03 Oct 2012 5 Comments
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.
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.
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.