Cross-Bar Hotel Blues

I have been in jail many times. 

No, I’m not proud of it, but it is what it is and sometimes I cannot seem to stay out of trouble.  Also, I am not a hardened criminal—my “crimes” are always of the misdemeanor sort, the kind of crud that anti-authoritarian types, such as myself, engages in occasionally.  I also have a history of not complying with court-ordered demands, either, and those things lead to jail time for contempt, of which I have plenty for the American system of crime and punishment.

Having sampled the hospitality of many jails in multiple states throughout this great land of ours (starting at the age of 19) I thought it was high time to give some advice on how toVic Dillinger in the JointCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2012 survive the experience.

However, if you are a gay man; or a supposed “straight” man living in Houston, Texas (but who is really on the “down low”); or a woman, this guide cannot help you, and you are unfortunately on your own.

No-Bar Hotel
The first thing to do when finding you are going to jail (whether you are arrested in the field or sentenced to jail from a court action) is to not panic.
Jail is not prison.  I think that bears repeating: jail is not prison.  Jail is to prison what summer camp is to a juvenile detention center.  The “culture” and mindset of the average jail inmate is much different from that of a prison inmate.  Although I have never been to prison (except as a visitor) I have met enough parolees and former prison inmates to know the two worlds are not the same (plus I watched HBO’s prison series, Oz).

The average jail inmate, unlike a true prisoner in a state or federal lock-up, is transient.  In general they are either awaiting trial or sentencing, or have already been sentenced to shorter terms of incarceration (such as 90 days or so).  That is not to say that jail inmates cannot be there for terms of 5 years or more, but they are the exceptions and not the rule.  Repeat misdemeanants can draw several years of “county time” without benefit of ever seeing the inside of a real prison.

Because most jail inmates are short-timers they generally try to stay cool, not make waves, and get their time done quietly.  They know they are getting out soon enough.  Furthermore, because of jail overcrowding, it is in any inmate’s best interest to keep his nose clean and do his time without making waves—you may find that, dependent upon the nature of your offense, you may qualify for a “work-for-sentence-reduction” jail job (which can cut your time in half).


Shot of Cook County, IL, facility (interior hall)Credit:; 2008

Another reason to not panic is that jails, while inconvenient and annoying, do not present the personal hazards that prisons do (though some local jails, such as Chicago’s Cook County or New York’s Rikers Island can be notoriously more dangerous than any prison).  Most county jails, the kind you might see in your town, have fewer inmates.  Of those, not that many are violent offenders (those are usually processed out quickly into state institutions). 

The House
There is no warden in a jail, there is a jailer.  This is a salaried political position, and it is either attained by election or appointment.  A jailer does not have to have any correctional institution experience either as a guard or administrator to hold the job.  And chances are, if you’re ever in stir, you will never see the jailer.
In the popular mind, the jail is a place of clanging, barred doors.  I have been in two older jails that featured the iconic clanging, barred doors, and there are fewer of these on the landscape as time goes by—in today’s world there aren’t many bars to be seen in jails.  The majority of larger city and county jails are newly constructed institutions that, from the outside, look more like high school campuses than places where your liberty is stripped away. They are functionally bland, the doors are all steel with spy holes or small, safety-glass covered viewing ports, or something similar.  So about all you will see are doors, glass, and controlled access points.
Jails environmentally are designed to offer only the barest of creature comforts.  That is for two reasons:
1) Jails are punitive.  You are being punished for some offense against society whether that be a real crime against persons or property or contrived crimes (such as drug possession or contempt).
2) Jails operate on budgets and scrimp on such things.

Booking (and that process alone could take anywhere from half an hour or more depending upon how lazy your intake staff feels at that time of the shift) constitutes the taking of the classic mugshot and fingerprinting.  Yes, you will stand facing a camera (digital, these days).  You will be fingerprinted (using a high-tech scanner that immediately feeds your prints into a database, though I have been around long enough to have had my prints rolled a few times the old-fashioned way with ink onto a card).

You will be asked a lot of questions about your crime and other personal things, but since the people doing your intake are not court officers, feel free to lie to them outrageously, even if the lie is about something inconsequential.  [For example, on intake, they always ask what religion is preferred; while the correct answer is “none ” instead I give a different answer every time, usually something obscure like Zoroastrian or Druid.  One time I answered “Odinism” because it sounded amusing.]

The first thing you will notice upon being booked is how cold jails are (even in summer).  Not the emotional coldness of a barren, impersonal wasteland, mind you, but physically cold—jails are purposefully kept at uncomfortably cool temperatures.  This air temperature is maintained to keep down infectious problems such as staph or MRSA outbreaks, but it is also present as a psychological reminder that you are not in control.  Keeping you cold is yet one more way of controlling the inmates.  No one feels much like kicking some guy’s derriere over a chicken patty sandwich when you’re huddled under a paper-thin blanket with your teeth chattering.

