Saturday, April 13, 2013

Inside the Modern Jail

Today's guest blogger is Sally Carpenter who takes us inside a place most of us --well, actually I can't speak for you, I'll only speak for myself--a place I have no desire to spend very much time: jail.

~ Jim

If you write crime novels, you might set a scene inside a jail. Do you know what a modern jail looks like or how it functions?

Jails are intended for short-term housing of up to one year only. Prisons are constructed for long-term housing of many years so they are larger and have more amenities. Juveniles are housed in other facilities designed for that population.

For about eight months in the mid 1990s while I was finishing my seminary studies, I was the jail chaplain intern at the DuPage County Jail in Wheaton, Ill. At the time the jail had just finished constructing new cells with better security that allowed women civilians on the floors.

The new cells were in a tower. The basement level housed the solitary confinement cells and the upper floors had the male general population (I’ll discuss the female inmates later). The top floor was for illegal immigrants.

Security cameras monitored the hallways and the elevators. A person approaching the elevator had to wait for the deputy watching on the camera to open the door by remote control.

On each floor the cells were arranged in “pods,” now the industry standard for new jails. A few years ago I visited the Ventura County (Calif.) Main Jail as part of a Citizens’ Academy program and that facility also used “pods.” This format provides deputies greater visibility and control over the inmates.

The center of the pod was the control room encased in bulletproof glass. A deputy sat inside and watched the inmates at all times. While on duty deputies were not allowed to do anything that would distract them such as reading or watching TV (nowadays I assume that prohibition includes texting and using a cellphone).

The cells, also made of glass, were in a row facing the pod center. Each cell had a bed, sink, toilet and shower for one man. The inmates used the toilet in full view and the small shower doors provided only a minimal amount of privacy. The deputy could see every action of each inmate. A speaker system allowed the deputy to listen in as well.

Inside the pod center was a panel where the deputy could open and close the cell doors. The deputy controlled access at all times. If a fight broke out, the deputy inside the control room would remain safe as he or she summoned help.

The cells opened into a recreation room that housed a TV high on the wall as well as tables and benches that were permanently bolted to the floor. During the daytime inmates, who were not confined to their cells, could go into the rec room if they choose. The deputy watched the activity inside this room as well. At night all inmates were “locked” inside their individual cells.

The only “windows” were small glassed-in slits just under the ceilings that let in a tiny amount of sunlight. The inmates couldn’t see anything outside the building.

A glass-walled meeting room, with a table and benches, was attached to the rec room. Again, the deputy controlled access to and from this room. Once a week I came to the room to lead a Bible study for the inmates. The deputy could see inside this room although I never had any trouble from the inmates. Some inmates came to the group just to break their daily monotony but most were genuinely interested in bettering themselves.

The inmates never left the floor except to go to court or as a group to the gym (the men lined up and moved through the hallway in a line with several deputies escorting them).

Meals were prepared in the kitchen, placed in individual covered trays, and then delivered to the floors on a wheeled cart. The inmates ate in the rec room or their cells. After eating, the dishes were collected and returned to the kitchen for washing.

Inmates called trustees did meal preparation and cleaning. Doing trustee work gave the men points to reduce their sentences. Many of the trustees enjoyed the job as they could get out of their cells, move around, and perform a useful task.

The deputies did not carry weapons. My supervisor suggested that I not carry my purse into the jail, so I locked my handbag in the trunk of my car. I was also told to never bring anything from the outside to give to an inmate, and never take anything from them.

A deputy told me that most of the men were in jail for one of two reasons: drugs or lack of education. The jail had a small library where the inmates could not only do legal research but also work on GED classes.

The female population was far smaller and was housed on two floors in the older section of the jail that did not have “pods.” These were the traditional-type dorm cells with bunk beds. The cell doors had steel bars, not glass. The interesting thing about the women is that they complained about their living conditions far more than the men did.

One thing I learned from this experience is how much we take our freedoms and privacy for granted. At the end of the workday I could leave the jail and drive home. The inmates didn’t have that luxury.

The chaplain program was run by the nonprofit organization JUST (justice, understanding, service, teaching) of DuPage that provided free Bibles and Qur’ans for inmates as well as worship services and educational programs. For more information, visit:
Sally Carpenter is native Hoosier now living in Moorpark, California. She has a master’s degree in theater from Indiana State University. While in school her plays “Star Collector” and “Common Ground” were finalists in the American College Theater Festival One-Act Playwrighting Competition. “Common Ground” also earned a college creative writing award. “Star Collector” was produced in New York City and also the inspiration for her book.

Carpenter also has a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do. She’s worked a variety of jobs including actress, freelance writer, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for a major movie studio. She’s now employed at a community newspaper.

Her first book in the Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol mystery series, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” was a 2012 Eureka! Award finalist for best first mystery novel. The second book, “The Sinister Sitcom Caper,” is due out in late 2013. Her short story, “Dark Nights at the Deluxe Drive-in,” will be published in the 2013 SinC/LA anthology, “Last Exit to Murder.”

