A Hard Jail Is Good to Find

Lack of luxuries in Jacksonville's jail 
forces inmates to clean up fast


Jacksonville has a hard jail:

• No TV, no radio, no Internet.

• Few classes, no jobs.

• No prison yard and no sun. You can play basketball on concrete courts, but you'd better be able to dunk.

"Hard" is a technical, not a pejorative, term in criminal justice. It means a facility where security and safety come first, comfort and happiness second.

Contrast this with a soft lockup. Franklin County, Pa., has the snazziest jail I've ever seen. Inmates gather in a lobby fit for a resort hotel to drink espresso (ah!), to read uplifting periodicals and to watch educational television in high-def. Sunlight floods through a crystalline atrium.

Outside, inmates can work all day trimming grass and pruning roses. Inside, they attend 12-step meetings, chat up prison society visitors and enjoy music for every mood. Vendors deliver goody boxes of chocolates, meats and a fine selection of cheeses. School is in session every day. All this makes you want to rush up to Chambersburg, slap a cop and join the fun.

Other things occur in soft jails. Since visitors can sit with and touch inmates, they often arrive with cheeks and fannies stuffed with narcotics, knives and the occasional derringer. Using cellphones delivered by Rectum Express, inmates order hits on witnesses and shakedowns of other inmates' families. Inside, the homeboys, the carnales and the skinheads clique up, port arms and charge into battle. Forget about the cheese and the chocolates. Murder is always at the top of the menu.

Jacksonville's jail, by contrast, is rock hard. It's miserable for inmates, but good for them and their families, for several reasons.

There is extraordinarily little violence, considering the thousands of men and women jammed in there like Spam in the can. Corrections officers move inmates frequently between floors so they can't clique up, conspire and fight. Visitation occurs behind bullet-resistant glass, so the only thing visitors can pass to inmates is best wishes.

This means that your family member or friend is reasonably safe inside. You don't have to empty your bank account or max your cards for bail bonds right away. You can leave your inmate on ice for a few days while you discover what he or she is charged with and decide what, if anything, you can do about it.

The jail diet is 1,500 calories per day. After a few weeks, the beer guts, the man boobs and the bubble butts melt away. The place works like a millionaire fat farm, except that the lettuce is lousy and there's no Chablis.

Eighty-five percent of inmates book into the Jacksonville jail with their brains pickled in alcohol or fried by Schedule I (illegal) and Schedule II and III (prescription) narcotics.

But not for long.

Among the many things our jail lacks are booze, drugs, nicotine and caffeine. This means no Cokes, no tea, no coffee, no Red Bull, no nothing. Every week, several hundred inmates get off drugs in a one-step, cold-turkey, non-program provided, gratis, by Jacksonville's gently millaged taxpayers. Behind steel doors, on concrete floors, nature takes its course.

Ordinary citizens' knowledge of drug withdrawal comes, blessedly, only from television and movies, most famously Frank Sinatra's Oscar-nominated performance in "The Man with the Golden Arm." This depicts withdrawal as a near-death experience. In real life, it's less dramatic. Addicts clean up all the time, which is to say, whenever they run out of money.

In jail, however, addicts get squeaky clean, because they go off all drugs, legal and illegal, all at once. It's impressive. For the first few days, they're dancing the Heroin Hoochie Coochie, the Crackhead Cha-Cha-Cha and the Oxy Rock 'n' Roll. They're also having Cigarette Willies, the Gin Jake Shakes and the Mother of All Headaches as coffee and cola become fond memories. That stuff oozing out of every pore is jailhouse jelly, thicker than sweat and twice as nasty.

After three or four days, it's over. Inmates wake up, dizzy and exhausted, but back on planet Earth. After a month, if their livers are functioning, their tox screens will rival 
Mitt Romney's.

Crash detox is good for inmates' health, but bad for their legal defense. When inmates are charged with felonies, detectives will question them immediately after booking, when they're wasted, or a day later, when they're crazed. Some defendants are so rattled they'd confess to murder in return for two aspirin, a cigarette and some coffee.

This is an outrage, but the law does not allow intoxication with illegal substances to be asserted as a defense. It's a concern, because too many defendants do hard time in state prisons because they confess to jacked-up charges incommensurate with their offenses.

Nonetheless, if defendants can clam up for three days, they will be able to assist in their defense in a new, and unfamiliar, state of rationality. During ones weekly visit, families will rediscover their loved ones, sane and sober, perhaps for the first time in years. If the jail ever gets a mascot, his name should be Jaxson DeTox.

It's no fun cleaning up on the inside, pissing into your flip-flops and blowing your guts into the drains. For criminal defendants, however, the Hard-Ass Hotel is better than the Ritz. Sober and sane, and safe, they can ponder the hard road to a Florida prison, or even a return to freedom,

In Crime City.

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The thing to remember about our county jails is that they serve two purposes: pre-trial detention of folks charged with crimes and post-trial incarceration of sentences not to exceed one year. Your article focuses on the short-term effects of incarceration in a "hard" jail. I am not going to address the issue of treating someone who is only accused of a crime, and doesn't have the money to bond out, in such an inhumane manner.

But I am very curious as to why you think it is good for the inmates who are sentenced to this jail for some period of time to continue to be fed such a low-calorie diet and, even worse, to have no physical contact with their family members, which includes their children, and nothing to do. Incarceration should be about rehabilitation, particularly for the offender incarcerated for no more than a year. It does neither the inmates nor society any good to basically warehouse someone for a period of time with nothing to do. As you say, "few classes, no jobs, no prison yard and no sun." We should be working to improve the lives of people caught up as minor criminals, not warehousing them for a year, hardening their hearts and diminishing their work skills. This is bad policy for society. Tuesday, August 20, 2013|Report this


To D. Schroth,

Good points. 900 words doesn't allow too much comment. Regarding education and training, most misdemeanor sentences last less than a year. That's not enough time for education or job training. Once sentenced, most convicts go to the medium security prison farm on Lanne Road where conditions are better. I should have mentioned this, but 900 words limits things.

As to barriers to contact with family members, I support them in the main jail. In the visitation rooms, you can see repairs where family members used ballpoint pens to bore through the mortar to pass drugs, syringes and shivs to inmates.

Yes, the jail houses too many schnooks, who have been over charged for petty offenses. It also detains stone criminals who ENJOY raping, robbing and killing. I've spent hours interviewing these guys, and they shiver my soul.

Many misdemeanor sentences include probation or diversion to treatment. In Florida, the probation system is based on individual responsibility rather than state obligation. Probationers are required to complete their education on their own. If the jail simply forced inmates into class under armed guard, character growth might not occur.

Thanks for reading the column. Argue with me anytime!

Wes Wednesday, August 21, 2013|Report this