17 August 2021

Jail 101

    As I've mentioned before, I think of myself as a writer with a magistrate hobby. Magistration, however, is how I pay the bills. I venture over to the basement of the jail, sometimes in person and sometimes virtually. There I meet my county's most recently arrested individuals. I cover their rights and review their bail. With that, I'd like to share a few introductory thoughts about the jail process. Should you decide to get yourself booked into jail in my county to make your writing authentic, here are a few things you might want to know.

    1. Dress for it.

It's cold in the jail. If you had to manage a population of inmates who might be aggressive and smelled bad, you might like them to be a little cold too. That makes good administrative sense. But if you were arrested coming home from the sorority party in your little black dress, you might be miserable. Plan for it. Wear a sweatshirt. It's a jail, not a flight--they won't give you a blanket during the booking process.

They will take your shoelaces, belt, and necktie. Loafers are a good choice for men planning on jail. Cowboy boots are another option. You don't want to keep walking out of your shoes. And the spike heels that paired with the little black dress will get really painful. There is a lot of standing during the book-in process. (I'm the only one who gets to sit during magistration, for instance.)

    2. Prepare to be uncomfortable.

Andrew Bardwell from Cleveland, Ohio USA
CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/

They build the jail's booking unit for safety and not comfort. The jail offers as little as possible that can be broken, pulled loose, or used as a weapon. What furniture the jail provides is metal and bolted to the wall. It's smooth so that it can be sprayed clean, if necessary.

The jail is noisy. All the doors bang. They clang shut with a metallic certainty. At various points, there are security crossovers, small vestibules through which one must pass. The door on one side must close and latch before the door on the opposite side will open. If the crossing guard gets distracted, you might wait for a moment before he or she opens the second door. Standing in that steel and glass aquarium always feels like a long time.

Lots of people are detoxing. They have a drunkard's certainty that if they just yell long enough, the jail's staff will attend to their situation. The squeaky wheel does not always get greased. In jail, it presents as a test of wills. Assuming you're not in jeopardy, the jail staff usually wait until the wheel wears itself out. 

The jail does feed you during the booking process. The trustees deliver a bologna sandwich and two cream sandwich cookies. Water is available in the holdover cells. Take it when you can get it. The food won't come around again for eight hours.

    3. Be Clear on your Politics.

If you want to be an anti-vaxxer, that's a choice you're making. But a TB test isn't an inoculation. Refusing to take one will get you isolated. The jail has strong feelings about contagious diseases running loose among its population. COVID-19 jokes are not funny, and they won't get you released any faster. 

Shouting "I can't breathe" for an hour or more undermines your claim. There may be many things wrong with you, but your airway is not occluded. 

    4. Dress for it #2.

At some point, you'll transition from street clothes to a jail uniform. You'll wear coveralls. They won't fit. For men, green uniforms signify general population. Trustees wear black and white stripes. Red denotes high-risk. (for women, it is beige for general, yellow for high-risk). Inmates at risk of self-harm wear a poncho of padded green. It is held closed with wide straps which cling to the poncho. It is almost impossible to tie the poncho into a knot or to look good while wearing it. The jail will substitute orange plastic slides for the shoes you walked inside wearing. Some inmates wrap their toes in toilet paper. It makes them look like they're wearing socks. When the first inmate does it, others quickly follow. We have influencers in the jail. 

    5. Give your real name. 

The jail checks your fingerprints. They'll figure out who you are. Then you'll catch a new charge for failure to ID. If you're on parole, the charge won't matter to you. If your visiting jail with a misdemeanor, you've likely made your troubles worse. 

    6. Memorize a Number. 

When I go to jail, I don't get to bring my phone. You won't have access to yours either. The jail will collect your property early in the booking process. They won't give your phone back once your bond is set so that you can find someone's number. Memorize it in advance. 

The holdover cells have phones in them. You'll get to make calls. But the jail shuts off the phones at night. They didn't deliberately put you in a cell with a broken phone. A surprising number of my defendants are certain that they've been singled out. That leads to the final point...

