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Inside: Life Behind Bars in America
In 1982 I graduated from Shorecrest High School in Seattle. I was a teenager who was driven by such status symbols as Calvin Klein jeans and Armani sweaters--part of the in crowd, but only a mediocre student. I didn't concern myself much with academics.
Like most of my friends, I had parents who were business owners. As a spoiled adolescent, neither advancing my education nor developing a social conscience held much interest for me. For the first three years out of high school, I followed the script and worked for my father. Then, at twenty-one, tired of responsibility and lured by excitement, I joined with like-minded friends in a scheme to enrich us all through cocaine distribution.
Because everyone involved was of similar age and opinion, we did not listen to those wanting to steer us clear of the folly we were about to embark upon; I failed to grasp the seriousness of my criminal wrongdoing. As idiotic and shortsighted as it sounds, neither my friends nor I then considered that our actions could actually lead us into the vise grip of the criminal justice machine. We knew that distributing cocaine was against the law, but our self-indulged minds could not bring us to accept that we were criminals.
The subject of jail or prison was not one that my friends or I identified with or thought about. It was a matter that may have concerned others, but not me. I did not even understand the difference between the two categories of confinement. Then, in 1987, five years after high school, I was arrested. Trapped.
As much as they would have liked to help, my parents had no influence to absolve me from the troubles I had created, or from the shame I had brought our family. I have been incarcerated ever since that arrest, and now, in my early forties, I know very well that there is a difference between jails and prisons. Although society uses both as a response to crime, I now know firsthand that each serves a different purpose in confining people.
The popular media and perhaps my imagination shaped my perceptions of incarceration prior to my arrest. Like many Americans, I suffered from the misconception that all people who serve time live in barren cells and have little freedom of movement. I pictured long corridors of concrete and steel, and men confined to three-walled cells separated from the hallway by evenly spaced steel bars. I assumed that guards locked prisoners in their cells for the duration of their terms, that the men slept on steel racks bolted to concrete walls. Guards, I presumed, were always close by to observe and direct those who were serving time.
In those days I had no idea that living experiences could vary so dramatically from one place of confinement to the next. In one jail, a man may sleep soundly and without worry for his safety. Then, without warning, guards may transfer him to another. The new spot may require the prisoner to remain alert to the constant threat and inescapable presence of predators, sexual and otherwise. He must know not only how to live among violent men who have no hope for a better life, whose concepts of self are rooted in their ability to instill fear in others, but also how to strip naked and share shower space with them.
As I moved deeper into my lengthy journey through the criminal justice system, I learned to live in jails of every kind. And although I am of average height and build, I have learned to live and grow in prisons of every security level without once having had to use a weapon, to spill or draw blood. Others have not been so blessed.
After the arrest at my residence on Key Biscayne, marshals transported me to stand trial in Seattle. It is the city in which I was reared and where I faced a criminal indictment exposing me to the possibility of life imprisonment. With such serious criminal charges, the judge declined to issue me the possibility of bailing out of jail by posting a bond. Because I was a cocaine trafficker, the government rightfully had reason to consider me a flight risk.
Being transported cross-country as a prisoner is a horribly dehumanizing experience, but it is one that I have come to know well over the decades I have served. The United States Marshal Service accepts the responsibility of transporting prisoners across state lines. To ensure security, they lock each prisoner's ankles in manacles that make walking difficult. Then the marshals wrap a heavy steel chain, the kind that children use to secure their bicycles, around each prisoner's waist. Following that, the marshals lock wrists into handcuffs that weave through the waist chain. These security measures effectively restrict the movement of legs, arms, and hands.
Over the years, I've spent much time chained up for transport, but it was never more difficult than on that first road trip on my way to Seattle. I hadn't yet grown used to my new status as a federal prisoner. The worst part, for me, was neither the chains nor the crippling restrictions on my movement. It was fighting the demons tormenting my mind about what my future held, that and having to live in the constant company of other prisoners, other people in chains whose history I didn't know and whose behavior I could not predict.
We traveled on buses and airplanes authorities reserve for prisoners. Traveling days begin around three in the morning, when a guard comes by the room and unlocks the door. The politically correct term for guard is "correctional officer," but at that time I had not seen any "correcting" taking place. The guard uses his flashlight to wake the prisoners for transport. If the prisoner doesn't respond to the beam of light in his eyes, then the guard may whack the steel rack of the bed with his heavy flashlight, or use his steel-toed boot to kick it. Prisoners are simply cogs in the machine, and guards have the responsibility to keep that machine moving on schedule.
