Hating the Holidays While Facing the Iniquity of the US Criminal Justice System

The poor are punished before they are found guilty.

Photo by Guido Coppa

I hate the holidays. I’ve hated them consistently since becoming an adult. This year, I hate them even more because my daughter spent Christmas in the county jail and will spend New Years’ there, too. She’s an addict with severe personality disorders and belongs in jail like a baby belongs in a cage. But that’s where she is and where she is likely to stay since she’s held by a bond of $10,000.

Jails and prisons are where our society has decided to put addicts who use illegal drugs to self-medicate their mental problems. That’s where we put nonviolent people who are only hurting themselves and are doing so because they need help and there little help to be found.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t have a single friend or relative who had been in jail. No member of my family or extended family had ever been arrested. Personally, I’ve not even had a traffic ticket.

As a former police officer, it’s ironic how little I knew about jails. I’d never visited a person in jail. I’d only come to jails to bring someone in through “the bay,” a secure drive-in garage with a door that shuts behind the police car so people in custody can be removed from the car without a chance to escape. From the bay, they’re escorted in a back door to the booking, or processing area.

Until six years ago I had never been to the front desk or “reception” area of the local jail, even though I had brought people who had been arrested to jail.

It is extremely different on the other side of the criminal justice system and doesn’t remotely resemble the way I perceived it as a law enforcement officer. It is more life-shattering and cruel than I realized. It victimizes people who are non-violent offenders and already compromised; and if I were working as law enforcement officer today I would have serious misgivings about locking up people for nonviolent crimes. (Driving while intoxicated, by the way, is a violent crime to me since I’ve responded to many auto accidents where innocent people, often children, die in hideously violent ways because some jerk wanted to get drunk and drive).

I never realized until my own daughter became addicted, subsequently jailed, and then sentenced to prison that one borders on becoming an outcast once one has a loved one y who goes to prison; almost as much so as the person in jail is labeled, hidden away and forgotten.

Anyone who doubts the stigma and degradation of being the loved one of a prisoner should go to a visitor’s day at a prison. Those who visit an inmate get subjected to the same callous, often rude, and authoritative treatment as inmates. If you wear the wrong clothes or even shoes, you get sent away, often to sit outside while other family members visit the inmate. I saw that happen to an elderly man at Arkansas’ McPherson prison. It was heartbreaking how callously he was treated — because he had worn very modest knee-length shorts to visit his granddaughter.

As far as visiting county and city lock-ups, no matter one’s history, no matter how law-abiding or even dedicated to the law one has been, one must stand outside the jail and hit a buzzer. A voice answers from a metal inset in the wall. You tell them who you wish to see and they will either buzz the door until it opens to let you into the reception area, or tell you the person you are there to see has already had a visitor or is not permitted visitors that day.

If you are told you cannot visit your loved one, you walk away. Questioning the decision is futile.

If you are allowed to visit, you are buzzed into a small area with a narrow bench alongside a wall. The room is small. One’s driver’s license must be provided and checks ran, and the contents of one’s pockets must be emptied and turned over to the jail staff. If there are even six people waiting there, it’s crowded and not everyone will have a place to sit. This is true of several jails I’ve been to as a visitor. There one waits to be allowed into the visiting area, which is row of windows above concrete counters with what looks like old-fashioned wall phones mounted by each window. There are a few battered folding chairs, but if they are taken one stands. The loved one, referred to now as an inmate, wearing an orange jail suit, is brought into the small structure and allowed to sit in front of a window of soundproof reinforced glass. One picks up the no doubt germ-laden phone. The person one came to visit picks up the phone on the other side of the glass and they are given 15 minutes to talk. The inmate can have one visitor and one 15-minute conversation per week for free and that is the only free contact allowed.

One hopes there aren’t a lot of visitors that day because they will all be in the small space together, sitting side by side, trying to hear what is being said into the phone by the inmates. Sometimes there are screaming babies, angry, shouting family members, or pitifully crying visitors — most often mothers.

On Monday, before Christmas on Wednesday, this is how I saw my daughter for Christmas. I went to the jail to visit her. She could barely talk and I couldn’t understand her well because she was so wracked with sobs. The phone volume only turns up a little bit. She was bitterly disappointed because her court-appointed lawyer had promised to try to get her bond lowered so she stood a chance of bonding out for Christmas. As it turned out, she was told he had not spoken to the prosecutor or judge about lowering her bond.

