into the sunshine in my entire life!

  6. Sally Carpenter
    Sally Carpenter says:

    Years ago I served as a jail chaplain intern at a Midwest county jail that was quite clean and well run with newly-added cells clustered around a central pod where a deputy opened/closed doors electronically and summoned inmates. The inmates had absolutely no privacy because all the walls were glass and a deputy was constantly watching (the deputies were not allowed reading materials or any distractions while on duty). And the “windows” to the outside were narrow slits in the wall. No sunshine, no nature to look at, very insular. Cameras watched traffic in the halls and elevators. On the up side, the inmates had access to a small library and could take advantage of AA/NA groups, GED classes, Bible studies and personal counseling.

  7. Lisa P
    Lisa P says:

    Wow the garage being turned into a prison as well?! Now I’ve seen everything…

    Thanks for this post. It was very interesting.

  8. markdotnet
    markdotnet says:

    Thanks for this post. Even with all the amenities prisoners are afforded, you can’t understand having your freedom taken away. You don’t understand what it’s like to have to ask permission for everything unless you’ve been there.

  9. Ramona
    Ramona says:

    Thank you for posting this. Every time I see people remark about prisons and the unjust comforts of three hots and a cot, free Cable TV, and weight room, it’s obvious to me the remarker has never been near an actual prison.