10 Things I Hate About Jail

BELOW is a list of the 10 most detestable things I experienced while incarcerated at Burleigh Morton County Detention Center - a special kind of hell. You can file this article somewhere between field reporting, advocacy, and self-righteous indignation.  Though other people may have gone through other things in other correctional facilities, here’s my take on the evils I experienced.

 Sorry I couldn't make it. I've kind of had my hands tied.

Sorry I couldn't make it. I've kind of had my hands tied.

1. NO LEAVING THE ROOM — Imagine you’re bored. Actually, imagine you’re as bored as you’ve ever been in your life for the tenth day in a row. OK, the natural thing to do is walk around, right? Clear the mind? Nope, not in jail. In jail, you are not allowed to leave the room voluntarily for anything. Of all liberties that you lose in there, hands down the most excruciating one is simply turning a door handle to be somewhere else. 

2. NO SUN — People seem to be shocked when I say that for the whole time I was there, I didn’t see the sun once. It’s definitely unhealthy for inmates, many of whom serve long sentences and grow paler by the day under fluorescent lights. Johnny Cash put it best: “I ain’t seen the sunshine since… I don’t know when.”

3. THE TELEVISION NEVER STOPS — Before you laugh it off and tell me I’m spoiled for complaining about television, let me first paint a picture for you: imagine an unstoppable deluge of insurance commercials, reality TV, game shows, televangelists, infomercials, and clumsy local news programs from five o’clock in the morning to midnight every single day. Any hopes I had of focusing on writing, meditating, and composing were derailed and worse yet, nobody else was bothered by it. Watching people watch TV was like watching people get hypnotized. But I get it; in there, it serves as the only periscope into the outside world. 

4. ZERO PRIVACY — Like some weird psychology experiment, we are constantly monitored on camera and through a one-way mirror.  It’s easy to feel like a lab rat.  What was even worse, we’re confined with 10 total strangers, a mixed bag to say the least, and we have no freedom from each other.  I was lucky to be with mostly good people. But try spending that much time with people you like and see how long it takes before you need solitude like water.

5. THE “FOOD” — We get three meals a day, all of which beg the question - is this food?  Imagine the trays you got way back when at the school cafeteria, and just take that down a few notches. The meat is mysterious. There are almost no fresh fruits or vegetables. Everything is packed to the brim with preservatives. To put it in perspective, Top Ramen is a delicacy. The dead food has no energy, so it makes sense that inmates go zombie-mode when watching TV and sleep the days away. 

6. HIBERNATION — It’s accurate to say that most people sleep around twelve hours a day. There is an atmosphere of lethargy that is depressing and contagious.  Jail is not there to help you be a more productive citizen, a better person, or to heal. Jail is more than anything a test of your ability to do nothing meaningful.

7. MOST PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE THERE.  I bunked next to a man who had a swastika tattoo on his arm and was arrested for child abuse and neglect. OK, he deserves to be there! But most people are in there for drug-related offenses, like the guy who got arrested for having a pound of weed because he had a couple grams in a glass jar and they weighed the jar. That’s North Dakota for you. Most people have addictions that have screwed up their lives. They need treatment. Jail does little more than keeping them away from the temptation and while I do see some value in that, it’s not as though brief abstinence means anything in the long-term to an addict. 

8. THE MONEY-MAKING MACHINE — Wonder why so many addicts get locked up instead of getting put through treatment? Jails and prisons get paid to have their beds full. It costs taxpayers, on average, over $30,000 to keep an inmate there over the course of a year.  It’s how the guards get paid. I’m still looking into this and might write a more complete article on it soon.

9. STRIPES. Call me shallow, but the dehumanizing effect of the standard issue black-and-white-striped gowns they make you wear cannot be overstated. Surrounded by a one way mirror, it’s a constant reminder that you are bad and you are with a bunch of bad people.  It really has the effect of making you feel pathetic.

10. GUARDS DON’T HAVE TO CARE ABOUT YOU — Requests can go unanswered. You can be left in a solitary room for an hour until they figure out what to do with you. By most guards, you are treated as an inferior life-form, patronized and left to squander your time and energy under their disdainful, pernicious thumb.

I have long heard that we need prison reform and now, having seen life inside a correctional facility, I couldn't agree more. If the state doesn't want people back in jail, then things need to change. If the state does want people back in jail, then we have bigger problems.

Alex Simon