She is not an escape risk, she is not dangerous, she has never been charged with a violent crime. But her bond is $10,000. Those who have dealt with the wrong side of the criminal justice system in this country know that means a bail bondsman will want at least ten percent to bail her out. That’s $1,000. It is money that will not be returned. Once paid to the bail bondsman it is simply payment for his risk in bonding her out of jail and guaranteeing she will appear in court. I didn’t have $1,000 of my own to use to bond her out. Her dad, frustrated about her continuing addiction and trying to help her by applying “tough love” refused to pay it. Friends of hers had told her they would raise it, but they were not able to do so. Most of them were trying to scrounge up money to buy Christmas gifts for their children.

So after hoping for weeks that she might be able to get out of jail and be with her children for Christmas, she finally gave up and accepted that she would sit in jail through the holiday. She was not doing well. I have never seen her so defeated. Or so pitiful. She’s always been a tough girl, brave and stoic, and has accepted her responsibility for her predicaments and her fate.

During my visit, I didn’t see any indication of my troubled but strong daughter. Instead I saw a woman who had given up. It was frightening.

She can’t see to read. She has no glasses and her contact lenses were accidentally lost or disposed of in a regular jail shakedown. Reading is the activity that has made jail easier for her to tolerate. She has lost that comforter.

Most people who haven’t been to jail or had loved ones in jail don’t know it, but the very limited visits — usually weekly in county jails and biweekly or monthly in prisons — are the only contact that can be made with a person in custody which does not require money. Letters can be sent back and forth for the cost of postage. But there are strict limits as to what can be sent. Some detention centers allow greeting cards and letters, some do not allow greeting cards or any color material, some only allow postcards, and while some will allow photos, most will not, or greatly limit how many photos an inmate can have.

To establish contact with an inmate in most jails and prisons one must sign up with an email service which charges from 50-cents to $1 for each message sent or received.

The local jail, or detention center as its formally called, uses a service called Tiger Commissary from which an inmate can buy snacks, underwear, shoes, thermal underwear which can be worn under the jail clothing, toiletries, instant coffee, paper, envelopes, stamps, etc. Tiger Commissary has contracts with detention facilities and prisons throughout the nation. Most jails in southern states have contracts with Tiger. Jails operate in such a way as to force the patronage of Tiger Commissary’s services.

Companies like Tiger have contracts with jails and prisons which, in most cases, provide a percentage of sales back to the city or county operating the jail.

Family members of inmates are not allowed to bring underwear, socks, thermal underwear, or any needed items to an inmate. Everything the inmate needs such as shampoo, deodorant, and women’s feminine products, must be purchased from the commissary.

To use the commissary, an inmate must have money “on their books.” If no one outside is providing money for commissary purchases, the inmate must do without many things most of us would consider necessities. This also creates a situation within the facility where some inmates, whose relatives or friends deposit money to their accounts, have things others do not. This sometimes results in stealing and fights between inmates. However, just as often, inmates share and trade among themselves for what they need.

It is usually cold in jails. The temperature is kept low to discourage the growth of bacteria and infectious diseases. Therefore, thermal underwear which can be worn under thin jail suits is a highly prized commodity. Yes, here in the USA we hold people in cold concrete cells without adequate clothing against the cold. Often inmates leave their thermal underwear for other inmates once they are dismissed.

In order for an inmate to be able to buy from the commissary, someone must use another Tiger service called “web deposits.” To put money on an inmate’s account, a handling charge must be paid, too. For example the fee for depositing $20 to an inmate is $2.40 and $6 is charged if one deposits $50. That’s 12 percent for the privilege of giving money to an inmate.

Most meals in jails are bologna sandwiches. Our local jail, thankfully, is an exception and our compassionate sheriff runs a jail that provides much better food than is customary. In most other jails, however, inmates are in a state of constant hunger because of the meager meals provided in jail. Therefore, snacks they can purchase from the commissary are very important. Loving families are almost forced to provide imprisoned relatives with money for commissary — or live with the knowledge that someone they love, often a son or daughter, is perpetually not only cold, but hungry.

Phone calls systems are legal robbery. A firm called City Telecoin operating out of Baton Rouge, Louisianna serves most of the jails in Arkansas and several other states. A collect call from an inmate, if accepted, costs over $9 for 15 minutes. That is if the call is local. It is considerably higher if the call comes from a nearby town. Again, family members can prepay for a certain number of calls so the inmate will be able to call, but it isn’t cheap.

At present, many jails are doing away with in-person visits and allow only video visits. These cost families of inmates still more expense and are often unreliable as to quality of video. Again, jails contract with a service provider, which usually returns some of the fees collected to the city or county operating the facility.

