Next, you’re fingerprinted, strip-searched, and outfitted in prison blues. Dark navy blue pants and shirt, with black letters, SD JAIL, on the front and back of the shirt. You also get a white undershirt, underwear, and socks. The whites are laundered regularly, but they can be ragged, mismatched, and stained. (A woman who’s been in Las Colinas 23 times said for her the worst physical part was wearing jail underwear: “They say, ‘We washed them,’ but you can tell someone else wore them.”) You’re then given a medical exam, where nurses winnow out those with drug or psych problems. (Despite constant medical evaluations in jail and prison, estimates are that one in five inmates is mentally ill.) You hear the charges again explained to you. If you say you don’t understand the charges (or a medical staff person decides you don’t), you become a 1368, a reference to a section of the California Penal Code. The code requires that any criminal proceeding against what the court terms a mentally incompetent person will be recessed until that person receives treatment and can understand the charges. (Long-term 1368s are sent to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino.) You’re next interviewed by deputies so you can be reclassified and put into a secure module or open bay (outfitted with three-tier bunk beds, metal tables, and benches, all bolted to the ground). If the deputies consider you a risk, you’ll be placed in an individual cell with a cellie. Finally, you must be charged within 72 hours. You can be held in jail (downtown or at any of the county detention facilities) while you await trial or while you serve time for a misdemeanor conviction, which, by law, cannot exceed one year in jail. You can also be held after you’ve been convicted of a felony and while you are awaiting transfer to a state prison.
It all sounds — from the procedural point of view — efficient and humane and erected with the safety of inmate, deputy, and visitor in mind. But go through the place and your sensibility changes. The central jail on Front Street, opened in 1998, is an Orwellian fortress, a disciplinarian’s high-tech dream. On the outside, its ten stories are stacked with fake windows; on the inside, its concrete-block walls are painted with thick coats of white paint. Every floor contains a warren of passageways, stairwells, elevators, separate entrances/exits for visitors and attorneys; there’s even a “last door,” through which a “gated out” inmate dashes to the street. Most striking are the sally ports. Here, when visitors or inmates are going from one secure floor or wing to another, a person is locked in for an interminable moment. Ceiling-hung closed-circuit cameras (260 of them) monitor every hallway, drunk tank, safety cell, and medical bay, while computer screens flash pictures of a holding cell where a prisoner might lie naked on the floor, his polystyrened dinner flung against the wall. Individual cells and housing modules where inmates are kept have no bars but, instead, heavy steel doors with clear Plexiglas windows about 12 inches square. The doors are powered by compressed air; they buzz a warning, then fffpphhut shut. Deputies can close and open doors individually or all together on any floor.
One probationer, who was in the San Diego jail for 104 days, described it as a “futuristic hellhole. [You’re] incarcerated in a large room, and the cells are on two tiers on the backside of the room.” This large room, also called a housing module, or ward, is wedge-shaped — narrow at the front and wide at the back. At the front of the room, the probationer went on, “are metal tables and a large, two-story glass wall. Outside the glass wall is the tower — a black-windowed two-story tower that the deputies are watching you from. They can see you, but you can’t see them. Plus every cell has an intercom so they can listen whenever they want to.” The downtown jail has four housing modules per floor, with 40 to 50 inmates in each, on five floors. Each floor contains a tower in the center whose panoptic views into the wedge-shaped modules make it easy for a squad of guards to monitor the behavior of the inmates, more than 900 in all.
Throughout these modules are men, sleeping, mopping, standing around; throughout the intake floors are men, being searched, questioned, medically examined; throughout the hallways are deputies, standing guard, handcuffing, unhandcuffing inmates: the effect is, the inmates seem cowed, made insignificant by the organizational malevolence of the building.
Depending on your case (especially if you’re charged with a felony), your court date, or your sentence, you’ll probably end up at one of five county detention facilities: Descanso, George F. Bailey, East Mesa, Vista, or South Bay, each with varying levels of security. If you get a cell in one of the larger county jails, typically you’re locked up with another person anywhere from 15 to 23 hours a day. The cell is nine by six feet. There are bunk beds, with an inch-and-a-half-thick mattress, a combination toilet-sink, a stainless-steel mirror, a steel table to write on, and a steel bench. Under your bunk is a shelf on which you can keep up to six books, pen, paper, envelopes, soap, and foodstuff. You come out to the dayroom for showers, books, meals, checkers, talk, contraband (typically weapons, drugs from the outside, or meds given inside that guys tongue or don’t swallow; many are desperate for tranquilizers), and stores (stuff you buy in jail: junk food, instant coffee, ramen noodles, Soup in a Cup, and so on, up to $75 a week).
For women in Las Colinas, there are often four to the cell. A woman who’d served time there said sometimes the newest woman in the cell would bed down on the floor. “There was no room to go to the bathroom,” until she rolled up her mattress. With four in a cell, what was the protocol for using the toilet? “It depends on your roommate — if you get respectful roommates or make a pact with each other that, hey, if someone has to go, we all go out of the room. But that’s only if the doors are open. If the doors are closed — most of the day they are; we only come out, like, three hours a day and a couple hours at night — then you have to go with the other persons in there.”