Progressing through each phase of the criminal justice process is very impersonal. During the transport, guards herd hundreds of prisoners together. Other than the fact that each of the prisoners in custody has at least been charged with breaking the law, neither the guards nor the marshals know much about the people they transport. The very nature of their job requires the officers to treat all prisoners as inanimate objects rather than fellow human beings. Their primary concern is security.
The officers do not know who among the prisoners are dangerous terrorists and who are being transported to face charges of failing to report a portion of their income on a tax form. Accordingly, the people wearing law-enforcement uniforms, with their heavy leather belts on which they attach an arsenal of handcuffs, flashlights, canisters of Mace, and other weapons, regard all prisoners as a threat. The job may not be anything personal to the officers, but for the incoming prisoner, the process is intensely invasive and dehumanizing. Perhaps that is the point.
My trip to Seattle from Miami took about a week. We had to stop in several cities along the way to load and unload scores of prisoners. When I finally arrived in Seattle, the marshals locked me into a small county jail as a pretrial inmate. The federal government did not then have its own holding facility in the region. Marshals confined people being held without bail for charges in federal court, like me, in one of many surrounding city or county jails. The marshals initially elected to place me in the city jail of Kent, Washington.
Kent is a suburb southeast of Seattle. When I was confined there in 1987, its jail was relatively new. With a capacity for perhaps two hundred people, it is tiny compared with other places where I have been held, and it is as clean as a well-run medical clinic. I was there only during the initial months of my confinement. After it became clear to prosecutors that I was not going to plead guilty or participate in the prosecution of others, the kid gloves came off and they transferred me into the mayhem of large county jails, which I will describe later. Looking back, I now suspect that the relatively tranquil Kent City Jail was an inducement to cooperate, but I did not recognize it at that time.
The facility itself is designed in the shape of a geometric doughnut, more like an octagon than round. The perimeter sides of the gray concrete-block building contain either small living units for the prisoners, or administrative and support offices. The living units themselves hold fewer than thirty single-man rooms, and a dayroom with tables where prisoners take meals or play cards and board games when they are authorized to be outside of their rooms.
Guards are not stationed in the living units themselves. Each area of the jail is equipped with a sophisticated electronic surveillance system that allows a centrally located staff member in the control center to monitor the goings-on throughout the entire facility. Further, the walls separating the living units from the building's interior corridors have large windows. Staff members make continuous rounds walking the corridor, relying upon each other to patrol the living units. The center of the building holds an open-sky courtyard, a concrete recreation square enclosed by the jail's interior walls. The ceiling of the courtyard is of steel mesh, designed to discourage escape attempts. Through it prisoners catch rare glimpses of blue and, much more often in the Pacific Northwest, the ubiquitous clouds above. The courtyard provides the only opportunity a prisoner in Kent has to breathe fresh air. I spent as much time as I was allowed walking in loops around that confined space.
The city built that small facility to confine prisoners for relatively brief periods. Most of the men the jail confines await release on bail, serve sentences of less than a year, or are prisoners in a holdover status as they conclude legal proceedings and await release or transfer to a more permanent facility, like state or federal prison. At any given time, the jail confines its share of prisoners who serve sentences of a few weeks or months for offenses like domestic violence, driving while intoxicated, disorderly behavior, and so forth. Other prisoners, however, expect to serve several months in the jail, and perhaps several years or decades in a prison after that.
Administrators in the Kent jail use a carefully designed series of incentives to induce good behavior and compliance with jail policies. The physical structure of the jail itself seems designed to enhance the staff's ability to manage the population in this way. After prisoners are fingerprinted and processed into the Kent City Jail, guards ordinarily issue them a jail jumpsuit and a sleeping mat. Then the guards assign the men to an area of the dayroom's floor in Living Unit C. Unit C is not the lowest of the graduated living units, as guards lock recalcitrant, troublesome prisoners in isolation cells. The dayroom floor of Unit C, however, is the first step for incoming prisoners at the Kent City Jail and represents the bottom rung on the jail's graduated living standard.
Through the surveillance equipment, staff members can monitor not only telephone conversations, but conversations inside the living units as well. On a weekend, when city officers make more frequent arrests requiring jail time, the dayroom of Unit C, designed to hold thirty people, might become home to an additional fifteen people sleeping on the floor. Guards do not allow profanity. They do not allow smoking. Nor do guards allow rudeness or talking in loud voices. Some prisoners refuse to embrace the control of such rigid rules and do not advance their living situations through compliance. But for those prisoners who do comply with the Kent City Jail's strict code of conduct, graduation from assignment on the floor of the dayroom to one of the single-man rooms in the initial housing unit is a sweet reward.
