Off to prison again

Last week I had the chance to tour Eastern State Penitentiary, which operated from 1829 to 1971. It was, arguably, the first modern penitentiary in the US. Last week I blogged about its philosophy; this week I have photos!

Like may 19th-century prisons, ESP looks like a fortress from the outside, an intentional part of the design.

 ESP was isolated from the rest of Philadelphia when first built, but the city soon grew around it. It’s only about a mile or so from the city center.

Originally, inmates were kept alone for the length of their confinement. The photo on the left shows a restored cell. Inmates were expected to work in their cell, and were given two daily 30-minute breaks in a tiny exercise yard (that’s what’s on the other side of that little door). They didn’t interact with anyone other than guards and ministers, priests, or rabbis. After a century or so, ESP abandoned this model for a variety of reasons. And as you can see in the photo on the right, the prison decayed considerably after it was closed and before it was reopened for tours.

I got some amazing photos of this place.

That photo on the right is a punishment cell. It’s half the size of a regular one, with no outdoor access.

If you’re in Philly, I strongly recommend a visit to ESP.



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.


Jails Versus Prisons

Officer Carson smirked as she tightened the handcuffs. “How does it feel?” she asked.

“Dandy,” growled Scott Johnson.

“No, I’m the one feeling dandy, Johnson. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

Johnson raised his chin. “Yeah? Well, don’t get too excited. This thing is bullshit, and at worst, I’m gonna cop a plea. I ain’t gonna be spending much time in jail.”

Undaunted, Carson pushed him into the back of the patrol car. “Sure, Johnson. But you’ll be spending a good long time in prison.”

If I had a list of the most annoying things authors get wrong about criminal justice, confusing jails with prisons would be near the top. Yes, I know laypeople use the terms interchangeably. But a jail is actually a very different place than a prison, with different populations and different goals.

Jails (in some countries, spelled gaols) have been around for many hundreds of years. As was true in medieval England, the primary purpose of US jails is to hold pretrial detainees: people who have been accused of crimes and are awaiting trial. Some people who are awaiting trial are released on bail (a money deposit paid to ensure the defendant’s appearance at trial) or released on their own recognizance (with no guarantee except their promise to appear in court). But some can’t afford bail or, if they’re accused of very serious crimes or are flight risks, are denied bail altogether. Even though we’re supposed to presume them innocent, those people will sit in jail until their trial.

The second big group in jail are people who have been convicted of misdemeanors or minor felonies and who are serving sentences of less than a year. Unlike the pretrial detainees, the members of this group are no longer presumed innocent. And they’re being held as punishment rather than to ensure their appearance at trial.

Jails may also hold other people. These might include those who are suspected of being mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others and who are waiting to be transferred to a mental health facility. It might also include juvenile offenders, especially in sparsely populated areas where there is no juvenile hall, and sometimes also undocumented aliens awaiting hearings or deportation.

Jails are usually run by local law enforcement authorities. In California, for example, sheriffs’ departments often run the jails. Jail inmates are generally held in the city or county where the crime occurred. Jails may be very dangerous places, partly due to overcrowding but also because those detained for minor (usually nonviolent) crimes are often mixed with pretrial detainees who may be very violent indeed.

Prisons hold people who have been convicted of felonies and sentenced to longer than a year. These facilities are usually run by the state or federal government. A good number of US prisons are now run by private corporations (this is a fairly controversial practice).

There are a wide variety of security levels for prisons, ranging from honor farms and minimum security—where there’s usually no wall around the facility—to supermax prisons, in which inmates are essentially kept in solitary confinement for the length of their sentence. There are separate prisons for women and men. There are also specialized prisons available for inmates suffering from severe mental illnesses.

Scott Johnson may not spend much time in jail; if he has money, he can probably post bail fairly soon. But if the plea bargain doesn’t work and he’s ultimately convicted of something serious, he’ll end up housed in prison for a long time. Much to Officer Carson’s satisfaction.