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I Spent the Evening in Jail (Part 1)

And in a courtroom, and a juvenile detention facility and a juvenile rehab center….

It was for school. Really! One of my professors is also a judge, and when he asked the class if we’d like to go on a field trip, I sat up on my hinders, folded my paws, and said yes, please! This was easily one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in a criminal justice class. I thought I would pass it on to you all, as writing fodder, because let’s face it -crime, in all it’s many forms, will never go away. Whether you are writing science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries, having some idea of what is to become of evildoers – or the poor schmoes who just blunder into trouble – may be useful.

We started in the courtroom, which was interesting. At this point in my life I’ve been in a handful of them, for family matters, a citizenship ceremony (Hi, Kate!) and now, this Juvenile Court. Some have been rather pedestrian (Family Court wasn’t much to look at) while others were grand (the Federal courtroom). The general layout remains the same. A judge’s chair, elevated in some way. A visitor’s gallery, for people who are not players in the drama unfolding before the judge. A pair of tables, one for the plaintiff, the other for the defendant. In the Family Court, there was no provision at all for a jury. In the Juvenile Court, there was, even though there are never juries in a juvenile case. I assumed this was to allow the courtroom to serve more than one purpose.

The judge introduced the class to the sheriff, and we headed over to tour the jail. A low, cement building with a facade of bricks, it doesn’t look like much on the outside. We crowded into the control room (there were about fifteen of us, plus the sheriff and a corrections officer who was serving as tour guide) and he showed us how the entire building was run from this room. Subsidiary boards are located in each ‘pod’ or wing of the building, but this one can override them in the case of an incident. Two walls are covered in monitors, giving a view of all the checkpoints and main areas in the building. An old-fashioned control board, literally a map of the building with blinking lights, is watched at all times by an officer. Behind her, a rack full of servers records the feed from the monitors, in case review is needed.

He pointed out the window on the far side of the room. A large garage is termed the sally point, which he didn’t explain the source of the term, just described how they use it – when a prisoner is brought in by law enforcement, the doors on either end mean there is nowhere to run. A small pre-booking room where prisoners are searched lies between the sally point and the main booking room. In that room, which is much larger, there is a digital fingerprint scanner – gone are the days of smeared ink and smudged prints – benches, telephones, officers on a dais behind a heavy counter who search criminal records and start a classification process, and a wall-mounted board with paper records of who is in what cell. This jail is meant to be able to keep running even if the computers go down, which I approve of.

We were lead into the ‘dressing-room’ which was full of banks of lockers. The corrections officer (CO) explained to us for the first time – it would be emphasized throughout the tour – that the jail was rather badly overcrowded. The lockers held the prisoner’s belongings. Anything they brought in with them was locked up until they left. Special yellow tags marked the lockers which held potential weapons. In front of the lockers were restraint chairs, which were intended to hold a person who intended to harm themselves or others. He showed us the shoes – a strange hybrid of croc and flip-flop – and told us that the prisoners paired them, and mostly didn’t care if the two shoes were the same size. Nothing ever fits, he told us. I guess what size they are, and toss them a shirt and pants. They just have to deal with it. The clothing is color-coordinated. I was amused to note that yes, they do still use the black and white stripes we mostly associate with old movies. Colors mark out the violent offenders, this jail is too full to allow the separation of maximum-security from medium-security, so they use the clothes to keep an eye on potential trouble.

From the dressing room we entered a long, narrow hall that made up the ‘waist’ of the building, with the pods extending off it like the legs of trousers. As we were being shown the door to the medical facility, and told that it is manned night and day, but serious injuries were transported to a local hospital, the fire alarms went off. We all stood stock still, not sure what the flashing lights and ear-piercing siren (noise travels through the body at a certain level, and you can *feel* it. This was that loud) meant. After a minute on the radio, the CO explained that a prisoner had managed to break off a sprinkler head in his cell. The alarm would be turned off when the water was reset.

The alarm added a surreal, nightmarish quality to our tour. We passed along the hall, looking at a conference room, the prisoner’s side of the visitation room, and into the first pod we would visit. Here, on one side, was the laundry. The prison generates a lot of laundry, and two prisoners, who earn the job of trusty, are working on folding piles of it. They smile at us, we smiled nervously back. The CO proudly shows off the huge washers and dryers, explaining they each cost about $50K dollars. There are a pair of residential washers and dryers, though, for small loads. He leads us into a smaller pod, the one for special prisoners, and now, as he will do for each door after this, he radios his position and asks for the door to be opened. A faint buzz, and the door is unlocked momentarily. We all pile into the small common area. Hexagonal stainless-steel tables are bolted to the floor, with those dot-stools attached to it by horizontal pillars in place of chairs. Open showers are off to one side of the room, along with the washer and dryer he wanted to show us, and on the other side of the room is a glass-fronted recreation room. We don’t go into it, but I can see on the far wall shelves of battered paperbacks. Later, he will explain that the prison accepts donations of paperback books – no hardbacks- and they are checked thoroughly before being placed into the various pod libraries. The alarm, which had fallen silent, blares again, and the unseen prisoners cry out in protest. Some of us are putting fingers in our ears, so I can understand why they don’t like it. We can at least go back into the hall, where it is quieter.

To be continued… I’ll finish this next week. It’s longer than I thought it would be, now that I’m unpacking all my impressions of that night.


  1. Christopher M. Chupik #

    See? I knew you’d come to a bad end, running around with Puppies . . . 😀

    Cool post, Cedar.

    October 8, 2016
    • the ‘Investigation’ half of my degree has been a fascinating introduction to the criminal justice system, something I knew little about. Getting to go see the result of evidentiary collection and convictions was a very good thing.

      October 8, 2016
      • emily61 #

        what exactly is your degree?

