My experience of what jail is like is taken from the 12 hours I spent under arrest in May of 2001 at the Long Beach city jail, although I've also been in what used to be the jail in West LA, where the domestic abuse team now has its office. This is not a description of what prison is like; I do not know what prison is like.

Jail is not like what you see on television or in film. Jail is less photogenic, dirtier, more cramped, more primitive, and more institutional.

The cell block I was on was made up of a long hallway or common area with the two person cells on one side. The common area is behind bars, with two doors leading into it. Between the first and second doors are controls for the individual cell doors. In the common area, there are phones, and outside the bars a television is visible. There is no external light, and there are no clocks. There are picnic tables set up, institutional things in gunmetal grey and cement, bolted to the floor. The phones are similarly indestructible, ancient black plastic things with very short metal cords, lousy sound quality even when other prisoners are being quiet. You can make all the calls you want if you're not in lockdown, but all of them will be collect calls with a little introductory message saying the call is from an inmate at the Long Beach city jail. When you're in lockdown, you can't make phone calls. If you didn't get one earlier, that's too bad.

The two person cells are just long enough for the beds, metal shelves set up one over the other, with foam mattresses covered in thick institutional plastic that reminded me somehow of gym class in grade school. The plastic is easy to clean, but has a slightly rough texture that makes it so you can't really tell when the last time it was cleaned was. The plastic sticks to skin, although fortunately it's too firm to stick hard. There are no pillows. Each prisoner is given a blanket when they come in. The blankets come from a pile in the hallway. They're thick grey things, vaguely military in appearance. Again, it's impossible to tell how clean they are, but my impression is that they're not very clean. They're kept on a floor that doesn't appear to be all that clean, and when I was bailed out, I was told to fold my blanket and leave it where I found it, back on the floor, presumably for the next person to use. They had me flip the mattress half-over, too, a position that suggests it may be clean. The space between the bottom bunk and the top bunk is enough to sit up in. The bunk is wide enough for one person to sleep on, provided they do not toss and turn. The beds are cot-sized or smaller. There is no ladder up to the top bunk, so possible steps up include the bars, the bottom bunk, and the toilet.

The room is wide enough for the bunks and toilet, with enough room between the toilet and the bed that they're not right up against each other. The toilet is an indestructible utilitarian design I've never seen anywhere else, a kind of beige metal that doesn't curve much on the bottom, descending straight into the floor instead. The sink is built into the back of the toilet, where the tank typically is, forcing you to lean over the toilet if you want to use the sink. The toilets smelled vaguely of cleanser that hadn't caught up with dirt, of dirty public bathrooms, and a smell that I can only describe as the smell of jail. Toilet paper was on the sink or on the floor, which was also dirty. The whole room is incredibly close, to the point where even before lockdown was declared, no one wanted to go into these rooms even for the minute it takes to piss.

The bars across the front of the cell are metal, a dark dull color, rods set a few inches apart with horizontal crosspieces about every foot. The door is in front of the toilet, wired to move on a track. The movement is noisy, disconcerting.

Outside the larger cell block are other rooms for holding. These rooms are slightly larger, but also terribly close. They have benches running around them at calf height with spaces in front of the door and around the toilet, which is in a corner. Various of the toilets are broken, and none of them have lids, so they just stink. The door here is solid with a flap in the middle of it. The room is grey and the lighting is terrible. The benches are stained. I believe there was a drain in the floor.

Outside here there was a sink set into a recess in the wall. This was the sink I was sent to to wash of the finger printing ink. There was powdered soap in a plastic container. There is no soap in the cells.

The entire setup is claustrophobic and disempowering. Everything is in institutional colors that would give the impression of being dirty even if they weren't. The colors are depressing, with brown and grey predominating. The air is heavily recycled, although warm. There is no exterior light, no way to tell where you are or what time it is other than the jailers' say-so. You eat when they say, you sleep when they say, you go into lockdown at their discretion. Although they can't see you from the desk, they can hear you. There is no privacy in the cage, and it's impossible to forget that you're in one.

“If you didn't get one earlier, that's too bad.”

