Finding yourself in jail or prison for the first time unlatches a simple conundrum: you can’t know what you’re about to face because, had you known, you might have avoided the crime, or at least taken more care not to get caught while committing it. Lockup sucks. When you don’t do as you’re told (by guard and race boss alike), you suffer. Aren’t you supposed to suffer your punishment? Yes, but like anything, there are degrees: It’s up to you, son, how difficult your time here’s going to be. It’ll be easy — say, easier — if you cooperate. With whom? With the deputies, the correctional officers (COs), and the other prisoners, an array of aliens you would never trust on the outside, let alone on the inside of a holding cell or penitentiary.

Consider this man’s wretched tale, the first time he was put into the San Diego Central Jail. It began during his arraignment. A substance abuser, the man was already in a treatment program when he was charged with a felony. He believed the judge would release him back to the treatment program. But instead, the judge set his bail at $100,000 (which the man couldn’t post) and directed deputies to lock him up. The man started sobbing, dropped to his knees, howled that there’d been a mistake, all of which, he said, the guards, who were dragging him away, “don’t suffer very easily.” They handcuffed him and took him to a safety cell — hard rubber walls and a drain in the middle of the floor. He was stripped and given a garment — a polyester vest that goes “to your navel.” The cell “is cold,” he told me. “It’s got feces, blood, urine, boogers.” He couldn’t sleep. There were three or four other cells nearby, so “you hear the grief” from those men too. Food was slid through a slot in the door. Cold sandwiches and apples. A psychiatrist, once a day, spoke through the slot: Are you going to hurt yourself? Are you ready to listen to the deputies? Left there for 48 hours (under constant video surveillance), he learned that resistance, active or passive, was futile. Once you’re in the safety cell, “You just wished you had cooperated.”

In fact, the only option is cooperation. Recalled a probationer, “You’re put into a holding tank with 20-plus guys. The tension is there; you’re feeling [he laughs] some tension. There’s a lot of people that are not happy, just freshly arrested. Then you go to another room, and you line up against a wall. They tell you, lift your nut sac, lift your dick, bend over and spread your cheeks. They look in your mouth, go through your hair — very thorough. The guards are not very nice about it; it’s a demeaning thing. You feel powerless. You feel, my God, what have I come to? This is where I am?”

Consider this woman’s savvy testimony: jail at 18 and prison, off and on, in her 20s and 30s. “The first trip I took to jail, I got arrested for [being] drunk in public. I remember when they put the handcuffs on me, I got a fear inside. But because I come from where I come from, I know how to play the role. The role is, you can’t let your fears show. If you let your fears show, then you’re in a lot of trouble. You go in there and act like you have no feelings. You go in there like a steel person. If you show fear, you get walked on. When you walk into jail,” she continued, “you step into a whole other dimension, the county jail’s world, and whatever they say goes. It’s your word against their word. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen deputies beat inmates. They beat you for not turning around and putting your face against the wall. They’ve got this control issue. Picture yourself going into a cave, like a dungeon. There’s only one way in and one way out.”

Of her first entry to prison: “Imagine this. You’re on a bus and you’re shackled. You got a CO sitting in front with a shotgun and you got one sitting in back with a shotgun, and they tell you from the start: ‘I don’t give a fuck about you and I won’t hesitate to blow your fucking heads off, so keep your fucking mouths shut, and we won’t have no problems.’ That scared the shit out of me. I wasn’t playing with the little girls no more. It was a whole other world. The COs demoralize you. You don’t say nothing. You just watch. That way you don’t get fronted out, yelled at, or thrown on the ground. It’s their tactic — to break you down.”

I wanted to know how inmates survive the humiliation and dominion of jail and prison. So I asked them — a dozen men and women who’ve been in (and are now out of) the central jail, county detention, or state prison, whether it was Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa or another state pen. (Probationers, parolees, and ex-prisoners spoke to me with the proviso that I would not reveal their identities or their crimes.) They have faceless voices, nameless stories. It’s no surprise they’re full of gratitude for being out, though most fear breaking parole and going back. All are trying to avoid the neighborhoods and the crews that helped spawn their crimes; all are trying to navigate a job market that wants to know where they’ve been. Those with whom I spoke sounded beat, tired of watching their backs, tired of feeling doomed. To a man, to a woman, no one going in the first time was prepared for the shudder of incarceration; everyone coming out talks like an adept, a climber who’s scaled Mount Everest. Few slow learners survive behind bars.

Arrested in San Diego

If you’re male and arrested in San Diego, you’re processed at the central jail, which is run by the county sheriff’s department. (Women are taken to Las Colinas in Santee.) As a suspect, you slump-shoulder your way through hours of the booking procedure, a maze of questioning stations and holding cells. First, your property is confiscated and bagged; a triage nurse asks four questions (been in an accident in the past 24 hours? have any major medical problem? have an infectious disease? feeling suicidal?). Depending on your answers, you may receive medical attention. Next, you’re photographed, and the picture is placed with a number and a bar code on your wristband. Once you’re wristbanded, your bar code is scanned wherever you go inside the jail. The color of the band determines your status: blue for an entry or a regular inmate; brown for trustee; green for high security, like guys entrenched in gangs; and yellow for highest security. Informers, molesters, child killers, the “yellow banders” might be hurt or killed by other inmates, so they’re segregated. You’re told again of the charges against you and your bail amount (very few arrestees make bail), and you’re given access to a telephone for free calls.

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