What to expect out of short stay in county?
October 5, 2008 12:07 PM   Subscribe

What can I expect from a 3-day stay in county jail? In the near future I will be an honored guest in the county jail of San Luis Obispo, CA. Up until now I have never been arrested and have absolutely no idea on what to expect out of this. I'd really appreciate any heads-up advice as well as just general expectations of this experience from any who have gone through it before. A little more detail inside, Thanks in advance.

I am in my mid-20's. Non-violent, but covered in tattoos. A few have told me this could cause me problems from both guards as well as other prisoners. Do they keep you busy with work/books/cards/social-interaction, or are you expected to stare at the wall the whole time you're there? Will a first-offender such as myself be placed with other inmates with minor crimes and short sentences or will I be placed in a general population with the hardcore guys?

Please fellow short-term cons, help this new-fish survive these 3 days!
posted by ws to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
It is possible that you will released early due to prison overcrowding- it is apparently common for short sentences like yours.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:25 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

general population with the hardcore guys

Jail and prison are two very, very different places. There are no 'hardcore guys' in county jail.
posted by dmd at 12:29 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's pretty boring. In my experience, there's often a sorting process that takes place during the first day. I was quiet and polite, and I soon found myself among other quiet, polite prisoners.

One time, I saw a prisoner and a guard get into a shouting match. Each was threatening to file written complaints against the other. It was strangely bureaucratic.

Cross your fingers, there may be books.
posted by ryanrs at 12:36 PM on October 5, 2008 [6 favorites]

I'd answer but I don't want to explain how I know....

Ok. Most people in the county jail just want to get their short sentences over and aren't looking for trouble. Most are trying to avoid it and are overly polite if anything - do the same. Be alert and go out of your way to avoid trouble. Back down if you need to. Not a time to try and prove who has the biggest dick.
posted by Carbolic at 12:42 PM on October 5, 2008

Best answer: I don't know how things work in CA jails -- all my time has been spent in AL jails. I'm guessing this is probably mando time for a DUI or something, right? Many times jails will keep a section of cells set aside for "week-enders" -- it's not worth the hacks' time and effort to move you into gen pop and then out again three days later. You'll probably spend your time locked up with another cellie. You'll sleep a lot, though it will be incredibly noisy. You'll probably be allowed to bring a book to read or to obtain a book from the hacks once you're in (for some reason all they had at one jail I was in were Louis L'Amour novels. Beats nothing, I guess.).

Don't sweat the ink. You aren't going to be there long enough for it to catch anyone's attention, and your cellie will likely be in for a similar violation and will be focused on keeping his head down and doing his time, too.

Things to keep in mind:

1. Shitting in public is humiliating and inevitable. Flush before wiping and again afterwards to minimize the stench.

2. If you get put into a holding area with other men on intake, the guys who have been there a while will make hooting comments about "fresh meat" and making you their bitch. They won't. They're just trying to scare you. Keep your head up, don't smile, don't seek out eye contact but don't avoid it either. It's kinda like hazing. No one is going to mess with a short-timer because that'll screw up their release date. It's jail, not prison.

3. You will be bored out of your mind. At the end of three days you will have counted every cinderblock, ever bar, and timed how often the faucet drips. Expect it.

4. Three days is NOTHING. You'll spend one day getting acclimated to jail, a second day getting bored with it, and a third day anticipating release. No big deal.

5. With very few exceptions (ie, guys awaiting transfer to state pen) there aren't many "hard-core" guys in county jail. County jail is where harmless fuck-ups like you and I end up. The guys strutting around like they rule the place are wanna-bes. But even a wanna-be can mess you up. Don't talk shit.

6. Every jail guard assumes every tattoo is indicative of membership in a baby-raping gang/cult. On intake, you will be grilled about them and they'll try to scare you into admitting your gang affiliation. Fuck that. Tell 'em your ink is all for the glory of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and ask if they wanna discuss the Bible. That'll shut 'em up.

