House arrest

Like many people, I lead a hectic life: a demanding day job, another job as an author, a busy family. Some days I spend all my time running from the office to the kids’ schools to the office to the store to the bank to the store to the grocer to my house to the schools…. You get the drill. So perhaps it’s understandable if I occasionally have brief fantasies about having some wonderful excuse not to leave the house.

Like house arrest, maybe?

House arrest is an alternative to detention (jail or prison). It may be used while a suspect is awaiting trial or after he is convicted, as an alternative to locking him up. It’s generally used when the person is low risk and when incarceration might be difficult due to health concerns, family issues, or financial situations. In addition to making the person’s life easier than incarceration might, house arrest can have fewer bad effects on his family. It’s also cheaper than incarceration and helps reduce prison overcrowding.

When a person is placed under house arrest, he’s forbidden from leaving his home. There will usually be some exceptions, however. He is often allowed to go to work, medical appointments, religious services, and the like.

A person placed under house arrest is usually required to check in regularly with a probation officer. He’s also subject to having the probation officer make announced visits to his home. Technology has improved the ability to monitor people under house arrest. In previous years, probation officers might check in by calling the residence to ensure the person was home. But today the person might wear ankle bracelets with GPS tracking. Or they may be required to call in periodically via cell phone; the probation officer can track the location of the call.

I think if I were placed on house arrest, I’d probably go stir crazy after a short time. Still, it would be far better than sitting in jail.

Book ’em

I used to watch Hawaii Five-O when I was a little kid. It wasn’t my favorite show of its type—that spot was reserved for Emergency! (ah, Randolph Mantooth!)—but I do remember two things well about the Five-O. One, of course, is that catchy theme song. If that’s not the top TV show theme of all time, it’s certainly in the top five. The other thing I remember was Jack Lord’s oft-repeated phrase, Book ’em, Danno.

But what does that mean?

As the name suggests, booking is the process of adding a suspect to the books—that is, formally entering him or her into the criminal justice system. It generally happens after a person has been taken into custody—arrested—but may sometimes occur after a citation, when the person will not remain in custody. Once upon a time, the suspect’s information was recorded in an actual ledger book. Nowadays it’s all electronic.

A number of things happen during booking. The suspect’s name and other personal information are recorded, as are a few details about the criminal charges. Their mug shots are taken—a practice police have been following since roughly the 1840s. The suspect gives up all personal property, which is recorded and stored until his release, and usually gives up his own clothes for lovely jail attire. He’s fingerprinted. Eventually those prints will be entered into a national database. He’s screened for any physical or psychological ailments, and jail staff will conduct a body cavity search to check for contraband. Jail staff will check the system to see if he has any outstanding warrants. And then they’ll ask him a bunch of questions—not necessarily pertinent to the crime—to determine how big a risk he is and where to classify him in the jail. A DNA sample may be taken. In some jurisdictions, bail and a court date will be set. He’ll be given the chance to call a lawyer, family member, or bail bondsman.

If the suspect is low risk, he may be released on his own recognizance at this point. That means he goes free after promising to appear in court. Or he might make bail. But if he’s a big flight risk, he won’t be granted bail—and even if bailing out is an opportunity, he might not have the money for a bail bondsman. In that case he’s going to be locked up. He’ll be given some kind of orientation to the jail rules, either by an officer or via video. Then he’s going to spend some time behind bars.

Booking is not a fast process. Depending on the jurisdiction and whether it’s been a busy night, the whole thing could take four hours or more.

Incidentally, once someone is booked, that arrest record is permanent. Even if the charges are later dropped or he’s found not guilty, the arrest record is there forever. And his fingerprints (and maybe DNA) are in the system, ready to be discovered years later by an author seeking a clever plot point.




Prison romance: Conjugal visits

Prisons are not exactly the most romantic spots in the world. Not that I haven’t read any good prison romances, because I have. But as a location for letting love bloom, the state pen is never going to rival that long sandy beach or a cozy mountain cabin.

One aspect of prison life has caught some people’s attention, however: conjugal visits. But it turns out that the reality is a lot less sexy than most people think.

For one thing, they have a racist past. They originated in Mississippi a hundred years ago, when a white prison warden figured sex was a good way to encourage black prisoners to work harder. The warden paid prostitutes to visit once a week, and inmates who’d pleased the guards got to take part.

As time passed, however, the reasoning behind conjugal visits changed, and they became more about maintaining family ties than about sex. In fact, some places renamed them extended-family visits to emphasize the involvement of inmates’ children, parents, siblings, and other relatives. Researchers found that the visits meant inmates’ family members were more likely to maintain contact with them while they were incarcerated. And once released, ex-cons who maintained those ties were less likely to reoffend. So what seems like a perk for the prisoner can also, arguably, benefit society as a whole.

