Tales from Jail: Truth in numbers

By Rebecca F. Owen


Editor’s note: This is the second in a three part series by Rebecca F. Owen about her experience volunteering at Hampshire County Jail.

It was no surprise to me when I took a tour of the Hampshire County Jail that I felt intimidated.

This was my first introduction to the jail where I would be volunteering as a decisional trainer for the next 10 weeks. The man leading the tour – who I’ll call Bill, as all names have been redacted to protect the identities of those working or held within the jail – had worked in the jail for over two decades and his perspective on working in a jail was interesting to me.

At first, Bill emphasized that the inmates were just people who had made mistakes in their lives and they, for the most part, were not that dangerous. He explained that 90 percent of the time it was really boring to work at the jail, but the other 10 percent of the time could get pretty exciting. And by exciting, he meant the behavior of inmates could at times be negative.

Later though, he changed his tone, perhaps realizing we visitors were nearly all young women and wanting us to take on the situations within the jail with a watchful and careful attitude. He told us that he had a daughter at home, and he knows a jail is a dangerous place for a young female. He told us to wear modest, baggy clothing each time we came to the jail, and that the inmates would try to trick us into breaking the facilities’ rules, such as getting us to bring them anything from pens to drugs.

As we walked through the jail, our tour passed holding rooms. There was only one man within the holding room; he was sleeping off a hangover while waiting for his bail. Bill let us enter an empty cell to see what the living space in a jail was like. It was a little creepy going inside, especially when the man leading the tour jokingly threatened to lock us in.

The cell itself smelled like cleaning solutions and was bare except for a bed, a toilet bowl and a tiny sink. All the furniture was bolted to the floor or walls and there was no pillow on the bed, just a plastic mattress. The mirror above the tiny sink was plastic instead of glass so prisoners couldn’t break it and use the pieces to hurt themselves or others.

It was blatantly obvious touring the facility that the jail had two main priorities – to keep all inmates locked up no matter what, and to keep them healthy and safe.

From what I saw, the men inside the jail probably get better health care than many students at the University of Massachusetts.  They have their own dentist, doctors and social workers, all free for them to use whenever they need care. As Bill said, it really is like a little city inside the jail.

We passed a barber shop run by inmates, a cafeteria, a couple of libraries, a store, a gym, a woodworking studio and other “amenities.”  There were various rooms for high school and college courses to take place; inmates at the Hampshire County Jail can earn a GED as well as take college courses taught by Amherst College professors.

The most dramatic point in our tour occurred as we entered the main residential section of the facility. The jail’s cells are divided into a few categories, with some having very high security and others low security. In high security, inmates are either confined to their rooms 23 hours a day, or can move about only a modest size room. In low security, inmates essentially live in dorms and can walk around freely.

When the door to the residential building was opened, we immediately heard screams. I imagined the faces of all of us visitors going white, and it’s likely this wasn’t far from reality. Bill explained casually that the men must have figured out there was a tour going on and they were acting up for us. As we walked past men locked behind walls with windows it was terrifying to be stared at as if we were meat.

I was no longer terrified by the end of my time volunteering in the jail; this still amazes me, given how disturbing I found my initial tour to be.

I remember during one visit to the jail the press box where we usually met was busy. Instead, we met in the cafeteria where other inmates wandered around us. It wasn’t that I felt at home there, having a decisional training session in the middle of a jail cafeteria, but by that point, I wasn’t scared. And it was when I felt less threatened by spending an hour every week one-on-one with an inmate that I began to ponder the effectiveness of the Decisional Training program and why so many individuals end up in jail in the first place.

Jail is a tough place to be.  Inmates have little contact with their family and friends, they have no comforts of home for months or years on end, and they have little emotional space, if any.

So it never surprised me that fights occur. What did shock me was that correctional officers sometimes provoke fights. The result of an inmate fighting at the Hampshire County Jail, no matter if it was provoked by staff or not, can be anything from losing “good time” to isolation for up to 10 days at a time. “Good time” is days earned for working, or participating in education or in programs (such as Decisional Training); these days are then subtracted from the inmate’s sentence. In any case, most people agree they would like to avoid jail.

Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2010, 2.3 million individuals in the United States do spend time in jail each year. This means that for every 100 people in the United States, one individual will go to prison at some point in his or her life. And for young, black males, one out of three will go to jail at some point in his life.

Compared to other countries, the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners What’s more, U.S. jails overall are actually overcapacity by 6 percent..

When I first looked up these statistics, I felt shocked and saddened. Why are our jails overpopulated? If it’s because of high crime rates, then why are there such high crime rates? Why don’t we, society, preventively intervene more often?

All moral arguments aside, it is detrimental to our economy to have so many prisoners. While this many people are incarcerated our economy loses out on greater numbers of productivity and income taxes. And according to California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, keeping one individual locked up can cost the U.S. as much as $47,000 or more. This is about twice the cost of attending UMass for a year. So why shouldn’t U.S. taxpayer money be used to prevent individuals from ending up in jail, rather than paying to keep them in prison? In the long run, it would save us a lot of cash.

This article is the second of a three-day series by Rebecca F. Owen. She is a senior psychology honors student and can be reached at [email protected]