To summarize: it won't be as bad as you think it will be (but the food will be). You'll be fine. Don't pick fights, don't talk shit, and don't back down. The chances are good you'll spend all three days in a cell with an accountant sleeping off his third DUI who's more afraid of you than you are of him.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:43 PM on October 5, 2008 [84 favorites]

This has come up at least once before, so there may be some good suggestions here: Advice for a two day sentence in Sonoma County, California jail.
posted by jedicus at 12:46 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding dmd. I've never seen anything 'scary' happen in county jail. Most people are there because they did some dumbass thing like DUI, drugs, theft, etc.
posted by ryanrs at 12:46 PM on October 5, 2008

You can expect boredom. Three days is easy, but it'll be a long 72 hours.

Learn how to play spades if you don't know already. Most folks'll keep to themselves, but socializing will make you stay seem a little shorter. Bring in a book if you can. This is a great chance to get in three day's worth of push-ups and sit-ups. The food's gonna suck. You'll probably want to avoid sharing too many personal details with the guys you meet. It's gonna suck but it isn't prison, so stay cool and stay out once they cut you loose.
posted by EatTheWeek at 2:00 PM on October 5, 2008

Can you read? If so, that's a couple of novels.
posted by rokusan at 2:35 PM on October 5, 2008

2nding BitterOldPunk. County isn't a cakewalk, but it's not prison, either.
posted by batmonkey at 4:40 PM on October 5, 2008

eat a really big meal right before you go in. BIG! other than that i wouldn't worry about anything else. just follow orders, keep quiet around the co's and show them basic respect such as yes sir, no sir. practice your cribbage and most jails let you take in 2 books but you have to leave them there. good luck and DON'T LOSE YOUR SPORK!!!
posted by docmccoy at 8:57 PM on October 5, 2008

You can call the sheriff's office in advance, and ask what you'll be permitted to bring (books, pen, pencil, paper, nothing).

bitteroldpunk has it (I did 3 years of volunteer work in a county jail. Besides a few pre-trial prisoners, the inmates were mostly just incompetent at life. Mom said they reminded her of her jr. high boys.).
posted by QIbHom at 5:57 AM on October 6, 2008

A friend of mine is a correctional officer for Santa Clara County, and offered this advice:

They usually will house you with like inmates (newbies and whatnot). Stick to yourself and don't disrespect anyone.

There are no 'hardcore guys' in county jail.

This is false.
posted by sambosambo at 9:21 AM on October 6, 2008

There are no 'hardcore guys' in county jail.

This is not true. Damn, nothing could be further from the truth. Your county jail population generally consists of:

(1) "Hardcore people" who are awaiting trial and can't be released because their bond is hundreds of thousands of dollars ranging up to the millions. Bonds that high are not set because the person cheated at tiddlywinks. Murder, rape, child rape, aggravated robbery, etc., are what these people are in for, plus high-level, large amount drug dealing.

(2) People who will only be in a few hours or days until they plead out or make bond on petty offenses.

That's pretty much it. A substantial portion of the jail population will be hardcore, although it is possible that due to your offense level/length of sentence you may be kept in a different section of the jail.
posted by jayder at 2:32 PM on October 6, 2008

I think this is influenced by overcrowding. These days, your average non-violent DUI weekender gets a bunk in the hallway. Anti-social types generally get cells.

One time, I got one of the hallway bunks. On the second day, I almost got in trouble because I went and took a shower during lockdown. How was I supposed to know we were in lockdown? I'm in the hallway... there was no lock.
posted by ryanrs at 3:37 PM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

An additional point to jayder's is

(1a) "Hardcore" career criminals who have been caught in petty offenses in between being caught doing major crimes. There's a huge population of (2) but I would say that (1a) may even outnumber (1) just on the bell-curve assumptions. As I watch my local crime blotter and online state court records, almost everyone brought in for burglary or armed robbery has a string of disorderlies and domestics on their name.

The problem is that to these guys violence may be commonplace and getting in trouble in jail is just another inconvenience. They feel the system is stacked against them and fear it very little as a result.

Assume everyone you know is (1a), even if they insist they're (2).

As for recreation, a lot of jails or wings housing non-violent offenders have open-door hours and let you wander in and out of your cell and a day room that has minimal amenities, like a TV and some old magazines. The reason is that these are prized privileges that can be taken away in an instant, thereby enforcing compliant behavior. You may even be able to have some money and access to vending machines. Cards, board games, even chess will occupy most of your social interaction.

