Opinion | Two Decades of Prison Did Not Prepare Me for the Horrors of County Jail (2023)


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Opinion | Two Decades of Prison Did Not Prepare Me for the Horrors of County Jail (1)
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By Christopher Blackwell

Mr. Blackwell is an incarcerated writer.

When I was 22 years old, I committed robbery and murder. I pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 years, of which I have so far served two decades. During that time, I’ve experienced the squalor and dangerous conditions of various state prisons. I’ve lived in a crumbling penitentiary built in the 1800s. I’ve been put in isolation for weeks on end because of Covid exposure and infection. Still, I was not prepared for what I found when I was transferred to a county jail for two weeks last December.

Along with people serving short sentences for relatively minor offenses, jails house people who are awaiting trial and either didn’t get bail or simply couldn’t pay it — people, that is, who have not been convicted of any crime.

Despite that fact, conditions in these facilities are often worse, and sometimes much worse, than those in the prisons where people who are convicted of the worst crimes are confined. Jails throw people together in overcrowded units that may be controlled by the most violent people in the room. Like prisons, jails house a disproportionate number of people experiencing addiction or chronic health conditions but jails lack the resources to treat them and adequate staffing overall. Udi Ofer, a professor at Princeton University who focuses on policing and criminal justice reform, told me that jails “regularly rely on even harsher conditions of confinement” than prisons do.

As a prison writer, journalist and criminal justice activist, I try to communicate to anyone who will listen that the vast majority of incarcerated people will eventually return to their communities. The trauma they suffer on the inside comes with them. Just as a very short time in solitary confinement can cause lasting harm, weeks or months in county jail can have a huge negative impact on people’s lives, even after they are released. What happens in jails doesn’t stay in jails.

Ethan Frenchman, a lawyer in Washington who advocates on behalf of people with disabilities in jails, told me that while the nation’s roughly 1,500 state prisons are operated or overseen by 50 states, the 3,000 or so jails “are operated by who knows how many hundreds or thousands of different jurisdictions,” making it extremely hard to get reliable information about what goes on there, or to enforce any kind of accountability.

One data point is unmistakable: suicide rates. Suicides are the leading cause of death in jails, where they occur at a much higher rate than in prisons. Big city jails, like the complex on Rikers Island, are infamous for violence, neglect and overcrowding, but they are not outliers. In fact, research by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that suicide rates in the nation’s smallest jails were more than six times as high as those in the largest.

During my recent trip to Pierce County Jail in Tacoma, Wash., where I was sent to await a resentencing hearing that was ultimately delayed, I shared a cell with William Starkovich, a 35-year-old who had never been incarcerated before. He is awaiting trial in Pierce County Jail after an altercation with his siblings over rent money ended in two charges of assault in the first degree.

Mr. Starkovich, who gave me permission to tell his story, has received diagnoses of A.D.H.D., manic depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Since his mental illness can affect his ability to maintain his physical hygiene, he is often a target of ridicule and aggression from other prisoners. He has been assaulted by other prisoners and guards alike. Mr. Starkovich told me that guards insisted on transferring him into an open dorm living unit where he didn’t feel safe. When he would not step into the unit, a “code blue” was called, meaning that a prisoner was defying an order. An officer wrestled Mr. Starkovich to the ground, used a Taser on him and handcuffed him.

Reports from jails across the country, from Rikers in New York to Santa Clara County’s Main Jail complex, in San Jose, Calif., have shown that mentally ill people are frequently mistreated. Families have filed lawsuits alleging that corrections officers have severely beaten mentally ill people, or let them starve or freeze to death. A 2014 internal investigation at Rikers found that almost 80 percent of the more than 100 prisoners who sustained serious injuries during altercations with corrections officers in 11 months were mentally ill.

Conditions in county jails are bad not just for people suffering from mental illnesses. Prisoners there are often given so little food that they are hungry all the time and must buy more in the commissary. My meals in prison consist of larger portions and far more fruits and vegetables than my meals in jail. To my surprise, I even found myself missing the flavors and variety of prison food. A prisoner in Maine summed up a typical meal in a county jail well when he asked a reporter to “consider eating ground-up gym mat with a little bit of seasoning.” But jail commissaries are so expensive that many people who can’t afford bail also can’t afford anything sold in them. In jail, I saw people beat each other up over commissary food.

