WPA 2012: Jail Time




An old view through old bars.


The first evening of Writ­ers Police Acad­e­my, I was lucky enough to draw one of the lim­it­ed spaces for the tour of Guil­ford Coun­ty Jail.  It’s a new facil­i­ty, and much need­ed.  The pre­vi­ous facil­i­ty expe­ri­enced extreme over­crowd­ing, to the tune of  two hun­dred-plus inmates who were bunk­ing on the floor.

The new jail is clean, bright, state-of-the-art, but grim.  That last sur­prised me, though I’m still not sure why.  I haven’t spent much time in pris­ons (read “any”), and what I’ve seen in the movies and on T.V. didn’t seem to touch the real­i­ty.  Hol­ly­wood builds with an eye to view­er reac­tion.  Real jails are built with an eye to security–bottom line–and you can feel the loss of options the fur­ther you go into the facil­i­ty.   It’s there for only one pur­pose: to house poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous peo­ple secure­ly.

One of the first things I learned–and again, it’s some­thing I thought I should have known–is that jails are for peo­ple await­ing tri­al or who have been sen­tenced for a short dura­tion, typ­i­cal­ly less than a year.  Pris­ons are there to hold peo­ple with longer sen­tences.  Jails are run by coun­ty sheriff’s depart­ments.  Pris­ons are run by by the Pris­ons and Cor­rec­tions office in each respec­tive state, or by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

Anoth­er thing I hadn’t con­sid­ered is the type of work the offi­cers han­dle as part of their assign­ment to the cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ty.  There are no “light duty” assign­ments, per se.  You’re pro­cess­ing peo­ple in or out, or walk­ing the lev­els, or over­see­ing the inmates dur­ing their “free” time.  It’s a full-time, on your feet, always-on-the-alert gig. The only per­son who gets to sit a desk is the offi­cer assigned to the Con­trol Room.


The Control Room

The Con­trol Room
Cour­tesy of Tri​an​gle​.News14​.com

From there, the entire jail is mon­i­tored, the ele­va­tors are con­trolled, and the cell doors can be oper­at­ed.  As you can see, the walls are made of secu­ri­ty glass.  It’s a fish­bowl in there.


Cell Row
Cour­tesy of Tri​an​gle​.News14​.com


The pop­u­la­tion isn’t housed accord­ing to what they’ve been charged with.  They’re housed based on behav­ior or need.  So the can­dy bar thieves are cheek to jowl with the child pornog­ra­phers and the mur­der­ers.  Four to a room.  All just wait­ing for their court date, or their sen­tenc­ing date, or for the case to be dropped, or to be trans­ferred to a prison.

It’s clean.  Spot­less, actu­al­ly.  It needs to be.  With an enclosed pop­u­la­tion, dis­ease spread­ing would be a dis­as­ter.  For all of the off-white paint and bright over­head lights, it’s bleak.  The sense of wait­ing is pal­pa­ble.   It’s full of the pass­ing of time.  Time weighs heavy, press­es against the walls.  It’s an accu­mu­la­tion you can feel, and not only because of the pris­on­ers gath­ered in the com­mon room, or pressed up against their cell doors watch­ing through nar­row win­dows, but it’s also car­ried in by the fam­i­lies and friends in the lob­by, wait­ing for their 15 min­utes of glass-par­ti­tioned vis­it­ing time.

Sher­iff BJ Barnes gra­cious­ly allowed us to tour the facil­i­ty as part of WPA, and I’m grate­ful he allowed us to dis­rupt his exceed­ing­ly pro­fes­sion­al staff for an hour.  As a writer of crime fic­tion, it was a invalu­able expe­ri­ence to see the offi­cers work­ing on the var­i­ous lev­els, learn­ing the intake process, hear­ing an inmate hoot and holler and bang clois­tered behind one of the “inci­dent room” doors, and see­ing how direct con­tact super­vi­sion worked in real­i­ty.  As a cit­i­zen, it was even more valu­able to learn the real­i­ties of cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties.  It’s not some­thing we, as a gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, know any­thing about … out­side of fic­tion.

I will admit to being glad when we left, relieved to step out­side into the fresh, soft North Car­oli­na night.  It felt good to look up and see some­thing oth­er than stark white ceil­ings, to smell the dense green veg­e­ta­tion and not the faint-but-lay­ered aro­ma of old gym socks, bod­ies and dis­in­fec­tant.

The out­side is a good place to be.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kath Patti Phillips
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 15:35:46

    Ter­rif­ic post, Kather­ine. Yes, out­side is a good place to be.


  2. Kath Susan
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 23:52:38

    Thanks for post­ing this. I’ve just read about these types of cit­i­zens police acad­e­mies that folk who write and oth­ers, can go to. Will read posts with inter­est!


  3. Kath B.K. Stevens
    Oct 04, 2012 @ 08:11:36

    Very inter­est­ing post, Kather­ine. I learned a lot–your well-cho­sen words gave me a vivid sense of the place.


  4. Kath JL Gate
    Oct 04, 2012 @ 11:46:15

    Did they show you where attor­neys can inter­view clients? That can be an eye-open­er as well, espe­cial­ly in an old­er prison where space is at a pre­mi­um.

    Good post, and good reminder to appre­ci­ate a life out­side the sys­tem.


  5. Kath Maris
    Oct 05, 2012 @ 06:33:53

    Thanks, Kather­ine. I wasn’t lucky enough to have my name drawn for the tour, but you did a great job of describ­ing not only what it looked like, but also your reac­tion.


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