Dependent upon where you are placed your creature comforts will probably not improve much, either.  The worst physical environment is “The Hole”—solitary confinement.  This is typical jail cell toilet (one-piece unit)normally a bare cell, minus even a bunk.  It will likely have only the ubiquitous single-piece, stainless-steel toilet/sink combination in it.  Chances are there will be no bunk, but you will be given a thinly padded pallet to throw on the floor.

Also, if you are being punished in solitary your clothing will be taken.  You will be naked except for a Velcro fastening tunic of a rough quilted material (because these are usually green and make you look like you are wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume inmates refer to these tunics as “Turtle Shells”).  In solitary that is all you get—the tunic is your blanket, pillow, etc..  It is best, upon settling into the cell, to strip it off, curl up on the pallet on the floor, and cover up with the Turtle Shell to keep warm.  Only put it on for meals or if you are called out of the cell.  Otherwise, curl up and keep warm!

Usually after booking you are normally placed in a holding cell until the powers that be (the corrections staff) decide where to put you.  If you seem like a reasonably sane person not inclined to cause trouble you will go to General Population.  If not, you may initially go to a segregation unit for a few days.  These are cells a step up from solitary.  You have no access to privileges such as television, but you will have a bunk, a toilet/sink, and privacy. 

Clark County, NV, holding cell
Silence Is Golden (but not for these mofos!)
General Population can be the worst, not because of personal safety fears but because of the aggravation.

Viktor Emil Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian psychiatrist who, as a Jew, was rounded up along with his parents and sent first to live in a Nazi-controlled ghetto in 1942, and then Viktor Emil Frankl (1905-1997)Credit: vaultofwisdom.orglater transported to Auschwitz in 1944.  He survived his death camp experiences and wrote about them in a book first published in 1946, later called Man’s Search for Meaning.  In this book he described the hardships of camp life, and he made a point of saying that there are many things to which one can grow accustomed under those conditions.

He mentioned  having to sleep on wooden bunks (slats only) with nothing but a thin blanket (if lucky) and others sleeping next to him for warmth.  He pointed out that sleep was a refuge and that even if your literal bunkmate snores loudly right in your ear you will get used to that and be able to sleep.

Jail is about boredom.  The other inmates are boring, television is boring (if you have one), and if not for reading there isn’t much to do.  Sure, the fellas play a lot of cards and dominoes, but that, too, gets old quickly enough.  So, you sleep.  A lot.  The average inmate sleeps anywhere from 12 to 14 hours per day in blocks of straight stretches through the night, and in the few hours between meals.  You find yourself merely wanting to crawl back into your bunk after lunch and catch some rack time just to pass the day. 

All jails are similar.  The lights are never turned off completely (there are usually banks of overhead fluorescents and perhaps half of them will be turned off during “down” times).  The constant glare of lighting, however, isn’t the thing that makes you nuts about jail, and I’d bet even a Holocaust survivor such as Viktor Frankl would have had a hard time with this next issue.  As soon as you are booked or being moved from a quiet solitary or segregation cell toward the general population cell blocks you notice something horrifying.  You will note the ridiculous noise levels.  Monkey houses in zoos are quieter than any jail cell in America containing more than one inmate.  That is a fact.

And these bastards never shut up.  They talk constantly about mind-numbingly inane things, all at volumes designed to make Helen Keller sit up and shriek, “Shut the %&^# up!”  To worsen matters, in those cells where a television is present, the TV is always cranked up to 11; thus, with the idiot box going full volume and the idiots yammering at full volume it is wise to invest in ear plugs (available for a price from the commissary) at your earliest opportunity.  [I have been in cells where there is TV present and in those without television, and trust me on this: it is far better to be in a cell without television if you are not the only person in the cell.  More fights break out over who gets to watch what than over any other matter—except food theft—plus there is the added annoyance of every dipwad in the place wanting to watch sports all the time.]

Also, jail is no place for the faint-hearted when it comes to abuses of the English language.  Virtually every sentence uttered by an inmate will contain the word “mother [blanker]” in it somewhere, and it is very tiring, especially to hear that word in such mundane sentences as “What muthablankin’ time is it?” or “Lemme see that deck of cards, muthablanka.”