Twenty-four packets of Top Ramen noodles that cost $6 on Amazon and just under $8 in my Washington State prison cost $26.40 in the Pierce County Jail’s commissary while I was incarcerated there. A small bag of freeze-dried coffee that costs $3.34 in state prison costs almost $13 in the county jail.

Phone calls to our loved ones, which cost just over a dollar for 20 minutes at a Washington State prison, cost nearly $4 from the county jail. An investigation by the Prison Policy Initiative found that in 20 states, phone calls from jails were at least three times as expensive as calls from state prisons. The calls I made from state prison and the county jail are managed by the same company, Securus Technologies, and I see no legitimate reason they should be three times as expensive at one facility.

And not only the day-to-day living conditions are hard. In state and federal prisons across the country, people have access to positive programming to help them better themselves, educate themselves and take responsibility for the crimes they’ve committed. I’ve worked for years in prison to earn an associate degree from Seattle Central College, and I am five classes shy of a bachelor’s degree in English and sociology. I have also co-founded a nonprofit, received training in restorative justice practices and worked as a restorative justice facilitator.

None of that changes the fact that I took another person’s life. I will live with profound regret about that for the rest of mine. However, one day I will return home. Thanks to the positive programs I have been able to participate in, the person who walks out of the prison gates will bear little resemblance to the person who entered them. Many people in prisons are trying to better themselves. For the most part, people in jail are just trying to survive.

We have to care about what’s happening in county jails if we are to make our communities safer. Eliminating cash bail, which puts people behind bars simply because they don’t have enough cash on hand, would drastically reduce the number of people in county jails. It would also make jails more humane environments for those who need to be detained for legitimate public safety concerns while they work their way through the court system. And research in states and cities across the country has found that eliminating or curtailing the use of cash bail does not have a negative effect on public safety.

Price restrictions that keep private companies from gouging prisoners and their loved ones could help those incarcerated in county jails get the food they need without resorting to violence. With positive changes, people confined in county jails could come out of their stays better equipped to thrive in their communities.

I may be in prison for decades to come, but Mr. Starkovich, like many men I met in county jail, could be released in the coming weeks. He will carry the memory of hunger, violence and fear with him.

Jamie Beth Cohen contributed reporting.

Christopher Blackwell (@chriswblackwell) is an incarcerated writer and a co-founder of the nonprofit Look 2 Justice. He is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents and a contributing editor at The Appeal.

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What is the most brutal prison in the world? ›

ADX Florence, USA

ADX Supermax Florence is thought to be the most secure prison in the world and houses the most dangerous inmates in the U.S. prison system including terrorists, gang leaders and neo-Nazis. Currently the prison houses 322 inmates - the majority of whom are kept in solitary confinement.

Do current US prison conditions need to be improved? ›

Improved prison management and prison conditions are fundamental to developing a sustainable health strategy in prisons. In addition, prison health is an integral part of public health, and improving prison health is crucial for the success of public health policies.

Why prison overcrowding is a problem? ›

The excessive use of pre-trial detention, and the use of prison for minor, petty offences, are critical drivers of prison population rates. Overcrowding, as well as related problems such as lack of privacy, can also cause or exacerbate mental health problems, and increase rates of violence, self-harm and suicide.

What are prison conditions like? ›

Brutal living conditions for the largest prison population in the world. Today, nearly 2 million people are incarcerated, warehoused in cramped spaces that lack fresh air, healthy food, natural light, proper health care, and connection to loved ones. Prisons run with little to no public oversight, leading to abuse.

What is the hardest prison in the United States? ›

The United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (USP Florence ADMAX), commonly known as ADX Florence, is an American federal prison in Fremont County near Florence, Colorado. It is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the United States Department of Justice.

What is the number one worst prison in the United States? ›

There was never a question which prison was going to take our top spot; ADX Florence is by far the most notorious and dangerous prison in America. Colorado's United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility is home to the worst of the worst and the most deranged of the insane.