She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter and “mom” to two black cats. Contact her at Facebook or


  1. I like your description! I know that there are many people in corrections who think the pod system is one of the worst developments in jail construction for the psychological well being of inmates (and staff), and in many places it is not used because of the ill effects.

    There's a real reason why one of the prominent lines in Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison is "I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when." And why "Prison pallor" is a common term.

    I worked part-time in a county lockup constructed on the pod system. Once I got to know the inmates I was working with, the first thing they asked when they saw me was, "What's the weather like out there?"

    One of my most harrowing experiences was when I was delivering legal reference material to an inmate on disciplinary segregation in a prison, and I was caught in the background during a cell extraction of another inmate at the other end of the tier. They didn't have time to let me get off the cellblock. Of course I had seen the training videos and knew in general what would happen, and I had enough sense (and training) to back into a corner and just stay out of the way, but it was scary.

  2. I suspect I could learn to accommodate the extreme structure of jails, but the lack of privacy would surely get to me.

    The lack of natural sunlight would likely drive me to depression (of getting caught or being falsely charged hadn't already driven me there!)

    ~ Jim

  3. Do you remember what the visitor areas looked like? The correctional facility where my suspects is parked has something called Visiting Booths where the suspect can see professionals about his case. I haven't been able to get any information on these booths to write the scene. Ideas?

  4. I'm sure Sally has some answers, but if I can help,too,I'd be happy to. I've worked in a number of correctional facilities (and visited more) so while I certainly not familiar with all situations, I can describe some.

    First a few questions: prison or county lockup? Has the inmate been convicted of a crime, either this one or another, or is this completely pre-conviction? How many inmates (a few or thousands)? What area of the country (most of my experience in East Coast US, and I really don't know much about other countries, but I have been in a few facilities further west) Specific security level or all levels? This is a non-contact visit situation; is that the norm for this facility, or are some inmates permitted contact visits? All male, all female or both? Are only the professional visits held in the booths, and personal visits contact? What kind of professional visitors? Lawyers (esp. defense attorneys) will be given much more leeway than, say, ministers or accountants or special education teachers. Medical (including psychiatric)visits are usually in the institution's medical facility, although for some specialized treatment, an inmate will be transported to a medical facility.

    If this would get too lengthy for this forum but you'd like to discuss it further, let me know & we can exchange private e-mails if you'd like.

  5. Thanks for the information. I once attended a seminar held in a prison. The door shutting was a lonely sound.

  6. Interesting blog. Once I took my Cub Scout troop to a county jail, and another time the two third grades in my school went on a field trip to a different county jail, but neither was anything what you described. A good friend of mine had a son, who got hooked on drugs and ended up in a prison in S.C. She took me with her one Sunday when we when to visit. It was a little intimidating to go through all the different check points and doors that were locked behind us before we met him in a large communal room for lunch. Obviously, he wasn't in a maximum security area of the prison.

  7. I see I have a lot more information to find out, KM. Thanks for pointing me in the right directions by letting me know what questions to ask.

  8. Regarding visitor booths, I'm not sure since as a chaplain I didn't use the booths. I met with the inmate in a closed room (no survelliance camera or windows, so I really had the trust the inmate! No problems though). One time I talked with an inmate in a booth where I used a telephone and looked at the man through a glass window. I don't know why the deputies had me talk to the inmate that way--maybe he was deemed too dangerous to be with me alone.

    Regarding the lack of sunshine and privacy, perahps for some inmates that was a wake-up call for them to take a different path so they didn't end up in the jail again. As the saying goes, "don't do the crime if you can't do the crime."

    However, the deputies told me of some criminals who would commit a petty crime in late fall so they could spend the cold winter inside the warm jail and not pay heat or housing costs. Go figure!

  9. In my capacity as a handwriting expert I visited the Chowchilla Women's Prison with some attorneys to depose a prisoner who had been convicted of embezzlement. Our meeting took place in the cafeteria.

    We passed several signs warning visitors not to touch prisoners or give them money, but we had to pay for the prisoner's lunch because the deposition made her unavailable for her regular scheduled lunch.

    One of the (several) creepy parts was having a full body x-ray (like they do now in airports!), then having to go through an outside corridor that connected the guardhouse to the grounds--rolls of barbed wire along the tops of the chain link fence, knowing I was now stuck until someone said I could leave.

  10. I'm a retired probation officer. I spent thousands of hours inside San Francisco jails during my long career. I also visited jails in neighboring counties and San Quentin and Vacaville prisons. Each jail has it's own procedures.If writing about the jails, I'd rcommend contacting the Sheriff Dept. or whoever is in charge, and see if you can ask specific questions.

  11. Thanks for the glimpse inside a place I, along with Jim, have no desire to be. BUT, we do have to write about them occasionally. The comments were enlightening, too. Great post!