Another fun phrase, one which is equally tiring to hear, is “my nigga”, or “nigga”.  This phrase or word is heard from all quarters but most often—obviously—from our incarcerated African-American brethren.  It always entertains me, as a Caucasian, to be called “my nigga”, such as “Hey, what you in here fo’, my nigga?”  So, if you have tender sensibilities (fortunately, I do not) jail is not for you.

Survival in jail does not necessarily go to the biggest or the strongest.  It goes to the smartest, and having been around the block a time or two I know how to handle myself.

First Impressions
Survival in jail does not necessarily go to the biggest or the strongest.  It goes to the smartest, and having been around the block a time or two I know how to handle myself.
Upon entering a cell (and most cells these days are called “pods”, just as guards are now called “corrections officers”—whoop-de-do), it behooves you to take a quick scan of the room.  Any inmate with lots of stuff (a pillow, tennis shoes and not the regulation issue rubber slippers, several extra items of clothing, and a 401(k) plan) has been there awhile. 
Cell seniority is generally handed down by just that—seniority.  Look for that guy, the one that everyone else seems in deference to and do not kowtow to him.  Let him be The King of the Pod—chances are he’s going to be there longer than you.  [The last Pod King in my recent memory had been in jail for 13 months before me and still had several months to go when I left.]  Do not acknowledge him for anything other than as a regular cell mate—if you defer to him for any reason he will take you as a soft touch and be bothering you for stuff all the time (chips, lunch, you name it).  Make sure, civilly, that he understands that not only is his position within the cell hierarchy not threatened by you, you do not perceive him as a threat, either.
Cook County, IL 'dorm'Credit: mchenrycountyblog.comSecondly, keeping your words to a minimum is the best tack—these jackholes are nosier than aardvarks stumbling into an ant-farm store, and they want to know everything.
Most cells have phones in them from which you can call your loved ones—collect or with a prepaid jail-bought calling card—at the bargain basement rates of 50¢ minute or more.  Beyond barely being able to hear on these phones (because of all the chimpanzee-like, high-volume chatter), though, some inmate will be standing around wanting to know who you talked to and what was said.
Believe it or not, you can tell anyone (in jail) to piss up a rope or that something is none of their business without fear of reprisals.  Remember, any infractions, such as fighting, can lead to extra jail time.  Nobody wants to be there, not even The King of the Pod—he will leave you alone if he sees you are not to be messed with.

The most violent older offender is less trouble than any punk-ass kid who comes into any cell.  A serial rapist in his 50s will stir less fecal matter than a 20-year-old busted for meth possession.  The reason is simple: for the punk kid, he is terrified.  Thus, he tends to brag a little louder, and more often, about what a badass he is.  He will test the patience of the older men and he will also try to prove himself by mouthing off to the older inmates, etc..  This is a street puke with no rep trying to put himself across as a hard ass. 

It never works.  Black or white street wannabes (and especially the younger black males) all absolutely hate to be called a “bitch”.  I make a point early on in any pod or cell where I’m stuck of making sure any wannabe that tries to get in my face hears this at least once (or more) out of my mouth and within earshot of other inmates.  For example, if some punk gives you the “Where you from?” gangsta routine, you tell him, “None of your business, bitch.”  Other inmates all hoot and howl at this crap; the little goober trying to make a rep off you mutters something like, “I bet you won’t say that again”; I do say it again, further laughter results, and he goes away.

Unlike prisons, which treat homosexual contacts and homosexual anything as routine and part of their lifestyle while in stir, jail inmates are notoriously homophobic.  Some pods have showers in the cell itself; I never wear underwear, and I remember once where I stripped off to go take a shower and some guy just about vapor-locked, squalling for me to put my jumpsuit back on, he didn’t need to see my junk.  Another time I remember an older inmate talking about having seen the movie, Brokeback Mountain.  One of the younger wannabes started showing off about how averse he was to anything gay, and how no one had better “try to queer” him like that.  It was blustering, but typical of the mind-set.  So, no talk about gay things and don’t exhibit any gay behavior.

Thus, another thing to look out for as potentially troublesome is homosexuals.  My gaydar is really good, and I can normally spot them.  Homosexuals by themselves do not cause problems in jail—the other inmates, though, will bully them and otherwise make their lives a living hell whether they do anything or not.  Staying clear of any obviously gay men in jail is the best thing to do.  [As an aside, it always strikes me funny, given the rampant homophobia, that these guys are only too willing to give each other haircuts and help with other personal grooming such as trimming beards.]

Pencils for Words?
Nothing in jail is free except for the “start-up” kit you get upon booking (usually a cheap toothbrush, a 10¢ comb, a motel-sized bar of soap, and some corrosive toothpaste made in India).  Anything else must be purchased at the ridiculously exorbitant prices the jail commissary charges.  If you see an inmate with a pillow, for example, he probably paid around $18 for it.  A cheap jail-approved radio (with a clear-plastic shell, so you can see the guts and nothing can be hidden in it) with earplugs that could ordinarily be bought for maybe $4.95 costs about $30. 