How can we fix the US prison system? ›

  1. On the front end, by reducing the number of people who needlessly enter prison in the first place;
  2. On the back end, by shrinking the existing prison population by allowing prisoners who have proven they are ready to re-enter society the opportunity to transition out of confinement; and.

What is the biggest problem in corrections today? ›

Recruitment. Difficulties in retention and recruitment contribute to an oft-cited problem in the world of corrections: issues with staffing levels.

What country has the best prison system? ›

The most profound benefit: Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. Only 20% of Norway's formerly incarcerated population commit another crime within two years of release. Even after five years, the recidivism rate is only 25%.

How does prison affect mental health? ›

Quite often, mental health issues and substance abuse issues occur alongside one another. Many other incarcerated individuals may experience depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or PTSD. 5 For some, these issues may be pre-existing conditions. For others, the issues may have started after their incarcerations.

What is the most common mental illness in prisons? ›

The prevalence of mental disorders within the prison population is high; depression, anxiety, substance use and psychotic disorders predominate.

What makes prison worse than jail? ›

Some jails even offer educational, substance abuse, and vocational programs which can keep the inmates occupied, making them less likely to cause problems. However, with that said, jails are normally not as comfortable as a prison, as prisons are meant to accommodate people for a longer period of time.

Why prisons don't work? ›

Taking some people who commit the crime out of society—incapacitation—can reduce some crime in the short-term. But the time spent in prison also increases the likelihood of a person committing more crime after prison, and has devastating effects on incarcerated people, their families, and communities.

What is good prison behavior? ›

Good conduct time, good time credit, good time, or time off for good behavior is a sentence reduction given to prisoners who maintain good behavior while imprisoned. Good time can be forfeited if a prisoner is determined to have committed disciplinary infractions and/or crimes while incarcerated.

What is the most comfortable prison in America? ›

FPC Pensacola, a minimum-security facility in Pensacola, Florida, has been labeled as one of the “cushiest” in America.

What is the easiest prison in the US? ›

FCI Coleman Low is in Sumterville, Florida. It makes our list of best federal prisons because it is known as a safe and easy place to do time. Inmate housing consists of dormitories divided into two- and three-person pods.

What is the safest prison in us? ›

The most secure federal prison in the United States is the Administrative-maximum security prison (ADX) at the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado. Prisoners confined in that institution have very little contact with others.

Where do inmates hide cell phones? ›

The safest place for an inmate to store anything is in his rectum, and to keep the orifice supple and sized for the (contraband) phone, inmates have been known to whittle their bars of soap and tuck them away as a placeholder while their phones are in use.

Who is the deadliest prisoner? ›

Thomas Silverstein
Thomas Edward Silverstein
BornThomas Edward ConwayFebruary 4, 1952 Long Beach, California, U.S.
DiedMay 11, 2019 (aged 67) Lakewood, Colorado, U.S.
Other namesTerrible Tom, Tommy
Known forFormer leader of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang
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What is a day in jail like? ›

In most jails, inmates follow a routine during the day. This may include getting up early, eating breakfast, and spending the day in their cells. In some cases, inmates may be allowed to go to the library or recreation yard. However, these activities are often limited because jails are often overcrowded.

How does prison change a person? ›

Incarceration can lead to significant psychological difficulties. However, individuals react in their own way to the prison environment. Some inmates may turn inward and even become more or less paranoid, while others may become depressed. Still others will adopt what is called a "prison identity".

How do you adjust to life in prison? ›

Seven Ways to Help Your Loved One Adjust to Life After Prison
  4. MANAGE ANGER. ...

Who controls the US prison system? ›

The Bureau of Prisons manages federal prisons, and community-based facilities that provide work and opportunities to assist offenders.

What issues do inmates face? ›

Some of the most common mental health conditions faced by recently released prisoners include: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Post-incarceration syndrome. Substance abuse.

Why is the US incarceration rate so high? ›

The reasons cited above for increased incarcerations (US racial demographics, Increased sentencing laws, and Drug sentencing laws) have been described as consequences of the shift in editorial policies of the mainstream media.

