Several times in the past few months, I’ve talked with people, both clients and other acquaintances, with some odd misconceptions of what it’s like to serve a short jail sentence. And here, I’m talking about nothing more severe than a month or two in the county jail. Prison, of course, is a complete different creature. Some of the questions about jail were born of fear. Some were born of idle curiosity.
Now, a little disclaimer: For all that I’ve been inside the local jails in El Paso, Teller, Douglas, and Pueblo Counties many, many times, I’ve never actually served a jail sentence. Sure, I’ve been visiting when an emergency within the jail has kept me locked up an hour or two more than I expected, but I never had any doubt that the deputies would release me, eventually. I’ve never spent a night in a jail bunk, rather than my own bed.
In writing this blog, I called the jail and asked if someone could direct me to a FAQ sheet. Apparently, there wasn’t one of the kind I was seeking. However, Sgt. Gregory White, a Public Information Officer with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office was kind enough to answer some basic questions about the Criminal Justice Center, our local jail. His answers to the following questions I can confirm through my own second-hand experience:
What does an inmate’s schedule consist of?
In the general population, unless an inmate is on some kind of disciplinary lockdown, he or she does have time during the day to exercise, play cards, read, watch television, or engage in similar activities.
What food does an inmate eat?
The jail serves “institutional food” three times a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lunch is a sack lunch with a sandwich, fruit or something similar, and a drink, typically juice. Breakfast and dinner are hot meals. Most of the food is pretty bland, and there’s not much choice. Meals need to be easy to prepare for up to 1,500 inmates. Inmates prepare all the food. [And sometimes they squash the sandwiches, although of course that’s me talking and not Sgt. White.] What supplemental items can be bought through the commissary?
If inmates have money on their books, either because someone puts money on their books or because they come in with money, commissary is available once a week. Food items, such as ramen noodles or candy, can be purchased, as can writing materials, socks, underwear and like items.
How do the deputies ensure the inmates’ safety?
The jail deputies employ direct supervision, so there is always a deputy assigned in the ward with the inmates at all time. There is an extensive camera system monitoring the public areas of the jail. Additionally, it is possible to be moved out of a ward if an inmate has a problem with another inmate. That’s referred to as a “seg” (or segregation), and there are hundreds of “segs” in the facility at any given time.
What are the usual sleeping arrangements?
An inmate in the general population is in a cell with another person, assigned randomly. By contrast, the mental health ward is all open bunks (i.e. no cells), so the deputies can keep an eye on everyone.
What’s in a cell?
In a cell, there are bunks, a desk with a chair, a sink with drinking water, and a toilet.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone who’s facing a jail sentence? Don’t commit crimes and put yourself in the position of needing to face a jail sentence.
That’s not helpful.
What if you’ve already been sentenced?
There’s a lot of boredom. Have a routine. Whether that’s exercising, writing a letter, taking a shower, or whatever you do, do it every day. A routine allows you to mark your time and get through the day, event to event.
I asked Sgt. White about some of the common misconceptions he encountered about the jail, and he said the biggest one he’s run into is from those people who believe the inmates have it too easy. (Who would think that? I can promise you I have never once, not in eleven years of practice, had someone volunteer for a jail sentence.) Sgt. White pointed out that jail is not somewhere one goes to hangout and relax. (Again, who the heck is he talking to?) You’re in a ward with fifty or sixty other strangers, and there are two televisions in the entire ward. Books and other reading material are very limited and the opportunity for exercise is also limited.
I didn’t ask Sgt. White about the issue of prescription medications inside the jail, as I wasn’t thinking of it at the time. Nevertheless, I know from experience that the jail has a medical staff, and that they will give you your prescriptions. That said, I’ve also had clients in the past who experienced delays in getting their prescriptions and some who didn’t get their medications at all, for various reasons. The best advice I can give there is to call the jail’s medical staff ahead of time with specific concerns.