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How Accurate Is This Guide To What Jail Is Really Like?

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Maybe it’s the breakout success of the Netflix original series Orange Is The New Black, but jail is pretty hot right now. While the show takes place in a women’s prison, most experiences in long-term facilities begin with being booked into a county jail. 

That might be why the San Antonio Express-News sent reporter Sarah Tressler in to produce a slideshow about what she learned by volunteering to go through the booking process, and talking with police Sgt. Michelle Reyes and jail administrator Raul Banasco. Tressler walked through the process and came out with ten tips for people who could find themselves arrested at some point (a group that includes, er, everybody). It’s an interesting read, but it’s also fair to question how accurate a representation of the jail experience Tressler received—after all, most people who go through it aren’t volunteers who get a personal chat with an administrator at the end to answer questions. 

We consulted Lauren Johnson, a prisoners’ rights advocate who’s been through the system a few times, in order to learn which of Tressler’s tips rang true, and which ones weren’t representative of the process for people who aren’t working with the department. Tressler’s tips broke down into a few categories. Here’s what Johnson had to say: 

How To Dress

Tressler is definitely right that county jails are cold, uncomfortable places to be. She advises that “the last thing you need is an outfit that’s too tight, itchy, or generally uncomfortable… while most people don’t leave their house every day prepared to go to the slammer, keeping a sweatshirt and a pair of sneakers in your car isn’t a bad idea.” 

Dealing with the cold is important, but Johnson says that having some jail sweats in the car probably doesn’t matter much. “The reality is that it’s not likely that they’re going to let you pull out some tennis shoes and sweats and socks from your trunk to take with you—it’s pretty much come as you are,” Johnson says. Depending on how you were dressed before you came in, there might be some relief—”If you’re really scantily clad, sometimes they’ll let you change into the jail scrubs,” Johnson says—but that’s not exactly a comfy sweatshirt. And, according to Johnson, even the blankets that are sometimes offered don’t necessarily do the job. “Some counties will give out blankets in the holding cell at night, but they’re not real punctual about bringing them out,” she says. “But they’re very punctual about picking them up. It’s not been beyond me to try to mummify myself with some toilet paper, but they get the really cheap stuff, so it tears and doesn’t work out too well.”

So while Tressler gets the part about the cold right, there’s not really much to offer by way of solutions. 

Who To Talk To

Tressler’s advice to have a “phone friend” you can call when it happens isn’t bad, though most people who get arrested aren’t exactly sure when it’ll happen. Still, some of the things she encountered in Bexar County vary by where you are—Tressler found a phone with no handset that only made collect calls, while Johnson says that Travis and Williamson County have more traditional phones, and the “one phone call” that television has convinced people is one of their rights (it isn’t) is actually free. 

“Travis County actually has the handheld phones. But they’ll shut them off, or sometimes they don’t work,” Johnson warns. “They will give you that free phone call or two, but it’s also a matter of them having the staff. Because no one remembers phone numbers anymore, it’s a matter of getting some staff to stand there with you while you write down some phone numbers out of your cell phone. You only get one or two shots at that.” It’s not a bad idea in life to have the important numbers memorized—you might not end up in jail, but you could certainly lose your phone.

Tressler also reports that Raul Banasco, the jail administrator she spoke to, advised her that people should keep quiet and mind their own business, since you never know who in your cell might be dangerous. Johnson says that she’s encountered some tension before, but that keeping to yourself can make the very long hours and/or days even longer. 

“You have the option to stay to yourself, but it makes for a really long hour or day,” Johnson says. “I don’t want to say that it turns into a pajama party, but there’ve been times…. You just want to make the best out of the situation that you’re given. But also I’ve seen times where the tension runs high and it could be a pretty volatile thing. It kind of depends on the group you fall in with.”

In either case, though, Johnson says that the worst part of the experience is just not knowing what’s going to happen. Jail staff is busy, and explaining every part of the process to people who are consumed with crippling anxiety about their situation isn’t really part of the job description. That’s one of the advantages to talking with the rest of the people in the room. “In talking to the people around you, you’ll have a couple of people who have no idea what to expect, and a couple who’ve been through the system a few times, and they can give you an idea,” she says, before warning that certain parts of human nature can take over. “But if it’s not what you want to hear, you’ll tune them out. If they’re like, ‘You’re gonna be here a while,’ you’ll be like, ‘Oh, she’s wrong! That’s not the right person to talk to!’ It may not be unrealistic advice, it may just not be what you’re ready to hear.”

How It Smells And What To Eat

One area in which Tressler’s experience did mimic that of anyone who goes through the process for real is that she found the smells and food to be disgusting. That part of it, Johnson says, is 100% accurate. “TDC [Texas Department of Corrections, which runs the state jails and prisons] has these grey hot dogs,” Johnson says. “The food is not the best, which is why they make so much money on commissary. County jails are notorious for charging more for their commissary. It costs a lot to maintain a different way of living in the county jail.” 

That’s the experience in the larger counties, anyway. Johnson says that she’s heard from other people that, in small towns, things can be a little different. “I’ve heard stories about some of these small towns where they’ll order pizza on certain nights, because it’s easier to order food from a nearby restaurant for five people than it is to have a staff cooking meals for them all day,” she explains. “But Travis County, Williamson County, people who are putting out 2,000 meals a day—they’re trying to do it on a budget. You’ll get a couple of decent meals, and after you’ve been there for a while and you’re starving to death, you’ll eat a little bit more. But in the beginning, you’re like, ‘Ew, I can’t eat that.’ Peanut butter and jelly and waffles were my favorite days.” 

How To Respond To The Staff

It’s not a surprise that, when getting advice from people who work in the jail, one of the tips offered to Tressler was to cooperate. That isn’t bad advice, of course—nobody gets out of jail early because they were such a pain in the ass to have around—but Johnson also says that it’s worth speaking up from time to time. 

“Absolutely cooperate and do what they’re asking you to do, but also speak up for yourself when you get the chance,” she says. “Because occasionally, you will get that staff that will answer your questions and help you with what you need. Not all of them are going to be willing or able to do that, but closed mouths don’t get fed.” 

Tressler also says to mention any mental health or medical issues. Again, that’s not bad advice, but it isn’t necessarily going to get you results. “When I went in and was pregnant, they gave me a test before they took my word for it,” Johnson says. “Medical has their hands tied by the safety and security staff on what they can deal with and what they can prescribe and give out. A lot of times, it could be dangerous, but for the most part it seems to work for them.” 

The mental health stuff is a little trickier. Tressler is right when she says that they’re very concerned about potential suicides, but when Johnson talks about how some of those concerns are brought up, she has a hard time keeping a straight face. 

“They’ll ask you some wonderful questions,” she laughs. “Not so much in county, but when you go through the process in TDC, they’ll ask, ‘Do you have any special powers that other people don’t have?’ ‘Do you hear voices that other people don’t hear?’ Hearing somebody ask that question—I know that there are people out there who do have these issues. I’m like, ‘Well, I always wanted to fly….” But they ask these questions for a reason.” 

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