Food is the biggest problem.  All jails have decent enough budgets for meals but they scrimp on feeding you to keep as much in the coffers as possible.  On one of my last visits to the pokey I lost over 10 pounds the first week I was there—it wasn’t that the food was that awful, you just don’t get enough.  Hence, the need to buy food from the commissary, and it is the currency of trade.

Never give anything away.  Always make a trade.  If some schmuck wants your cake from lunch trade it for a stamped envelope or for his chicken patty at another meal.  Or trade it for a bag of chips or something.  Because cigarettes are no longer allowed in jails (and only a dying breed of some jails in the South even allow smoking anywhere on the premises) food is the new currency.  Just never give anything without getting something in return—this weeds out the mooches from the guys who really will fairly trade food and other items you might need (as a  voluminous letter writer when in the hoosegow I’m always in need of extra stamped envelopes or paper).

Contraband can find its way into any jail in the nation, but most cells have random inspections, called “shake-downs”, wherein anything you have could be seized if deemed inappropriate.  While for me it has never been necessary (and after having been incarcerated over a dozen times without incident) it does not hurt to have some form of weapon handy.  With little fanfare I give you the jailhouse pencil:

Jailhouse LeadCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2012

Because pens are not allowed (I guess they figure you might give somebody a bad jailhouse tattoo with the ink) these stubby pencils are all you get to write to your girlfriend, mommy, lawyer, or Congressman.  Every cell I’ve ever been in either has a pencil sharpener in it or ready access to one.  These stubs are the same as those used on golf courses for keeping score, and properly sharpened you can put out some dingleberry’s eye or stab him in the soft part at the base of his throat if needed.  Keep it handy.  Other things you’d have to make yourself, but because any “found” objects in your personal space could lead to time in The Hole, it is best just to stick with the pencil as a backup if needed. 

Most inmates in county jails are petty criminals.  Far and away they are there for drug-related offenses.  Occasionally, you’ll get an interesting car thief or burglar but not often.  Because of the caliber of inmate the conversation is very low-brow.  

Anecdotally, however, the inmates—because of their ignorance—can provide entertainment.  They are big on conspiracies—they will talk endlessly about The Illuminati or how President Obama is really a Muslim and he’s behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11. 

The thing they do most, however, is brag.

Avoid this.  Do not inflate your current incarceration for failure to pay traffic fines into having burned down an orphanage.  They will find out how petty your crime is sooner or later.  Also, in the pecking order, pedophiles (what the inmates call “baby rapers”) are the lowest form of scum and will be injured readily and often (jails do their best to keep those offenders away from the general population usually), so it is best to make it clear you are not in for any kind of sexual offense against children from the start (or any other sexual offense, for that matter).   Do not waste time telling inmates how many women you’ve bagged or how much money you used to make on the street—they all lie, and no matter what you say, someone will say he had more. 

Which goes directly toward the absurdities one hears in jails.  I remember being in a cell with four other guys in southern Statesylvania once (it’s near Statesosota) listening to this one blowhard talk about how well-connected he was to a fabulously wealthy person in the state (of whom I’d never heard).  All I could think was, If you know someone with that kind of firepower why are you here? (meaning his rich buddy could have gotten him a good lawyer).  What I asked aloud was, “So, let me get this straight—you know a guy who, according to you, is richer than Bill Gates, the wealthiest human [at the time] who ever lived, a guy whose personal fortune is greater than that of any potentate or other monarch’s in history?  Where is this famous rich guy, and how come I’ve never seen him on the cover of Forbes?”  He shut-up—that was the object (anything to make the jackholes shut up!).

Jailhouse etiquette requires that you never be a snitch even if you see someone doing something such as stealing another inmate’s snack foods from his stash.  However, you do not have to put up with crap, either, and if you do not stand up for yourself you will be an easy mark for mooches.

The best example of the mooch is one I met in one of my recent stretches in the joint.  This guy was built like a silverback gorilla, and when he entered the pod, he did not bother to notice the big guy who already was King of the Pod.  He simply breezed in and shouted out his name loudly, as if his reputation had somehow preceded him, as if we were witnessing the Second Coming or something.

