Life in Jail

A censored existence

by Addis Goldman; illustration by Kelsey Skordal

The rules keep everything orderly around here,” announced deputy Gomez, who has worked at the El Paso County Corrections Department for nearly 13 years.  He is the jail’s primary coordinator for group visitation. Alan Prendergast, a regular visiting professor at Colorado College and my professor for a journalism class I took last spring, decided to coordinate with Gomez to secure a tour of the jail for our class. 

First, we were asked to form a line and slowly supply our driver’s licenses to a large woman sitting behind a grey, fortified circular desk at the end of the lobby, if we can call it that. As we stood in line, our attention was drawn towards Gomez, who watched us file through this procedure. 

He’s a thick man, built sturdy like a farm hand, with a buzz cut and bulky Oakley sunglasses propped up on top of his forehead. He stood stiff and upright with his black, gum-soled mid-top military boots firmly rooted against the glistening white plastic floor. When we had all produced our licenses, Gomez directed us to follow him, saying, “OK, now stay in a single file line, and don’t stray off anywhere.” He opened the exit door, and we cautiously followed. 

Gomez led us into a hallway. At the end of the hallway was the first door to the main jailing facility. We bunched up next to the door, above which a plastic sign listed a number of clothing requirements that must be conformed to upon entry. One reads: “Exposed midriff, cleavage, or back are not allowed.” Another reads: “Skirts, halter tops, or see-through clothing are not allowed.” These cosmetic censorship protocols set the tone for the rest of the tour and impressed an immediate sense of the numerous constraints on inmates in the facility. 

To gain entry, Deputy Gomez began by pressing a small, red circular button next to the door. He held it down for a second and stated his name. Then, someone in the security control room, nestled away in a secure space in the middle of the facility, verified it was Gomez by camera. The door swung open and for the first time we saw inmates wearing those famous orange jumpsuits, milling around the end of the long corridor ahead. 

Gomez led us down the hallway, past some small conversation rooms where inmates talk on phones through glass walls to visitors. In the middle of the hallway, there was an elevator. A belligerent and handcuffed man was escorted into it, guided by two jail guards. “When we take them in the elevator, we make them stand directly face to face with the back right corner of the elevator, so they can’t pull any moves on us,” Gomez dispassionately commented as we walked by. 

At the end of the hallway was a circular room with a desk manned by women behind computers. Inmates were all over the place, sitting in plastic chairs, waiting to use the phones in the room, or to be “processed” in one way or another by either a desk worker or a guard. There was a section of what were essentially “time-out” rooms, where agitated inmates waiting to be “processed” were temporarily placed for 30 minutes or so if they acted out. This isn’t meant to dehumanize the raucous, detained inmates, but it did anyway. 

Once we gained contact with inmates, we began to observe the rapport that the guards had with them. “Their behavior dictates their conditions,” Gomez said of the detained. “If you give respect around here, you get respect around here,” he added emphatically, as if it were a proverb inscribed on a statue outside the jail. “The troublemakers get the most security attention, and the inmates who behave well get their conditions improved incrementally. Thirty percent of the inmates are scared. The rest don’t care; they’re repeat offenders,” he relayed. 

The well-behaved 30 percent end up in “The Tower,” which is the place you want to be, Gomez explains, referring to a ward of the jail that allows inmates to play basketball, consort with one another and roam freely in a dormitory-style mess hall. Over time, inmates who display upright behavior and respect for the institution’s procedures are allowed to become what the jail calls “trustees,” or informal employees of the jail. We saw one such “trustee” pushing a janitorial cart, filled with rolls of toilet paper, a mop, a broom, a dustpan, some soap and some candy bars.  

“I’ve been shot seven times. Stabbed 24,” the trustee, an anonymous senior Blood gang member, said. He was serving a twelve-year sentence for weapons a possession charge and a charge for cocaine possession with intent to sell. 

In order for Gomez to maintain order in the most problematic wards, he uses respected inmates with criminal connections, like this “trustee,” to get a pulse on what’s going on in a certain ward. This anonymous “trustee” is feared, and runs in respected criminal circles. However, Gomez makes it clear that he doesn’t trust this or any other “trustee” that works for the jail. “If I see him on the street, will I shake his hand? No. But I will give him a dap,” he said, urging us to remember that their relationship was strictly professional. 

Jails are glum, confining, repressive and mechanical places. The walls are all painted the same off-white beige. Inmates eat three compulsory and bland meals a day. There are cameras everywhere, making inmates resentful and aware of the weight of perpetual surveillance. 

Trying to live the “good life” in jail—procuring drugs and other substances to ease the sentence—is treacherous and costly. According to an ex-state penitentiary worker I met by chance in Manitou Springs, “Prisoners deal in cigarettes as their main currency. A carton equals about $1,000. So, do the math. That’s how you buy shit in there. Everything is turned into currency ... I’ve seen guys who’ve put heroin into plastic bags, eaten the bags, shit them out, then eaten the bags covered in shit to get the stuff past security. I know how this stuff works.” 

One of the most haunting aspects of jail and prison life seems to be of an existential nature. Michelle Alexander, the now-famous author of “The New Jim Crow,” a book about the features of systematic injustices committed against black Americans, claims something akin to this suspicion. She argues, “Once a person is labeled a felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma and exclusion are perfectly legal, and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off-limits. It does not matter whether you have actually spent time in prison; your second-class citizenship begins the moment you are branded a felon.” 

We can begin to imagine that each inmate, either serving a shorter sentence in jail or a tragically long sentence in prison, has an acute awareness of just how long he will be subjected to the regimented atmosphere inwhich he finds himself. To perceive the realities of life after jail is almost as daunting as it is to tolerate the realities of life in jail. The knowledge of how society will perceive your affiliation with jail time, becoming the second-class citizen as Alexander speaks of—this impending sense of how you will be treated upon exit, and how you will be marginalized on that basis—exerts an anxiety which, over time, permeates like a growing cancer in the inmates psyche. 

Jail needs to be a disciplinary place. But we should radically reconsider how we conceive of disciplining criminals and what we believe jailing them achieves. Should we lock offenders up in stuffy boxes with other criminals and, in a way, encourage criminal fraternities? Jails don’t disarm criminals or offer them some alternative lifestyle. For the repeat offenders, jail time becomes a sort of litmus test for criminal street credibility and, really, credibility rises in proportion to the amount of time served.