Why are state prisons worse than federal? ›

There are more state prisons than federal prisons. Federal prisons tend to have higher security than state ones. Prisoners who have committed violent crimes are more likely to be in state prison, State prisons are often considered to be less safe than federal ones because more violent criminals live in them.

Which US state has the best prison system? ›

The two Best States for corrections are New Hampshire and Maine , which both also rank in the top three for safety. New Hampshire also ranks in the top 10 overall, as do Massachusetts and Utah , the fourth and fifth Best States for corrections, respectively.

What prison serves the best food? ›

This Sunday, Discovery Family Channel's show Secrets of America's Favorite Places features Alcatraz, which had the best food in the federal prison system. The cafeteria menu was actually pretty on par with the lo-fi comfort food we love today.

What country has the toughest prison sentences? ›

Do long prison sentences deter criminals or are they an indication of a severe crime problem? <p>Colombia has the longest average prison sentence length, at 137 years.

Why are prisons unhealthy? ›

Research shows that, while it varies from person to person, incarceration is linked to mood disorders including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. The carceral environment can be inherently damaging to mental health by removing people from society and eliminating meaning and purpose from their lives.

What is the social impact of prisons? ›

They also experience a reduced social status upon their return to the community. The result is often a lonely and helpless life for the former inmate. The main psychological effects of imprisonment are self-condemnation, guilt, and boredom, resulting in losses of perspective and of self-confidence.

What rights do prisoners lose? ›

Inmates lose their right to vote, their right to privacy, and even some of their First Amendment rights. Over the years, the Supreme Court has struggled to arrive at a consistent standard for the restriction of free speech in prisons, with some questions still unanswered today.

Does prison make people depressed? ›

Psychological impact of imprisonment

Prisoners are under huge stress mentally and physically, leading to psychological changes that can lead to depression. Researchers consider prison as “a powerhouse of mental problems”.

Are people in prison depressed? ›

Mental illness disproportionately affects the physical, psychological, and social well-being of prisoners worldwide at a far higher rate than the general population. Depression is one of the common mental illnesses.

What is prison mentality? ›

A convict doesn't conform to the rules set to them by the system, whereas an inmate does. A convict doesn't let anyone disrespect them no matter how small the infraction is, there must always be consequences, because that is the only thing stopping the next person from making the same mistake again and again.

Can mental illness keep you out of jail? ›

Mental health diversion can be an excellent option for people suffering from a mental health condition whereby they can receive treatment and dismissal instead of jail and a criminal record.

What is the most common disorder in criminals? ›

An important diagnosis is 'Antisocial Personality Disorder' (ASPD), which is the most common diagnosis in prisoners.

What problems do prisoners face after release? ›

Often, they lack family support and stable housing, struggle with mental health or substance abuse issues, and lack the skills to navigate the bureaucracy that comes with reclaiming their life after prison.

What prisoners are hated the most? ›

In the social hierarchy of prison inmates, mob kingpins, accomplished bank robbers, and cop killers tend to get the most respect. Convicts who have committed crimes against children, especially sexual abuse, are hated, harassed, and abused.

How bad is prison life? ›

While prisons are secure, they are largely unsafe. The number of homicides in state prisons reached a record high of 120 deaths in 2018, a reminder that while prisons are secure, they are largely unsafe. Violence in prison is commonplace, tied to trauma prior to incarceration as well as mental health stressors inside.

Why do people go to jail? ›

Many people are arrested for breaking the law or performing illegal activities every single day. Those who are stopped by policeman, turned in by their neighbors, or simply stumble into trouble find themselves facing arrest, fines, and even prison time after they commit crimes.

What do prisoners do all day? ›

Inmates work in the kitchen, license tag plant or laundry, or perform maintenance or janitorial tasks during the day. Around 3 PM, the inmate usually checks his mail and spends some time on the recreation yard prior to returning to the dining hall for the evening meal at 4 PM.

What is the most incarcerated race in the world? ›

Incarceration rates are significantly higher for blacks and Latinos than for whites. In 2010, black men were incarcerated at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000 residents; Latinos were incarcerated at 1,258 per 100,000, and white men were incarcerated at 459 per 100,000.

