A Few Words on Jail in America

The last year has been a deeply painful time for our nation. Quite frankly, the last four hundred years have been brutal in one way or another to minorities, but from time to time white America is forced by activists, conscience and by available evidence to examine itself. And so our nation has been forced by killings at the hands of law enforcement to face itself in the mirror. One of the greatest contributors to our national problem is that privileged individuals seem almost not to share the same world with the oppressed minorities who are doing most of the bleeding and activist work. I have not been protesting in the streets, but I have pondered how I can contribute as a social worker in a large urban jail. I concluded that I should supply something I essentially never see in the media or among uninvolved people in general: a basic understanding of how jail works in the context of what makes it most difficult for inmates, particularly those who are poor.

There is a big difference between jail and prison. Americans who aren’t involved with the system get this wrong most of the time, and it’s not their fault. I blame this on the media. Prisons are for people serving time on felonies, not misdemeanors. For misdemeanors, people serve jail time — at very most that I see, six to twelve months. Particularly since the media has created a false interchangeability in society’s vocabulary, it’s no one’s fault if they don’t know the difference, but not to care is an exercise in privilege. System-involved people know the difference. I didn’t know the difference until four years ago when a co-worker at the youth homeless shelter where I was interning pointed out the difference to me.

Having reviewed that difference, I’ll now begin to walk you through the difficulties of jail. Begin by performing a mental exercise: You’ve been arrested and you need to let your family know, but your phone has been taken away from you. How many phone numbers of your friends/loved ones can you easily rattle off? Or are they all in your phone? Like probably most of you, my phone knows more of these things than I do. Now ask yourself how many of those phones are cellphones, and another problem arises: you can’t call collect to a cellphone from jail phones, at least not the ones with which I’m familiar. Good luck making contact with anyone who doesn’t have a landline. You might, just might, be able to inform your family and friends you’re there. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument that you’ve actually reached somebody. Do you want them to bail you out?

People are right to be talking about how awful the bail system is. In a system that often sets bail in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, even a relatively low $1,000 bail can wreck someone’s life. Most people caught up in the system don’t have people in their lives with that kind of money, even if they go through a bail bonds agency that lets them put just a hundred dollars down. For people such as this, an extra twenty dollars just might not exist. Their job(s) are possibly gone, they may lose their residence, they might well get their kid(s) taken away. Sometimes, an inmate might take a plea deal just to end it all. Ninety percent of criminal trials in the United States end in plea bargains, not jury trials. I have no idea how many people have plead guilty to things they didn’t really do. But you have to ask what you’d do to ease a situation in which you were helplessly cut off from the world and your family hung in the balance. This is especially true if you’re given a choice between serving six to twelve months or the potential of years or even decades, with no third option. Our society must question the bail system as well as the fact that plea bargains have effectively taken over the criminal justice system.

Let’s assume you haven’t been fortunate enough to make bail. Let’s make one more assumption, too, and it’s a pretty safe one according to the Department of Justice. Let’s assume you suffer from a serious mental illness, as 64% of inmates do, according to their data.

In the last 40 years, the vast majority of state mental hospitals were shut down in favor of community-based alternatives which largely failed to materialize. This was called deinstitutionalization, and it caused an explosion in the homeless population and in the incarcerated population. Jails and prisons in the United States are now the largest de-facto mental hospitals in the country, if one is counting by number of persons served. The largest psychiatric treatment facility in the nation is the Cook County Jail (Chicago) which just took the extraordinary step of hiring a psychologist as its warden.

If you suffer from an illness, whether mental, physical or both, it likely will be some time before you get the medications you need. If you become suicidal, staff will work hard to make sure you’re not able to complete the act. How do they do this? You stand a real chance of having all your clothes taken away and replaced with a paper gown. You might also receive what’s called a suicide blanket. This is a blanket sewn full of cables rigid enough to make it impossible to turn the blanket into a noose. If it is deemed necessary to restrain you further, you may spend some hours in a restraint chair. It looks like this:

An acutely suicidal individual is a highly motivated individual. They’re not likely to tell people that they intend to kill themselves. In a large jail, it is normal to have multiple inmate suicide attempts every week, sometimes every day. It is not normal for all of them to succeed. A facility that experiences five to ten suicides a decade is doing relatively well in this macabre measure.

I’ve tried here to help those uninvolved in the system better understand some of the challenges that inmates face every day. There are tremendous problems I haven’t discussed, such as sexual violence and gangs. However, if we as a nation can insist on creating social policies that increase opportunity for those who need it most instead of locking them away from it, everything I’ve discussed here ought to be alleviated.

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