Everything in jail (or prison, for that matter) is “that’s too bad.” Handed in your Visitor Request form a day late? Didn’t know they changed the laundry day that week? No more bread left at dinner? Too fucking bad. Complain to the guards? Yeah, sure. All you're going to do is piss them off for bothering them. That crossword puzzle they’re working on requires a lot of concentration.

“This was the sink I was sent to wash of the finger printing ink.”

Good luck washing it off. The sink, the soap, the faucets are all stained with the ink from the guys before you. Usually no more grade-z recyclable paper left to try to rub the ink off or dry your hands. No big deal, you’ve got ink-stained hands. The basic, necessary attitude in prison is Deal With It.

“You eat when they say, you sleep when they say, you go into lockdown at their discretion.”

You’re damn straight. The name of the game is Control. In the Spanish penitentiaries I was in, there is at least an illusion of free movement, in the courtyards and rec rooms. Of course you are constantly being watched, from centralized control modules and ubiquitous video monitors. In the German prison I was in, a guard was never more than 30 or 40 feet away from me.

“There is no privacy in the cage, and it's impossible to forget that you're in one.”

Especially if you’re in lockdown for 23 hours a day, which is common practice in German pre-trial incarceration. I didn’t know any prisoners who didn’t experience panic attacks in some form or another. At some random point during the day (more so at night), you feel the walls closing in and you have to get the fuck out. But you can’t, so your mind just shuts down or starts to rebel. Most suicides or attacks on guards occur during the first 5 days. After 10 days, the panic attacks tend to lessen in number and intensity, as the mind adjusts to the smaller space. I never got accustomed to the sound of the cell door shutting, either. Didn’t matter whether it was electronic or manual. There is a thudding finality, a sensation of being sealed off, every time they lock you up.


Growing up I was interested what jail would be like, but figured I would be one of the lucky ones to never truly learn. It doesn't help when I don't forfeit certain rights deemed inappropriate in a society based on supporting the individuals rights. Basically, every jail experience is unique as the finger prints of the people being entered into the system. For me, the ride from the precinct to the jail was with an eight-teen year old arrested about the same time. The dark haired kid was already sitting in the transportation waiting to be hauled off to jail. For both of us, this was our first time going. My first thought was when will I be getting out of this hell hole? That question remained unanswered for my entire stay.

Accommodations for ten uncomfortable people sat empty in the rear of the van. Entering through the back doors, two benches ran parallel with the van walls. Once the doors shut the only light coming in was through a small window behind the cab. I felt the van lurching forward, subsequently I ended up sliding to the back, slightly pinning my restrained arms. I watched the road through the small window to keep from getting sick. Small talk passed the time, your everyday boring bullshit.

The garage door opened and the vehicle entered after a short trip, it then maneuvered into place by rotating one-hundred and eighty degrees. We parked, seconds after we came to a stop the door was opened and I was being told to get out. This is when they confirmed I was me and the kid was himself. The cops that transported us took some basic information. They asked for our; middle names, birth places, social security numbers and if we had any tattoos. The questions ended quickly, but would be used to confirm our identities while inside the institution.

Herded from the garage with yet another vocal command we made our way to level two. The elevator had an inmate cage that was very dark with one small fluorescent light, it illuminated the tiny holes in the plexiglass and back lit a dull black chain link fence. The links were small, small enough to prevent passing anything to the guards, the plexiglass ensured the policy. Level two had more cops per square foot than I had ever seen before at one time. Most of them were sitting around doing nothing.

A bold yellow line painted on the ground provided and ensured order during the booking process. The mug shot station was the first stop, but unfortunately the computer froze when I was there. After five minutes the impatient guard threw us in a holding cell. Short of half an hour, a guard came for me and the kid to get our mug shots taken. He then took us back to the first holding cell to wait for the next guard with our paper work. This guard seemed to be the only one working, he walked around and even disappeared for a while. It was almost exactly an hour when the door opened and my name was called. He wanted to know if I had any money left. I gave him the thirty-six cents they missed from the first search, then I was searched again this time with a metal detector. My belongings were sealed in a pastic bag and the personal property inventory sheet I signed, with the picture of my mug was stapled to it.