    7. It's not a Conspiracy. 

The jail books in defendants. That's what they do 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week. Today's high-profile case will be displaced quickly enough by the next attention grabber. Although it is the most important case in the world for you, booking is a process to the jail staff. They are not out to get you. They are out to get your identity established, and to collect your fingerprints, your photograph, and the other biometric bits they need to keep track of the people who move in and out of their facility every day. Roll with it. 

Until next time.


  1. Useful information that I hope I personally never need!

  2. The first time I was in a jail (as a lawyer, I hasten to add), two things stood out for me. One was the ceaseless, nerve-shattering level of noise. Screaming, cursing, threatening, banging, clanking (did I mention screaming?) noise, day and night. And it began the moment you stepped through the first metal door and it slammed behind you. Even when you know you're just visiting, it stops your heart for a beat. The second was the total lack of privacy. Eyes are on your every move, including your use of the metal toilet in your cell.

    Where I live in Florida, Mark, it's usually judges who sit on the bail hearings, which are conducted via video between the defendants in the jail and the courtroom where the prosecutors and defense attorneys can give their recommendations and/or objections. The video setup predated COVID. On more serious cases, detectives might want to be heard to provide reasons for a no-bail or very high bail decision and occasionally, a victim would be there, sometimes to plead for the defendant to come back home in domestic cases. In my first year as a prosecutor, I covered first appearance (which is what we called those sessions) in rotation so I got to know which judges were on the hanging judge end of the spectrum and which were soft touches. It was quite an education.

    1. You're spot on. The other day I had to bring an IT over to jail to help sort out a technology glitch. It gave me the opportunity to see the place with fresh eyes. (and I could have gotten any piece of hardware I wanted by threatening not to guide him out.)

    2. Mark, that's a sneaky way to get IT perqs. Unfair1

      Wendy, sounds like you need to do a write-up for us!

  3. The only thing more noisy, public, uncomfortable, and indoors than a jail is a prison.
    On the other hand, prisons smell better, because one of the jobs inmates can get is to constantly clean everything with some kind of antiseptic wash. Think bleach with a soupcon of pepper spray, and you've got it.

    1. I missed your comment earlier, Eve. Since Covid the jail has a pair of trustees tasked with regular wiping. I forgot to mention it. Perhaps it's the first line in Jail 102. Thanks.

  4. Mark, I found this particularly interesting. Yours is not an easy job. Thanks for the insight.

  5. Orange County (Florida) brought in my girlfriend (straight out of Disney) to document procedures with 911 operations and dispatch, and later jailhouse procedures. (And later, she had to appear in a jailhouse rape case.)

    She didn’t speak much about it, but she commented that the most intimidating spot was the elevator. Prisoners transported up or down were usually unhappy about their destination, and being cooped up with one in a confined space was not pleasant.

    She happens to be an unusually cordial and charming person, and that carried over into her jailhouse project. When a new inmate would shout something obscene, the more seasoned prisoners would tell them to knock it off, show respect or face consequences. That made her work easier to handle.

    She came to believe politicians made life harder for corrections staff. For example, atop the Orange County Jail was a basketball court visible from I-4. There, inmates could exercise and burn off anger and energy.

    Politicians campaigned on the argument that we were entertaining and coddling prisoners, and demanded the basketball court be removed. The same politicians also moved to restrict televisions and reading material. This made life more difficult not only for prisoners, but jailers as well.

    1. I meet a great many people who displayed a burst of bad judgment (drugs or alcohol will do that.) I only occasionally meet a truly scary individual. But occasionally is enough.

  6. In the mid-90s I went to see my uncle in a minimum-security federal prison. This was my second visit & unfortunately I forgot that on my first visit, all the prisoners were wearing beige shirts & pants. I stupidly wore that to visit the prison & almost didn't get in. They also confiscated a disposable camera & I never got it back.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth. As I mentioned I meet them in the process of dressing out. Someday there might be an entire blog on bad clothing choices in jail.

  7. Fascinating, Mark! Many years ago I knew more than my share of people who were in jail, some on their way to prison. From what I heard, your account is very accurate!

  8. This can't be easy for people on either side of the bars. I"ve never been in and never hope to be. (I'm having trouble posting comments.)

  9. Stay out. There are easier ways to do research.


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