Do whatever you can to treat the guards as professionals and they'll leave you alone. No unnecessary requests, no jokes at their expense, no hassles with other prisoners. You may well encounter someone who enjoys getting other people in trouble, as a hobby, you might say. Not exactly a knife fight level worry, but something that could get you on the wrong side of the guards and the rest of your stay less "pleasant". Be a little wary, look people in the eye as neutrally as possible, and you'll be fine.

(I've been arrested, but never actually spent more than a few hours in custody. I know people who have been in jail and/or federal prison.)
posted by dhartung at 3:57 PM on October 6, 2008

Seconding jayder and dhartung–there's plenty of "hardcore" guys in county jails, but as long as you're mindful it should be fine. Mind your own business–don't talk about what you're in for, don't ask anyone else–and be really, really, polite. Please, thank you, excuse me, etc. Be respectful of others beyond what seems normal, without deference or fear. If anyone offers you anything, don't take it. (Unless it's a fair trade, e.g. an apple for a milk). It might be segregated within the dorms–you'll be expected to stick with, and up for, whatever race you happen to be. As others have said, chances are it will just be boring.
posted by generalist at 6:21 PM on October 6, 2008

3 days is just long enough to get really bored with jail and promise never to end up back there because the thought of any more then a couple days of that much nothing is enough to keep you on the straight and narrow.

I wouldn't be concerned for your safety at all, most of the people there will be friendly enough and you won't be spending enough time there to become part of any sort of pecking order. You'll probably learn to play spades and hear some funny assed stories from crackheads. The longest I've done is 13 days, but for a 3 day stay like you have you probably won't leave your cell but for 1 hour a day.

You'll come out of it thinking "That's it?".
posted by mediocre at 8:36 PM on October 6, 2008

Response by poster: Great/insightful answers from everyone across the board! Tahnk you so very much to everyone who replied here, really has given me the general info that I was looking for.
posted by ws at 10:02 PM on October 6, 2008

Be really, really, polite. Please, thank you, excuse me, etc. Be respectful of others beyond what seems normal, without deference or fear

Yeah, I remember county jail being eerily polite. Both the prisoners and the guards said please, thank you, sir, etc. It was if everyone made a collective decision to act like gentlemen. It seemed to work well.
posted by ryanrs at 10:18 PM on October 6, 2008

Also, I ate better in jail then I was otherwise at that point in my life.. but I was for all intents and purposes homeless at the time.. 3 hots and a cot, as they say.
posted by mediocre at 12:50 AM on October 7, 2008

Best answer: Oh, and really.. dhartung and jaydar are talking statistics and bell curves.. The reality of it is, it is 3 days, and the people you encounter will AT WORST be intimidating enough to not make eye contact with them. That's about it. There certainly won't be TV or magazines, if you have anything to read at all it'll be a bible or Louis L'Amour.. I don't know what it is about Louis L'Amour but that's the most common author I've seen in any jail I've been in. Last time I found a novelization of an episode of Starsky and Hutch, that was worth the 3 days.. If tradition is any indicator, this is how it'll go:

1. Booked, photographed, questioned (they will ask a million questions about the tats, being snide the whole time, just comply 'cuz it's not worth sassing them)

2. Dressed down, put into the blues, given your sandles and a paper sack with
A. 1 comb, black (Bob Barker brand)
B. 1 roll toilet paper
C. 1 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of lined notebook paper
D. Envelope (no stamp)
E. Soft tip pen (Bob Barker brand)
F. Toothbrush (Bob Barker brand)

If you have any money on you when you check in, the costs of these items will be deducted from whatever money you had on hand.

3. Given your bed roll, marched into a cell.

If you are very lucky, it will be empty. That is very unlikely though. Treat your cellmate like any other human being who deserves dignity and a modicum of respect. As pointed out, you'll likely be in there with some other low level fuckup like me who isn't there to put one in your pooper. They just want to get through this level of incarceration with as little event as possible. For you, you won't even leave the first stage: lockdown. This is the first 72 hours where you are only allowed outside your cell for an hour a day. The guys in the common area at that time will probably be a mixed bag of crackheads and various career criminals. Some of them may be violent criminals, but they aren't there to hurt you so don't be afraid of them. Like I said and was pointed out before, Spades is a popular jail game. Because it's easy, and takes a long time. It's a good social game, and that's when you get to hear stories from crackheads if you're lucky. Those are prime fodder for stories of your own later.