Nonetheless, by the 1980s there was a strong movement to make prisons more punitive. Prisons did away with all sorts of things that the public viewed as pampering the inmates, including exercise facilities and education (never mind that many of these things help reduce recidivism). As a result, most states did away with conjugal visits entirely. Today only four states permit them: California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington.

Even in those few states that permit conjugal visits, not all inmates are eligible. Participants have to be relatively low risk and well behaved. Neither are all visitors eligible. If the visitor has a criminal record, he or she likely won’t be allowed. Those visitors who are allowed have to go through intrusive searches to make sure they’re not smuggling anything in. Those inmates who do get visits won’t get them often—usually just a couple of times a year at most. And the visits won’t necessarily last overnight.

Conjugal visits usually take place in separate facilities on the prison grounds, sometimes trailers and sometimes hotel-like facilities. They often include kitchens to allow prisoners to cook with their family members. They also generally include condoms. There’s no regular audio or video surveillance during the visit (although cameras may be present in case of emergency).

Most prisons require that visitors for conjugal visits be close relatives or spouses. Prison policies now allow conjugal visits by same-sex spouses or registered domestic partners, but as you might imagine, this is a relatively new change.

So if you have been imagining a conjugal visit as a good opportunity for sexy times between your characters, think carefully about whether the visit would even be available and keep all the limitations in mind. It might, however, provide a good chance for your people to have a private chat outside the supervision of prison officials. I wonder what they’re going to talk about.



The Lord Ynix’ba looked down his long nose at the prisoner. “I find you guilty of stealing the Five Sparkling Dragon Stones of Zenthibon.”

The prisoner shook his head frantically. “No! No, my Lord! You don’t understand! There was this witch, you see, and she—”


The prisoner’s shackles rattled as he collapsed to the ground, sobbing. His crying was so loud that Lord Ynix’ba had to wait several minutes before announcing the sentence. The lord tapped his foot impatiently and played with the jewels in his bracelet.

Finally the prisoner was reduced to sniffles, and that was when Lord Ynix’ba spoke again. “I hereby sentence you to the maximum possible punishment—twenty years in Zenthibon Prison!”

With fresh wails, the prisoner was hauled away.

Okay, it’s your fantasy world. If you want to throw your criminals in prison, that’s your affair. But I urge you to think carefully before tossing those poor souls into cells and throwing away the keys.

The truth is, prisons are mostly a modern invention. Incarceration has been used for many hundreds of years, but rarely as a form of punishment. People were locked up in jails (or gaols, if you please) and in institutions such as poorhouses and workhouses, but the primary purpose of locking them up was to hold them until their trials. That’s still one of the main reasons people are kept in jails. Prisoners might also be locked up because they couldn’t pay their debts or because they were destitute and couldn’t support themselves. Again, though, punishment was not the main goal; they were sort of being held as collateral for their own debts.

So how were people punished? For more severe crimes, they were usually executed. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly and painfully. Almost always in public. In fact, executions served as a form of entertainment in times and places where entertainment was in short supply.

For less severe offenses, there were other options. Public punishments were common—think stocks and the like. The criminals would face a period of public scorn and humiliation before returning to their homes, families, and livelihoods. Corporal punishment—i.e., physical punishment—was also widely used. Flogging, branding, maiming, etc. Criminals could be made to pay fines. They could be sentenced to slavery or other forms of servitude. They could be banished. When Europeans were colonizing the New World, sometimes criminals were sentenced to transportation, which means they were forcibly taken to America (or later, Australia), where they had to work for a certain number of years before being freed.

But imprisonment—incarceration as punishment—was very uncommon. Why? Well, it’s expensive, it removes the prisoner from the workforce (which perhaps sends his family into poverty), and it keeps the bad guys behind walls, where their punishment isn’t visible and therefore might have little deterrent effect on the rest of society.

Prison as a punishment didn’t become popular until after the American Revolution, when it was touted as a humanitarian reform. “Keep miscreants locked up by themselves,” the argument went, “so they have time to reflect on their wrongdoing and reform themselves. Allow them to be penitent.” Yes, that’s where we get the term penitentiary.

Nowadays. of course, we lock people up all the time, especially in the US. But if you’re writing a historical set before the 18th century, prison probably shouldn’t be the fate of your criminals. And if you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or other kinds of speculative fiction, you should think carefully about whether prison as punishment makes sense in your world.

As for Lord Ynix’ba, if he’s decided that stealing those eggs was truly a big deal, our miserable prisoner will likely be fed to the orcs instead.