The inmates are captive customers, forced to buy only from the commissary, and prices charged are much higher than typical prices “on the outside” as inmates refer to the world outside their confines. Is this not a predatory practice that unfairly punishes not only inmates but their families? The cotton panties, briefs, thermal underwear, etc., are called “whites” and are exactly the same as one could buy at a discount store. Yet, they cannot be provided from outside by a family member, but can only be obtained from the commissary, with money deposited by a friend or family member who had to pay an added handling fee.

Imagine my surprise when my daughter went to jail for the first time and I put $20 on her account and she told me during a visit that most of it was taken because she owed for acetaminophen and ibuprofen. In most jails, if an inmate needs an over-the-counter remedy such as acetaminophen, they are charged for each pill and payment is taken from any future money deposited into their accounts by family or friends.

No wonder private companies want to take over running this country’s jails and prisons. It’s a for-profit enterprise where not only cities, counties and states will pay whopping fees to have inmates held, but the inmates or their loved ones will be subjected to unfair and predatory charges above market rates.

Back to my daughter’s predicament. She’s been in jails before because she is a drug addict and addicts regularly end up in jail for possessing drugs. Seldom, though, will any of the rich people who bring drugs into the country be arrested. They will never spend time in jail. And in many cases the people making big money off drugs are not the people we think they are.

As of now, my daughter has been in our local detention center for four months. She served three months, was then court-ordered to a rehab which turned out to be a scam (more on that story later) and was then taken back to jail after a dispute with the highly questionable guy running the rehab.

She said she has ample proof the rehab is poorly operated and that she was victimized there and unfairly sent back to jail, but unless she could sue and produce her evidence, there’s no way it helps her now. She can’t get an attorney to sue the rehab, and her overworked public defender is only interested in getting her the best deal he can for the shortest prison time.

She was at someone’s house where drugs were found. Her case has not gone to trial, but she claims the drugs discovered did not belong to her. I’m not going to say more about that now since her case is pending.

So, I had a terrible Christmas and life in general is pretty terrible for my daughter and our whole family right now. The experiences of the last few weeks, especially this week, will only increase the dislike I have for the holidays. No matter what difficult thing happens, it is worse if it happens during the supposedly happy holidays.

As for the situation in which we find ourselves, our story is no different than thousands of others. The criminal justice system is not equipped to handle addicts with diagnosed mental illness and has no business holding them in jails simply because untreated addicts use drugs if they can get them. They’re not using drugs because of criminal intentions, but to keep from feeling and being sick. Their bodies have a very real physical dependence on the drugs.

In any small town the police know who the addicts are and know, too, that if the addicts can get drugs, they will have drugs. Arresting them is like shooting fish in a barrel. And it does no good for society or the addict.

The criminal justice system can barely handle the violent and dangerous criminals it must keep away from society. It is barely holding its own in keeping murderers, rapists and robbers locked away and off the streets. The system is overburdened and largely because of the efforts to keep nonviolent drug offenders in jail.

The system needs to be overhauled for even those violent and necessarily imprisoned criminals so the people who love them don’t have to suffer financially because someone they love is a criminal. Everyone is someone’s son, daughter, husband, wife, mother, or father. We need to stop profiting off the families of the people we lock up. No matter what they’ve done or been accused of, almost every inmate has people who love and care for them.

It’s worth noting, too, that a large proportion of the jail population in this country has not been found guilty of the crimes with which they are charged. They’re simply in jail after being accused and lack the money to bond out while awaiting trial.

These people, like my daughter currently, have not been found guilty and are technically innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law. Our jails are full of people who have not been proven guilty of the crimes with which they are charged. Yet they are being punished. Our justice system says they are innocent. The police say they are guilty of something. They have not been convicted of anything. But they are in jail.

How is that just or even lawful? Why is it not a crime to imprison an innocent-until-proven-guilty person? We must reform our criminal justice system. But everyone says that and nothing happens.

Meanwhile my daughter and millions like her, merely accused, sit in jail because they don’t have money. Rich people’s kids don’t sit in jail. They are bailed out. And they aren’t represented by overworked public defenders. Only poor people stay in jail until their trials — which is often months — and mostly only poor people are sentenced to prison. The rich ones, defended by good private attorneys, will mostly escape conviction.

We have a system that punishes people for being poor before they are found guilty of anything while it allows the rich in the same circumstances to remain free.

Former print journalist, former mayor, retired law enforcement officer. Writing about politics and government along with random personal essays.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store