If you start to feel just that desperate for something to read, ask for some headache medicine when you get a chance. You'll memorize that paper packaging, you'll make a freakin song of the entire text. Day and night lose a lot of meaning when you are in lockdown, I'd say you'll probably sleep 18 hours your first day..

Here's a quick tip:

Crumbled up paper + Cup + Willing cellie = Jail Cell HORSE

Toilet etiquette has already been covered. If you feel the need to shower, just do it. Chances are there won't be anyone else in there when you are anyways, since you'll only be out for an hour a day. If there is, I can assure you with almost 100% certainty that the dude just wants to clean his balls, not rape you. Also, soap is in dispensers firmly mounted on the wall, probably foaming soap like in a gym. The days of dropping the soap are behind us. But this is assuming you even want to shower, it's not like you'll be doing much intensive anything in your cell and 3 days isn't long to not shower if you are nervous or just don't like public showering. Don't listen to the guards, you can't get in trouble for not showering.

Honestly, just treat this like a story to be told the night you get out. I LOVED my jail pants when I was in jail in Bend, OR.. so much so that I thought about just putting my jeans on over the jail pants and walking out with them when I was released. I sat and contemplated for like 3 minutes whether or not I wanted to risk getting caught stealing from jail as I was being released.. But those were some DAMN comfortable pants.
posted by mediocre at 1:26 AM on October 7, 2008 [6 favorites]

Mediocre's experience sounds mostly like mine -- One hour out a day, no books, no tv, (only once out of 3 did I have a cell mate). I passed the time doing various mental puzzles and exercising. Really what helped me the most was doing yoga to pass the time. It calms your mind and relaxes your body. You will get as bored as possible. You will probably be too cold to sleep very much. That's one thing I didn't see anyone mention yet, every jail I have been in is fucking cold. Good luck -- it won't be as bad as you think, but you will probably get more bored than you can currently imagine. Write a novel or a screenplay in your head. Make your time productive.
posted by headless at 12:22 PM on October 8, 2008

Best answer: Here is something that nobody told me, and only seems obvious now, in retrospect.

The police are going to look up your ass.

I spent forty-eight hours in jail and the police looking up my ass when they booked me in is the only thing that really happened. I guess during meals I had a conversation or two, when someone would see me doing a little pencil sketch -- they gave us a little golf pencil and some really shitty blank newsprint so we could, I dunno, write things down or something. Anyways a couple guys wanted little doodles they could mail to their girlfriends or whatever.

But that's not the story I tell when people ask me what it was like to spend forty-eight hours in jail, because here's what forty-eight hours in jail is like: the police look up your ass and then you stare at a wall for forty-eight hours. The only break from this is when they drag you out to eat the worst food you've ever eaten in your life. Here's a tip for the food: eat the whole plate and then use the one small gulp of milk or juice they give you to wash it all down. Don't draw it out with little sips and then have none left to drink at the end. Just ignore milk or juice until the food -- or however much of the food you can bear to eat -- is gone. Because the milk or juice is about the only human-consumable thing they're gonna give you in jail.

But I wouldn't worry too much about the other people in your block. The cops'll have already asked you if you have any "enemies," so you won't be in a cellblock with a rival gang or anything, and nobody's interested in shanking a weekender because he looks funny or whatever. In my block the guy with the nazi SS tattoo on his neck played ping-pong with the black dudes. Everyone's really just more bored than anything.

But yes, obviously, the cops will look up your ass. And if somebody had told me this ahead of time, I could have been a little better prepared. If you'll forgive me an anecdote, it might be useful to you.

It's only at the end of the process of booking me in to jail, when the mustachioed sheriff is leading me down the fenced-in walkway to the little nook where he looks up your ass, it is only just now dawning on me what I am walking into. The sheriff takes the first guy behind the little half-curtain, and says, as he has surely said many hundreds of times in the same droll Steven Wright sigh,
Take off your clothes.
Lift your dick.
Lift your sack.
Now turn around.
Spread your cheeks.
Cough. Keep them spread.
Cough harder.
Okay, put on your jumpsuit.

