First Jail Experience

“Do you know anyone in jail?” the officer asked. 

“Um…” I thought through everyone I went to public school with. One them had spent some time in jail, but I was pretty sure he’d been released. “No.”

“Hold out your arms,” he instructed. He ran a metal-detection wand over my body, but it didn’t beep. I’d already put my cell phone, keys, and wallet in my backpack and given it to him.

He pressed a button, and a door behind him slid open. We stepped into a small holding area until the door closed again–as if preventing butterflies from escaping their sanctuary at the zoo–and then he pressed another button that opened the door to the corridor of the Tompkins County jail.

*     *     *

Besides writing for this blog, I’m also a staff writer for my college’s magazine. I tend towards “social justice journalism”–in the past I’ve written about pro-anorexia websites, sex education, and equal employment for people with disabilities. All of those pieces demanded a lot of researching and carefully selecting interviewees, and then a lot of sighing and backspacing during the writing process.

In October the magazine’s theme was “Edible,” and I chose to take on the challenge of researching and reporting on prison food. 

Finding interviewees was hard–turns out that criminal justice researchers aren’t prioritizing nutrition issues–but I ended up connecting with the police captain at the Tompkins County Jail in Ithaca.

photo-47On the day of my interview, I got dropped off early, so I sat in the waiting room with my anxiety rising. It was an intimidating environment, and I found it hard to relax between the repetitive rules for visitors (don’t you dare bring in contraband, seriously) and the periodic announcements over the loudspeaker that sounded more like angry robot noises than English letters (I’m sure they’re intelligible to the inmates who hear them every day, but I couldn’t decipher even a single word).

Finally the police captain came to get me. He checked my ID, told me he’d have to “register” me in the computer, and asked what was in my backpack. I negotiated to keep my laptop to take interview notes, but I had to leave behind everything else. He noted down that I didn’t know anyone who was incarcerated, and wanded me. The process is standard protocol for anyone who enters the jail, but it felt like he didn’t trust my character, like he suspected me of having another motive for visiting. 

He walked me down the hallway to see the kitchen. On the way, I passed a small room that was nothing more than a glass box with a bench and a small mat. Inside stood an inmate, dressed in the stereotypical bright orange jumpsuit, pacing back and forth. We made eye contact. I looked away, suddenly ashamed of my freedom. I felt once again like I was in a zoo, a zoo where the “animals” look just like I do.

Next to the kitchen was the laundry room, where an inmate in khaki was washing jumpsuits and other linens. He didn’t seem to have a lot of direct supervision, but guards were constantly surveying the hallways, occasionally escorting an inmate by the arm with a rough grip.

photo-48I sat down with the police captain and the chef to start the interview–I had a bunch of questions about the day-to-day routine in the jail, how meal times work, the commissary system, etc.–but the chef got a call on her walkie-talkie and immediately got up to leave.

As we discussed the jail’s food policies, I noticed the bulletin board on the wall beside the captain’s desk. It had news clippings of strange crimes, kudos to officers, and stories about visitors getting charged for bringing in contraband. The “c” word never made it into my final article, but all three of my interviewees mentioned it–it’s actually a huge culture behind bars, not just something we see in prison dramas.

After I asked all my questions (and follow-up questions, some of which required careful wording and re-wording to try to squeeze more information out of people who are used to high confidentiality), the police captain told me he loves having students and journalists visit the jail. Correctional facilities are hidden and secretive by nature, he told me, but he enjoys having the opportunity to correct the misconceptions about what happens “on the inside.”

A few of my own misconceptions changed during my visit. I was surprised how bright and clean the jail was, since I usually think of prison as being dingy and dirty (of course, some correctional facilities are, and I didn’t get to see the condition of the bunks/recreation areas, so it could still be a reality at the Tompkins County Jail). The vibe was more relaxed than I expected, but it definitely still felt isolated and exposed.

My visit was a fascinating look into an environment we don’t usually get to see firsthand, but I can definitely say I’m satisfied with that being my first and last jail experience. 


Click here to read my magazine article, “Eating Behind Bars.” 

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22 thoughts on “First Jail Experience

    • I still don’t have the whole picture, of course, and facilities vary so much that no one ever can. But it was great to go inside and see some of it. Glad you enjoyed!

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  1. Very interesting post. When I waited tables, I worked with some guys who had been in jail & prison <- I learned that there is a big difference. They were actually decent people who made terribly dumb/horrible decisions when they were young. Anyway,they said things are much better and worse than you'd expect. They said that jail life isn't anything like on tv like; it's different (not better but different) in real life. They had funny stories, inspiring stories, scary stories, and stories they wouldn't talk about.

    I gathered jail was boring, very regimented, socially dysfunctional, and a place you never really feel safe.