His “street” name was one of those contrived, cutesy things that consists of an initial and a short, second nickname.  I will call him “D.B.”, short for what he really was: a douche bag.  Anyway, D.B. came in, squalling, “Hey, hey, hey, the name’s D.B., and I’m from [insert unimportant city here].”  D.B.’s shuckin’, jivin’, and grinnin’ Tom act made Uncle Remus (from the notoriously racist Disney movie, Song of the South) look positively militant, almost like a Black Panther.

I was underwhelmed by D.B..  I had seen his type many times before: he was a petty thug with nothing in his life other than his street rep, which none of us, in that particular jail far from his home turf, cared or knew about.  In addition to being a living embodiment, though, of any negative stereotypes African-Americans must live down daily, D.B. was also dangerous.  He was physically powerful, having spent much time obviously pumping iron.  He also made it clear that he was “mildly retarded” (his words, a statement designed to absolve him of legal responsibility for anything, including any violent behaviors because, “I don’t know any better, I’m crazy and retarded”).  He made no bones about threatening other inmates (even though he knew he would go to The Hole, he didn’t care that much). 

He was also a mooch.  I watched him for several days bumming stuff (food, toiletries, etc.) from the lesser, younger inmates, without ever once offering them anything in exchange or with any promise to pay them back on the next commissary run.  About a week after D.B. became our cell mate (and there were 20 of us in this particular pod) he hit me up for some coffee one morning.

Coffee, for me, is the closest thing to proof that there might—just might—be a supreme being in the Cosmos, as she would definitely have invented such a substance for my drinking pleasure.  You can’t smoke in jail (I was climbing the walls from that), and coffee was my only solace.  Anyway, what you can buy for around $5 is a small packet of crappy instant joe—for me, though, it was worth its weight in gold.  I had other inmates bum coffee from me before, and they paid it back when they got their coffee supply later. 

D.B. didn’t ask for me for any of my coffee or even make an offer to trade, though.  He just said one morning, “Gimme a shot of that coffee, my nigga.”  I don’t respond to demands made by anyone, unless it’s from a woman that I am wanting to see/hear/experience naked.  Without flinching or worry, I said, “No”.  Not, “No, bitch”, or “No, muthablanka,” just an unqualified, unconditional, “No”. 

That, apparently, was not a word D.B. was used to hearing, but because I had not instigated anything, jailhouse etiquette required that he accept that and move on.  Sure, he grumbled about how if he really wanted it, he’d steal it when I wasn’t looking (which he never did) but it mattered little.  Standing up to guys like D.B. is what makes your time in the joint easier; he never asked me for another thing because he did not relish the embarrassment of being told “No” in front of the other cell dwellers.  [Some of the younger, less bright kids ragged on him: “Guess he told you,” and “Hooo, I heard that!”  This, of course, inflamed D.B.’s tender, genteel sensibilities, but he got over it.]

Dearly Departed
When you are booked into jail, all of your personal effects—jewelry, wallet, clothes, etc.—will be taken from you, sealed in envelopes or cartons and placed in a Jesus Suffers the Final IndignityCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2012property room.  When you get out, all of this stuff will be returned (except in many jails now if you come in with cigarettes and a disposable lighter, they simply throw those away, or the guards keep them for themselves if the cigarette pack is unopened). 

Any cash you had upon entry may be confiscated (or at least half of it will, applied toward your “care” ).  These days, adding the greatest insult to the injury of incarceration is the bill.

That’s right—if you go to jail today, you are expected to pay a fixed rate for having the privilege of being there.  Most jails charge around $35 per day for their “services”.  To this is usually added goofy things such as a booking fee (averages around $65) and whatever else they can think of to charge you for.  This, of course, hearkens back to the bad old days when in Colonial America the people who had been accused of witchcraft in Salem Village had to pay for their jail upkeep.  This act alone caused many to have to forfeit their property to their jailers—many people were put away just so this confiscation could occur.

Never pay this.  Let them send you bills for the fees in the mail.  Let them sue you.  Never pay this voluntarily.  The audacity of paying for your incarceration is roughly equal to the Romans making Jesus pay for his own nails and crucifix crossbar.  Downright cruel and unusual, I say.

P’s & Q’s
Jail does not have to be the worst experience of your life.  After roughly a dozen trips ranging from overnight and weekend stays to a few months at a time I have found that byOld Jefferson Town jail cellCredit: keeping my head, not causing waves, and standing my ground I have never been harassed, assaulted, or even had an inmate so much as lay a hand on me for anything other than the “seal-the-deal” bromance fist bump (when you agree to a trade, these guys all do it in lieu of a hand shake). 

Remember: stand tall, don’t make waves, keep your pie hole shut, don’t let anyone intimidate you, and tend your own rat killing.  You’ll do just fine.  And the light of day will seem that much brighter when you walk out a free man.


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