Other than providing a semblance of privacy, the rooms in the initial housing unit are not special. Each has a steel rack for a sleeping mat, and a steel desktop with a steel stool. Each room is equipped with a stainless-steel toilet bowl. The steel sink is attached to the toilet. Rather than faucet handles, the sink has push buttons to regulate the flow of water. The walls and floors are of bare concrete, and each room has a nonopening window that is too narrow for a human body to pass through. Despite the spartan nature of the room, most prisoners try to behave without incident in order to get out of the dayroom and into a much more comfortable single cell.
Staff members hold daily inspections of the living quarters. Those inmates found to be unsanitary or in breach of some other jail regulation are demoted to a lower housing status. Some men move back to the dayroom floor from the single-man room, while guards transfer those found guilty of more serious rule violations to segregation. Segregation, also known as "the hole," means the prisoner remains locked in his closet-sized cell for twenty-three hours a day; he also lives with additional restrictions. The prisoners who comply with the rules of the jail for a sustained period of time, on the other hand, earn privileges and advance to better living accommodations. A measure of hope is thus available.
Whereas prisoners in Unit C live in a transientlike atmosphere, with new bodies appearing each morning, sprawled on sleeping mats across the dayroom's concrete floor, those prisoners who graduate to Unit B live in a more relaxed atmosphere. In Unit B, each prisoner has demonstrated his willingness to comply with the jail's rules while assigned to Unit C.
In the higher-ranked unit, there are no transients sleeping on the floor. With carpeting on the common floors, and oak doors rather than steel, Unit B is much quieter. The single-man rooms in Unit B have oak bed frames with springs and mattresses rather than steel racks and mats. They have porcelain bathroom appliances with faucets instead of stainless-steel fixtures with buttons. And square tiles rather than unfinished concrete cover the Unit B room floors. What is more, guards grant those assigned to Unit B more out-of-cell time than the prisoners assigned to Unit C. They may use those extra hours of free time to talk on the telephone, play table games with others, watch television, or sign up for recreation in the courtyard. Each evening, the prisoners in Unit B receive an extra snack.
Those prisoners who remain in the Kent City Jail long enough, and who maintain a record free of any disciplinary infractions, graduate to Unit A, which is reserved for jail trustees. The trustee unit resembles the softer Unit B in appearance, but trustees hold their own key to the wooden doors separating their cell from the open area of the living unit, and the only time guards require them to remain locked in their rooms is at night. The cell is more like a bedroom. In addition, each room has the special advantage of a small television equipped with cable access that the prisoner is free to watch while lying in bed.
Those prisoners whose behavior merits advancement to the trustee unit earn their privileges not only through rule compliance, but also through work they perform in the jail itself. They sweep, mop, wax, and buff the ceramic tile floors to a high gloss. Trustees cook the meals and deliver them, under staff supervision, to each living unit. Trustees clean the windows and maintain the jail's grounds. Some work as clerks, helping jail officers to manage inventory and order supplies. Recognizing that the promise of rewards is better at shaping behavior than the threat of punishments, administrators encourage the prisoners to abide by the rules and defer to the policies of the Kent City Jail in exchange for potential privileges.
I served my time relatively easily during those months when I was held in Kent. I never saw a single fight, never saw an effort by prisoners to subvert staff authority. There were no weapons, no gangs, no rapes or escapes. All the prisoners were eager to take advantage of the incentives offered, to move into better conditions. It is clear to the prisoners of Kent that jailers cannot influence release dates, but through their use of incentives, the jailers have the power to determine each prisoner's living accommodations. And more important, by behaving well, so do the prisoners themselves.
I minded my behavior and graduated from the entry unit to the intermediary housing unit. Finally, I moved into the trustee unit. The space gave me room to think, to contemplate what I would do with the many years I would have to serve if a jury were to return a guilty verdict. Since the court would not consider releasing me on bond, I would have liked to remain in Kent during my entire pretrial period. Though I knew how I could improve my living situation through good behavior while in the Kent City Jail, I had no tools with which to influence the nameless, faceless prison administrators who would soon decide to send me to another institution to await trial. Before I turned twenty-four, marshals transferred me into the madness of a large county jail, exposing me to new and different experiences of confinement.
Hard-liners may disapprove of jailers or corrections officers providing an opportunity of any kind to people who have been charged with wrongdoing. The idea of allowing inmates to earn their way into taxpayer-funded cells with televisions may be a bit hard for them to swallow. Such people cling to concepts of vengeance, and thirst for a more punitive criminal justice system, expecting those in confinement to suffer through every stage of the process. America has the world's highest incarceration rate, accompanied by the world's highest recidivism rate, suggesting that such hard-line stances may make for bad public policy, and an ill-advised drain on the public purse.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael G. Santos. All rights reserved.
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