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    • The main impression I’ve gotten from a bunch of recent research into jail and prison life is that mostly it’s boring and the lack of privacy is frustrating. In another interview for my magazine piece my interviewee told me a lot about prison that mirrored what we see on TV, but my interviewee at the jail said a lot of things that contradicted that usual view. It’s all very interesting indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It really is interesting. Perception can vary from jail to jail and block to block. One thing I learned from those guys is jail is NOT a place I want to be. Even though it would probably be different (not better, different) than I expected- it’s still terrible & a place I don’t want to be.

        I’m not saying I’d like a follow-up, but…

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  2. I thought that your comment that “…it felt like he didn’t trust my character, like he suspected me of having another motive for visiting” was telling. Imagine if you did know someone in jail, even a parent or sibling, as many of the young people I teach do. The environment is so dehumanizing and full of suspicion for visitors, who haven’t committed any crime. I can see how they must feel guilty-by-association whenever they visit.

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    • Oh, absolutely. I didn’t make it clear in the piece but I did have the families of the inmates on my mind for much of the time, especially in the registration and wanding process. Also, when I was in the waiting room, a middle-aged woman (likely the mother or partner of one of the inmates) came in and argued with an officer about money in the inmate’s account–I can’t remember if she was trying to add or take out money, but either way the process was very complicated and frustrating for both parties. Both the emotional and technical aspects of knowing someone who’s incarcerated are difficult.

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  3. I find it interesting to see how people can read this and come away with different perspectives. Where you wrote “…it felt like he didn’t trust my character, like he suspected me of having another motive for visiting” my thought was immediately that his primary concern is ensuring the safety of the officers and staff, the inmates, and the visitors. When you said “I looked away, suddenly ashamed of my freedom” I wondered why you would be ashamed of being a law-abiding citizen. I read “…occasionally escorting an inmate by the arm with a rough grip” and could envision a guard who had a firm hold on an inmate as a safety measure. Had said inmate previously attacked a staff member? Did he have a history of violence? I am interested in the article, and I am heading over to read that now. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece!

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    • I definitely understand the need for safety and the precautions/protocols that are in place, but seeing and experiencing them firsthand was jarring and thus those emotions overtook the logical thought behind WHY those procedures are in place. As for feeling ashamed, I felt kind of how people do when they become aware of their privileges. The difference, of course, is that most privilege is a status you’re born into, not a conscious choice. The feeling was more of feeling out of place because I knew I could leave the jail after an hour–I could choose to never think about my experience there ever again, which is a privilege. Also he wasn’t much older than I am, which is a reminder that I’m not immune to a similar experience. And I tend to think of inmates as victims of circumstance–many people who commit crimes do so because they feel they lack options–so I felt kind of naked, like “my opportunity is showing,” if that makes sense.

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  4. Yes, it absolutely makes sense. I hate to make blanket generalizations as there are always exceptions, but I do not believe that most inmates are victims of circumstance. I believe that they are reaping the consequences of their actions. The fact that you do hold that view is precisely the balance that we need. I am married to a law enforcement officer, and that allows me a different perspective. Luckily we can differ without either of us being wrong. The article was excellent, by the way!

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    • That’s true–neither are wrong, they’re just different opinions! And I think we understand the reasoning behind each opinion. Thanks so much, I’m glad you enjoyed the article!!

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    • I haven’t known anyone personally who’s been incarcerated, but I’ve read a lot about how it affects family members and it seems very difficult. The whole system is complicated. My goal was definitely to represent those emotions as honestly as possible, so I’m glad you value that!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The unfortunate reality is so many who would have received assistance from mental health institutions are now institutionalized in a setting where they are not able to access the care they need.

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        • You’re absolutely right. Between mental illness and drug-related offenses, so many people are in jail who could likely get better, more appropriate, and cheaper treatment through other methods.

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  5. Ahh, this post makes me think of Orange is the New Black. Now I want to watch the 3rd season. I have to wait until this summer. Not all jails are clean though, it depends on the location obviously. And on the show OITNB, they make it prison seem better than it is. I think prison life is worse. It’s kind of sad. It especially makes me sad when I hear about those people (like African Americans) that were put in jail because they were “guilty” and they found out like 12 years later, that they’re innocent. So all that time was wasted in jail. It’s sort of like To Kill a Mockingbird. But the professor at my school helped one of those inmates get out of jail because she found out that he was innocent.

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    • I love that show–it’s so compelling. The thing about correctional facilities is that they vary SO much based on security level, whether it’s a county jail or a federal prison, budgets, etc. so some places, I’m sure, are worse than the prison on OINTB, but other places are better or at least different. False convictions happen more often than we’d like, but guilty people also go free sometimes. That’s both the strength and the weakness of our judicial system.

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  6. Do you know if America has a better prison or judicial system than most countries? I’m just curious what the prisons are like in Germany or Japan.

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    • I think I’ve heard it’s worse, but I don’t have any actual knowledge about judicial systems or incarceration in other countries. It’d be interesting to look into though.

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