How much time do prisoners get off for good behavior? ›

Section 102(b) of the FSA amended 18 U.S.C. 3624(b) to provide that inmates may receive up to 54 days of GCT credit for each year of the sentence imposed by the court, instead of for each year of actual time served. See 18 U.S.C.

What are the 5 goals of prison? ›

The goals of corrections are incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, social reintegration, and retribution, with restitution also receiving recent emphasis.

What are bad living conditions in prison? ›

Brutal living conditions for the largest prison population in the world. Today, nearly 2 million people are incarcerated, warehoused in cramped spaces that lack fresh air, healthy food, natural light, proper health care, and connection to loved ones. Prisons run with little to no public oversight, leading to abuse.

What is the most tortured prison in the world? ›

"Saydnaya Military Prison is a human slaughterhouse. The bodies of Saydnaya's victims are taken away by the truckload. Many are hanged, secretly, in the middle of the night. Others die as a result of torture, and many are killed slowly through the systematic deprivation of food, water, medicine and medical care.

What prison has the most serial killers? ›

Sing Sing Correctional Facility

Located 30 miles north of New York City along the Hudson River, Sing Sing has an almost 200-year-long history of confining many of the most dangerous mobsters, murderers and spies in the region. But Sing Sing's reputation isn't all hard love.

What was the worst prison violence? ›

The New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, which took place on February 2 and 3, 1980, at the Penitentiary of New Mexico (PNM) south of Santa Fe, was the most violent prison riot in U.S. history.
New Mexico State Penitentiary riot
Attack typeRioting, hostage-taking
3 more rows

Which country has the deadliest prison? ›

This article describes the facility, regimen, and staffing of Israel's Megiddo Prison, which is a maximum-security facility that houses some of the world's most lethal terrorists, masterminds of hostage-taking incidents and suicide bombings.

What is the most well known prison in the world? ›

1. Alcatraz Prison. Alcatraz Island was a jail until 1963 and remains the most famous prison in the world, with San Francisco Bay serving as home.

What is the hardest prison to escape in the world? ›

Arthur Road Jail, India

It is Mumbai's largest and oldest central prison which was built in 1926. Apart from the run-down prison conditions and obvious human rights infringement speculation, no prisoner has ever been known to break out, and no outsider has ever been able to break in.

What is the happiest prison in the world? ›

1. Halden Prison, Norway. Best Jail to once visit as it's great to be a criminal in Norway, with luxurious, fully-furnished cells that feature televisions and freezers. Also, many of the guards at Halden Prison are not even armed!

What serial killer killed the most people in the US? ›

Serial killers with the highest known victim count. The most prolific modern serial killer is arguably doctor Harold Shipman, with 218 probable murders and possibly as many as 250 (see "Medical professionals", below). However, he was actually convicted of a sample of 15 murders.

What state has produced the most serial killers? ›

Serial Killing Statistics by State
#StateSerial Killers
1New York18
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What is the oldest prison in the United States? ›

When Eastern State opened more than 180 years ago, it changed the world. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world's first true “penitentiary,” a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners.

What is the most feared event at a prison? ›

The most feared event at a prison is an inmate riot or disturbance. Investigations of inmate riots and disturbances have discovered the most are not planned or precisely initiated by inmate leaders.

What is the most strict prison? ›

ADMAX Florence United States Penitentiary, also known as ADX Florence, Florence ADMAX, Supermax, or the Alcatraz of the Rockies, is an administrative maximum-security penitentiary located in Fremont County near Florence, Colorado.

What country has the most relaxed prisons? ›

Norway's prison system is renowned as one of the most effective and humane in the world. Norway does not instate capital punishment or life imprisonment.

How bad is Russian prison? ›

Housing close to half-a-million prisonersopens in a new tab or window, Russia's penitentiary system is notorious for a wide range of human rights violations, from physical and psychological abuse to coercive labor, poor nutrition, overcrowding, and lack of access to medical care.

Who are the most notorious Supermax inmates? ›

America's only federal supermax prison is home to some of the world's most dangerous criminals, including names you might recognize—Mexican kingpin El Chapo, Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber), and Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Here, the infamous men you never knew resided in the Centennial State.

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