Handing me a stack of three papers he escorted me to a second holding cell. I was alone long enough to use the toilet and read the papers I was handed. First paper was the copy of all my personal inventory, another was the court summons with a date if I was to make bond, and the last was what they had officially charged me with. Before long the kid was joining me in the large cell. I was being called back out not long after.

One more of the numerous guards was giving me a few seconds to put my papers in my pocket. Each new process during my booking produced a new guard. He cleaned off the scanner screen with the alcohol and proceeded to wipe my fingers off as well. Each individual finger was rolled side to side, printing the index first and ending with the thumb. After he scanned my fingers entirely, rolling them from the left to the right, my four fingers were scanned once more together before the process was repeated on the left hand. We then went to the nurse office, where they spent a few seconds pretending to care about their inmate. Pretty much they didn't want to be responsible for my death and asked if I had any medications, allergies or illness they should know about.

The third and last holding cell was three times smaller than the other two. The other two holding cells used for booking and the drunk tank had benches lining the walls with multiple toilets. This new cell was regularly used for solitary confinement, it had a single bed and a single toilet. There was already two guys waiting inside, after the kid and I came the sitting room on the bed was gone. Over a forty-five minute period five more guys were added. When they came to add another, one of the lazy guards got off his ass, and the nine guys spilled out of the stuffed cell. We followed the first guard adding the new guy, the new guy, and another lazy guard. It took about two hours to be booked into city jail, but to be put into a jail cell took another half hour altogether. The entire half hour I was crammed with nine other guys in the elevator's inmate cage, which subsequently, was only half of the elevator. The guards were privileged to the other half.

After a stop to the third floor for no apparent reason we continued on to the forth floor. I would later learn, the forth floor was designated for misdemeanors, the previous was for felonies. The lazy guard stepped off the elevator and walked out of sight for the few moments while he was gone he retrieved our thick, itchy blankets. Returning to only open the gate, he then moved back out of sight. His stomach was thick from the years of sitting around doing nothing, he started to call names to step forward. As the person left the elevator a question was asked to confirm their identity. They were then told to grab a blanket from the laundry cart and move on to their appointed cell.

I learned the routine quickly, and on my turn the only thing I was waiting to learn was my cell number.

"Your in fourteen", the stocky guard repeated the same number as before. The same cell as the kid I came with, at least I knew one person in this place.




It was ten at night on a Saturday, the last time I ate was lunch around two. The cell was already occupied by one another guy and our arrival woke him up. The kid choose the top bunk and I was left with the floor. I used the wall to prop up my mat, kicked off my shoes and tried to get comfortable.

Years of dirt sat on the white painted cinder block walls, blue doors hung in openings a foot off the ground. The small window in the door was scratched with tags, and the tags on the door reveled the old orange paint. The thick metal doors attached to a sliding electromagnetic mechanism. The floor was painted concrete and a thick layer of dirt was building in the corners. Eighteen cells made a rectangular letter C, my cell came together with another to make the corner. This made the cell the shape of a right triangle with an acute angle chopped off. The bunk beds ran along the diagonal wall adjacent from the window. A large four by three foot window, on the wall opposite of the door, was the focal point of the room. Outside sat the courthouse and a clock tower, making our cell one of the few that could tell what time it was. The stainless steel toilet-sink/fountain combo sat in the right angle. A couple steps directly in front of the door and to left of the window. A shelf sat in the other smaller acute corner on the right side of the window.

We explained to the older guy occupying the cell why we had the pleasure to bunk with him. We talked and settled down, when the other two started falling asleep I followed suite. The blue mat was uncomfortable and I slept on my wrong arm because facing the other way was the metal toilet. I shut my eyes and woke up to hear the kid's name being called. I asked the guard to check for my name. With no luck, I asked him to check again. With my bond still unpaid I stayed in the cell and slowly drifted back to sleep. Only to be startled awake again when they came to add another guy.

