By Sally Carpenter
This post first appeared some time ago on Writers Who Kill. The information is good for any writer who sets a story inside a modern jail. The picture of jails as long rows of cells with men clanging cups against iron bars just isn’t true nowadays. This description is from the 1980s but I’m sure it’s still relevant. Jails are moving away from “cells” to “pods.” Read on
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 racing 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 the 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 www.justofdupage.org.