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The Jail Mess
Two-thirds of all U.S. offenders technically serving time are actually outside the walls on parole or probation, but most offenders have at some point encountered the worst correctional evil: county jails and similar local lockups. Such institutions number 4,037—a fact not even known until last week, when the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration published the first national jail census. Jails usually hold misdemeanants serving sentences of a year or less. More important, they detain defendants awaiting trial: 52% of all people in jails have not yet been convicted of any crime. Of those, four out of five are eligible for bail but cannot raise the cash. Because courts are overloaded, unconvicted defendants may linger in crowded cells for months or even years.
To be sure, jails vary widely from two-cell rural hovels to modern urban skyscrapers. But the vast majority treat minor offenders—and the merely accused—more harshly than prisons do felons, who commit graver crimes. The jail mess is typified by New Orleans' Parish Prson, a putrid pen built in 1929 to hold 400 prisoners. It now contains 850—75% of them unsentenced. Money and guards are so short that violent inmates prey on the weak; many four-bunk cells hold seven inmates, mattresses smell of filth and toilets are clogged. Prisoners slap at cockroaches "so big you can almost ride them."
Jail conditions frequently breed hardened criminals who then go on to the prisons themselves, the second anomaly in a pattern that stands as a monument to irrationality. The typical U.S. felon is sentenced by a judge who may have never seen a prison and has no idea whether x years will suffice. Leaving the courtroom, where his rights were scrupulously respected, the felon has a good chance of being banished to one of 187 escape-proof fortresses, 61 of them built before 1900. Now stripped of most rights, he often arrives in chains and becomes a number. His head sheared, he is led to a bare cage dominated by a toilet. In many states his cellmate may represent any kind of human misbehavior—a docile forger, a vicious killer, an aggressive homosexual.
In this perverse climate, he is expected to become socially responsible but is given no chance to do so. He is told when to wake up, eat and sleep; his letters are censored, his visitors sharply limited. His days are spent either in crushing idleness or at jobs that do not exist in the "free world," such as making license plates for a few cents' pay an hour. In some states, he cannot vote (even after his release), own property or keep his wife from divorcing him. He rarely gets adequate medical care or sees a woman. Everything is a privilege, including food, that can be taken away by his keepers.
If he is accused of violating one of scores of petty rules, he is haled before the "adjustment council" without right to counsel. If he denies guilt, he can be punished for implying that his accuser guard lied; if he admits it, he may lose "good time" (eligibility for parole) and perhaps land in solitary. The lesson is clear: truth does not pay.
If he happens to be a rich criminal, a Mafia type, life in some prisons can be easy. Ill-paid "hacks" (guards) may sell him anything from smuggled heroin to a girlish cellmate. More often he is