A couple hours later, the cell block came to life out side of the cell. I covered my head with my shirt and tried to ignore it enough to remain a sleep. After dozing off a few times, our cell door clanked open. The older guy sat up putting on his shoes and shirt, he asked if was going to breakfast. Hungry from missing dinner the night before, I slipped my shirt over my head and slipped my shoes on. By the time I made my way out to breakfast, the tables and sitting room had been taken. Using a ledge by the showers, I ate the couple hard boiled eggs and two pieces of toast. The grits had no flavor, their texture almost made me lose what I already managed to force down. I added the sugar that was for the coffee to my grits and still was unable to swallow without gagging. I gave up eating the rest and finished my milk. Looking around I noticed people held on to their spoons. I ask a scrawny man standing next to me why people were doing this, he mumbled something barely over a whisper, and from what I caught he was on a diffrent subject altogether. I looked around once more and walked off with my spoon. When most of the trays were abandoned a guy went around eating what was left. I hope he enjoyed the sugar that I added to my grits.

The stocky guard marched in at quarter to six in the morning with a bag of spoons in his hand. Being told to gather by our cells, he collected the spoons, once the crowd conformed he radioed to someone and the cell doors opened. A minute later when everybody was in place the doors slammed shut.

"You should be called for court in a couple hours", the older guy told me. "Try to get some sleep, you'll be leaving soon." He reassured as he covered himself including his head with his blanket and prepared to go back to sleep.

"I can't, I'm already a wake." I said. I leaned on the window seal, watching as the sun rose in the sky high enough to light the streets and the dark sides of the tall buildings.

Loading ten inmates at a time in the cage, we rode the elevator to the basement. Then were lined up according to the docket. We waited for the females to go first before we went before the honorable Magistrate. When it was my time before him, I entered my plea and told him that my side of the story would not be necessary in his judgement. I felt that he had heard the cop had started it story plenty of times before. Staring at the report he ran his hand through his hair. I was now regretting my tactic. I should have mentioned the fuck you and lack of concern for my girlfriend that the arresting pig had. I might of gathered more sympathy but now I'll never know. His judgement was three days, namely for the charge I racked up, when asking that cop those damned questions concerning my girlfriend. I had her car keys in my pocket when I was arrested, but in retrospect I think it was more the tone I used when asking.

After court, I was shuffled around until I found myself back on the forth floor, north cell block, with a few minutes to eat my sack lunch. I counted three days, and narrowed the date and time of my release. I thought Tuesday not knowing what was meant exactly by the judgement. I finished eating my baloney sandwich, ate one of the cookies and wrapped the other up for later. With the other cookie safe in my pocket, I drank the last of my milk. I walked over to the pay phone to find out every last one was turned off.

"Will we be getting time later to use the phones?" I asked the guard when he came back. He responded with a nod yes and locked me up again.

I asked the older guy incarcerated with me, when he thought I would be getting out. I told him that I had received time served for the first night, his answer was sometime after midnight on Monday. Still skeptical about my returning freedom, I choose not to believe him. Honestly, I thought I was going to be waiting for Tuesday night.




Time passed slowly, the guy replacing the kid was released and not long after that he was replaced. The constant circulation of people deepened the desire to leave myself. My stint was during the summer, making the cell unbearably hot. The metallic water and stale recirculated air sucked the life out of me slowly. The floor was by far the coolest place in the cell. I laid happily on the floor thinking about going home. It was now our group of cells to shower, use the phone and to be out of our boxes for fifteen minutes. I went to the phones first, I was confirming my girlfriend was coming to pick me up. Where I discovered that most cell phones companies automatically decline collect calls. Not remembering any phone numbers I could call, I gave up making contact with the outside. I thought a shower was in order being sticky from sweat. When the water came out cold I was almost surprised. I finished quickly, toweled off and started warming myself up by getting dressed.

They locked us up again until dinner started, when released I quickly found a seat and started eating. They provided what looked like shit on a shingle, the worst tasting carrots and two more cookies. The portions just big enough to stop the hunger, and the few small sips of water they called tea did nothing to quench my thirst.

The priests arrival gave me one last chance to be out of the cell for Sunday services. During his sermon he gave out the only reading material the jail offered and is mandated by law to allow. Confessing to doing time and getting his life straight with the word of God, he delivered a message that we could change our ways because he was capable. Before he left, he allowed for some people to talk to him personally. When he departed, as if the guards were magic, the next second everyone was locked up for the night.

