I was asked by BitcoDavid to give my impressions of jail and prison as a paralegal. From 1993 to the end of 2006, I have spent a lot of my time either going into a prison or a jail. I hear many confuse the word jail when they mean prison so let me clarify the difference. Simply put, if one is arrested and awaiting trial, is convicted or pleas to a sentence that is less than one year – that person will serve his sentence in a county jail. If after a trial or a plea, and the sentence is a year on up – that person goes to a state prison. Federal sentences are carried out a bit differently – they are mainly all served in a federal prison.
When I was first hired as a paralegal in 1996, it was primarily to be the liaison between jail and the law office. I was already involved in prison ministry and had been inside many prisons by then. Therefore, this new position seemed to fit right in. Jails are a different animal than prisons. Between the two, just about any inmate will take a prison over a jail. Why?
Jail is a 24-hour confinement in a cell pod area – no place to walk, except for possibly one hour of recreation a day in a small area. A few other activities could be attending a religious service, going to the law library, visiting with legal counsel or reporting to medical – if necessary. In one jail where I visited clients, medium and minimum-security inmates walked to chow. Maximum-security inmates were served at their cells. Cell pods are large enclosures composed of beds and tables, or separate areas consisting of smaller cells around the walls, with tables in the middle. They’re often overflowing, with inmates sleeping on the floor – very close quarters. However, the stress is probably the worst factor. The majority of inmates are awaiting trial. Tensions are high. Mistrust is like nowhere else. Con games are going on constantly, and some inmates become snitches for the State, hoping it will help them get a better deal. Unfortunately, it often works.
In order to get inside a jail, I needed a permission letter written by the attorney, to a Captain or Sergeant in the Sheriff’s Office who oversees visitations by legal counsel. When I would show up to see a client, and my name checked with date and time entered, I was given a badge to wear while inside. I generally had a one-hour time limit, but if I were to see more than one client, then I had however long it took to complete the visitation. One time I got so busy seeing clients (I had about 6) I didn’t watch the clock, and when I went to leave the normal way, no one was on duty. In fact, I could not see anyone down one hall or another. I felt a little panic as I forgot how to get to Intake, where new arrestees are brought in. Finally, I found Intake and explained why I was inside. Because they had seen my face before, they believed me and we had a good laugh. Maybe if this had happened after 9/11 it would not have been so funny as many rules changed after that.
Before 9/11, in the 1990s, I had a lot of leeway. At this one jail, there were 5 floors. Each floor had 2 to 3 attorney rooms – mostly glass – where I was locked in with the inmate. Often, those rooms were occupied. No problem! On one particular floor, they had a broom closet with a metal bench type table. Yes, that is where I would go and meet with the client among mops, buckets and sanitizers! Actually, I got the job done very well, and could leave when I wanted to. I almost preferred this room. In the attorney room, I would have to ring a buzzer, and wait for a deputy to open the door so I could leave.
That was another story, waiting on the deputy to open the door – letting me out was not top priority. Several times I would be locked in for quite awhile because, for example, of shift changes. I would much rather been in the broom closet, and able to leave whenever I wanted.
Each jail has a different layout, therefore, it would behoove you to listen to directions thoroughly, the first time – one could get confused with all the hallways. Some used color-coded stripes on walls or floors to different wings. Video cameras were strategically placed.
Like I mentioned earlier, inmates would prefer prison to jail. Where jail is quite confining, prison allows more freedom. One could almost say, prison is like a community environment –everyone makes their own bed and does their own laundry. They have a job to do every day. If not working at a job, inmates can go to classes like GED, or learn a skill. Outside ministry programs like Prison Fellowship and Kairos, [Kairos Prison Ministry – ed.] offer church services. Typically, there will be a law library. Inmates walk to chow, can exercise or join a sports team, go to the canteen and make phone calls. All of this of course is regulated, but from this perspective, there is more of a life.
Then there is the emotional factor. In prison, they know they are there for a while. It could be a little over a year, or for life. Nevertheless, the tension of not knowing the immediate future is gone. They settle in, so to speak, to start a new life. This new life though, offers new challenges – just like in any new neighborhood. Every prison has its gangs, its predators, nice people and bad people.
Well, aren’t they all bad? You would be surprised at how many decent people find that they are suffering the consequences of a bad decision, for whatever reason. Of course, many are actually innocent. That is where I come in – the innocent! It has been my passion all the while, in criminal law, to help free the innocent – to see justice done.