I've always kind of had an issue with taking my clothes off around people. It's a personal thing. So I'm kind of freaking out as I listen to the two guys ahead of me go through this little rite of passage, and I figure what I really need to do, to calm down, is think of a joke. This is pretty silly, right? This is surely the only time and place you'll get to point your bare sphincter at a cop without catching a nightstick upside the head. So when I go behind the curtain, and my clothes are off and he asks me to bend over, I say, weakly; "You're not even going to buy me dinner, first?"

The mustachioed sheriff does not laugh at this joke. Maybe he's heard it before.

But after my jumpsuit is on and this sheriff is showing me to my cell, I swear to you he leans over and mutters to me, in absolute deadpan, I'll buy ya breakfast tomorrow.

You'll make it through. Hang tough.
posted by churl at 11:35 PM on October 8, 2008 [19 favorites]

I hope it's not too much too ask, or presumptuous or whatever, but I for one would really appreciate it if you could do a little follow-up after the ordeal is over. Good luck!
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 2:16 PM on October 16, 2008

I too would like to hear the follow up if you are comfortable talking about it.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 5:00 PM on October 17, 2008

Response by poster: Absolutely. I'm not going until after the New Year but I'd be happy to share the scoop on it.
posted by ws at 10:49 AM on October 18, 2008

Awesome, thank you.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:32 PM on October 18, 2008

Best answer: I haven't served any time myself, but my three older siblings have all found themselves in situations similar to yours, and I spent a summer a while back researching the prison system in California. Here's what I can offer:

1) You are a weekender, and will likely not end up in the general population. This is good, as the general population will consist mostly of gang-bangers who pled for a "county lid" sentence for their crimes, and will be trying to prove that they are hard as fuck.

2) it's three days, and they will suck, but you will survive. Moreover, you will survive knowing that three days is not nearly enough time for those fuckers (the guards) to break you. If only because this would make any three-day time I had to serve much more bearable, I'd be undefeatably cheery and friendly with the guards. The guards will hate you with a prejudice not unlike extreme racism. I interviewed dozens of guards in jails and prisons in Southern California, and to a person, for real, every one of them said that they wished the death penalty were used on every prisoner. These guys are assholes, through and through, and will absolutely refuse to view you as a human being. So fuck 'em, the only way you can while avoiding any more time or any more charges; i.e. by being polite and sunny and affable no matter how they attempt to take you down. This is especially important if they start to grill you about your tattoos. They'll try to make you say that they're about gang affiliation. Instead, for each one they ask you about, launch into as long a story as you can muster about where and when and why you got the ink, just as if you were talking with a friend you hadn't caught up with since you were twelve. The guards will hate you for it, but they hate you anyway, and if it amuses you, all the better.

3) As for the other prisoners, it's hard to guess, but most of them probably won't be people you're all that eager to socialize with anyway. Still, you don't want them to see you as a target or anything. When my sister ( a clean-cut and chipper sorority girl at the time) had to spend a day in a mass holding cell on account of a 9-month-old bounced check which had long-since been resolved, she immediately announced that she was a reporter doing a story for the Dallas Morning News about the conditions in these situations. Nobody wanted to fuck with her - they just wanted her to hear their stories in the hopes that she might write about them. Not a bad strategy, if you can pull it off.

4) I only have one tattoo, but as I got it, as I was cringing through the pain, I had the realization that this was maybe the only time I'd ever do this, and that I should make a point to really feel the pain as it was happening, at which point it started to feel amazing, because I was letting myself feel it. You're spending three days in jail. Hopefully, you'll never have to do that again. Feel it. Live it. Most people will never have that experience, but you get the San Luis Obisbo County Fantasy Camp. It's three days - you're a writer taking notes, an actor preparing for a role. Notice everything, and piss off no one (aside from the guards, in the manner described above) and you should get through it all with a smile on your face.

5) Yeah, bring a book, or two. Actually, call the Sheriff's office to find out what you can bring in, and bring in absolutely everything allowable. The more of your time spent on future amusing anecdotes, the faster it will all seem.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:54 AM on November 1, 2008

So how was it?
posted by donpedro at 10:58 AM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, inquiring minds want to know!
posted by dersins at 12:20 AM on April 24, 2009

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