It was another fun night full of disruption, someone in another cell lost it and was yelling for nearly an hour. An unfamiliar blond guard stayed ten minutes lulling the guy's composure back. Soon after the guard left he was yelling again. This brought the attetntion of the thick and now mad guard, and a couple minutes later the guy yelling was put to a cell all by himself. This stopped the guy's yelling for the rest of the night.

Another kid was put into our cell, he was arrested for not paying to ride the light rail. I calmed my racing mind eventually by questioning the new guy and again fell a sleep last.




Monday started entirely too early and dragged into what seemed an endless day. The routine was the same, nothing but the minor details changed. The stories being told might of differed, but with twenty-three hour lock down the conversation was bound to repeat its self. When this happened we turned to reading. We only had a revised version of the Bible, book of Johns and pamphlets from church. Imagination was our saviour. Depending on the county, some jails would have different perks, like; books, televisions, warm showers, and even fewer hours in lock-down. This place only offered a bare minimum, most likely excuse was it's a deterrent to coming back.

Plenty of Volkswagen beetles drove by, enough to start playing slug bug. By Monday I had grown the balls to actually slug my older cell mate as hard as I could. Patience must be practiced when playing in jail. Hours can go by with out seeing a single punch wagon. Not everybody can look out a window for hours straight on end, but I did. After giving up, I ripped up a pamphlet to make a paper football. The majority of my time was being killed by talking with the older guy though, and the topic was something a group of men would bring up. Our girlfriends usually were the subject, but talking sex almost never helped the situation. The last thing we needed to be thinking about was getting into a woman's panties.

Waiting for dinner to be served, we played a game of twenty-one with the paper football. Flicking the football at the opposing finger field goals, we realized that the gap under the door need to be blocked off. Outside the cell a guard supervised the trustees as they laid out four trays per table. We stared out the small window in the door, tonight they're serving a tortilla, mixed vegetables, beans, rice and ice cream.

The trustees were privileged inmates that had been selected for good behavior, and the amount of time they still had to serve. They worked in the jail; cleaning, cooking, and doing everything that needed to be done. As a perk they could eat the same food as the guards. And I heard they like to order in pizza. They could also watch a community television for a couple hours or work out during the day when not at work. My older cell mate wanted to become a trustee, he walked a way from a year of work release, now he would be doing that time plus. Being a trustee meant almost having a normal life while inside.

My group of cells dinner time came and I was prepared to get a seat. I walked quickly to the table when the doors opened. I found two flavors of ice cream on the trays, vanilla and chocolate. I had earned a choice of what flavor I wanted by being the early bird. I ate my ice cream first and moved on to the less edible things; avoiding the nasty veggies entirely, giving them a way my cell mate. The kid arrested for not paying for the light rail left a couple hours after dinner. Any time I was alone or awake by self, the anxiety played with my sanity. I paced between the two windows keeping my mind active on things going on around me. I tried not to allow my thoughts to wander off, the wrong thought could brake me mentally, I thought.

The last guy I was forced to share the cell with immediately claimed he was withdrawing from his addiction to methadone. I thought this could be an interesting night. I laid there listening to his story, the older guy was curious and kept him talking. I soon fell a sleep until the door opened, the methadone addict asked if he could get anything for the pain in his back. The door opened again later, but it was my name I was hearing, I had served my time; I was being set free by the people that had apprehended me. I grabbed my shoes, shirt, and blanket then followed the guard. Time slowed to a snails pace while the guard rounded up enough guys for an elevator full. After confirming our identities, they lead us through where they booked us on floor two. They asked for us to take a seat in a cage, but left the door open. I don't know what it was, but at three-o-clock in the morning and being only half awake, that open door was metaphor proclaiming my returning freedom. We waited for the lady to issue our property back one at a time. I of course was the last one and waited what seemed like an hour. Me and one other guy hitched an escort to the first floor with two off duty guards.

While I was there, I shared a cell with six guys, each story entirely different but identical in various ways. Everybody was just another person in the cycle. Each of our stays would have cost the state almost a hundred tax dollars for everyday there. Also, another thirty was collected from every jailed person as a processing fee. And after experiencing it first hand, it's not as bad as I thought it was going to be, but that doesn't mean want to go back. Most details of the experience have been forgotten. It's now a faint memory that needs to be pieced together, but there are certain things that I'll never be able to forget fully.

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