        October 8, 2016
        • It will be a B.S. in Forensic science and investigation with a dual minor in chemistry and molecular biology.

          October 8, 2016
  2. emily61 #

    Is this where the juvenile criminals serve their sentences?

    October 8, 2016
  3. I think Sally Port comes from the military, something like fortified passageway.

    October 8, 2016
    • I believe it dates back to the age of castles and forts, and sallies against the wall, but I haven’t looked it up.

      October 8, 2016
      • Jesse Thorson #

        Yes. A castle under siege would use a sally port to send fighters out to harass the folks trying to take the castle.
        The reason for the two doors is fairly obvious. If someone manages to get into the first hall the defenders could take care of them before the got into the main part of the castle (the Bailey).

        October 8, 2016
      • Alan #

        AFIK, a sally port was for sending out a party (“to sally forth”) against a besieging enemy, typically with the intent either of capturing / destroying some essential enemy resource, or getting messengers out to go for help. They were relatively small, had heavy doors heavily barred, & often required adults to stoop for passage, for the purpose of slowing down any counter-use by the enemy.

        October 12, 2016
  4. Sally Port:

    This is cool; do continue. The astonishing thing is that they let you back out again. Unless, of course, you’re writing this from your kenn– er, cell. 😀

    Got me to thinking about how differently my nonhumans approach the subject. They don’t really have a criminal justice system; justice tends to be meted out by the highest ranking person on the spot, and what they call prison is more of a temporary holding system while one awaits the possible outcomes: death, exile, paying retribution (which may include indenture), pardon, or being permanently marked as a warning to others. If you don’t like the verdict, you can appeal to your local lord or even the planetary prince, or for worlds that have lost their local royalty, the circuit judge (who may or may not be around in a timely manner). There are few laws and no juries. It’s all very ad hoc and somewhat wild west… but not _too_ wild, as almost everyone goes armed. 😀

    October 8, 2016
    • They did let us back out. 😀

      There is a difference between a jail, and a prison, and as you describe your system, that would be more equivalent to a jail.

      October 8, 2016
      • Now you’re scaring me 😀

        Yeah, what my guys have is mostly more like jail. They don’t generally do long-term incarceration, the main exception being a defunct government that put its political enemies in stasis as its alternative to execution. Tho there is such a thing as military prison — which amounts to storage til when/if they need the miscreant’s warm body. And there has been one instance of a planet being used as a POW camp.

        But it’s more likely that if someone really needs locking away for the general good, they already got themselves killed, so the whole thing is, uh, self-limiting.

        October 8, 2016
      • TRX #

        Some states and counties move prisoners between jails and prisons to relieve overcrowding, and I’m told Alaska just dumps prisoners from local lockups into bigger ones without separating them.

        October 8, 2016
  5. Interesting and well done!

    Sally port – from the old castles. It’s an entry portal that is secure on both the inside and outside. It was used in castles as a place to prepare to sally forth against your enemies without the risk of letting them into the castle.

    Three general classes of detention areas. Holding cell/room – for holding detainees temporarily (less than 24 hours, normally less than 12). No food or recreation, must have some sort of access (possibly escorted) to toilet facilities. Think the cells in Andy Griffith’s police station.

    Jail – for the medium term detainment of unconvicted detainees. Similar to prisons, which are for the long term confinement of convicts. Prisons are for punishment, err, I mean rehabilitation. Jails are a place to wait until you’re convicted or set free. Prisons are generally a bit more elaborate and better funded than jails.

    October 8, 2016
  6. I think the term is ‘trustee’.

    I wouldn’t touch any of that dirty laundry without wearing an industrial grade hazmat suit. The washers are supposed to sanitize the laundry; they don’t. The alarm system you experienced provides sleep deprivation. The guards are referred to as screws, generally for good reason.

    Nice post, by the way.

    October 8, 2016
    • Thank you, I have seen it spelled both ways.

      October 8, 2016
      • That statement reminds me of something I hadn’t thought of in ages.


        October 8, 2016

    Although the Supreme Court said that states don’t have to provide jury trials in the juvenile justice system, it allowed for the possibility that they would. (Juveniles tried in the adult system are entitled to juries; see When Juveniles Are Tried in Adult Criminal Court.) Though the practice is relatively rare, some states offer jury trials in juvenile court. In several of those states, juveniles are permitted juries only in limited circumstances—for instance, when the potential sentence is particularly severe due to various factors.

    In England a juvenile charged with murder has to be tried by jury.

    October 8, 2016
    • Yes, if tried as an adult they will have a jury. in Ohio, otherwise, they do not have one.

      October 8, 2016
  8. Jesse #

    I used to work for the state Supreme Court, but IANAL, To develop the software for the Metropolitan, Magistrate, and District courts we had to visit one of each kind and note how they worked. Very interesting experiences. One, I particularly remember, the judge was trying a drunken driving case. The defendant requested jury trial, and his lawyer convinced the jury to not convict him. The defendant was stopped at the side of the road when he was arrested, and was drunk. Just goes to show the value of a good lawyer. Afterwards the Judge told us that particular lawyer had a very good record of getting his clients off.

    October 8, 2016
    • Depends partly on their ability to select the jury, too, you know. (I have never survived voir dire myself…)

      That is eye-opening, though. I used to maintain the County Pretrial Services system, and was in the jail about three times a week, on the other side of the desk like Cedar (uh, budget allowed for two 1200 baud modems for connecting to the main database at the courthouse, so you can imagine the synchronization problems I had). Always amused me to see the prostitutes hauled in, note the way they were dressed, then watch the (younger) lady lawyers and aides walking into the courthouse the next day. Guess which ones actually showed more flesh?

      Successful trial lawyers are master psychologists.

      October 8, 2016

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