Analysis & Comment

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

When I was 22 years old, I committed robbery and murder. I plead 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 deaths 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 ADHD, 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. He was wrestled to the ground, tased and handcuffed.

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 an 11-month period were mentally ill.

Conditions in county jails aren’t just bad 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 costs $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 cost almost $13 in County.

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 both 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 from one facility to another.

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 jail 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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