When I accepted a plea deal for my DUI, it came with two days in jail. Besides the night I spent in the drunk tank, I had never been to jail before. I had no idea what to expect.
Here’s what I experienced.
I went to jail in Prince William County, Virginia. This is a large county, the second largest in the state, population about 450,000. It is a very diverse place. There are very wealthy areas, there are poor areas, there’s upper-middle class, middle-class, working-class. It is a majority minority county, with 44% white, 56% either black, Hispanic, Asian or other. While it is overall a safe place to live, crime rates are higher than the surrounding counties, while still being much lower than say, Washington, DC.
Prince William County is served by the Prince William – Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center, located in the city of Manassas. This is a jail, not a prison. The difference is, inmates in jail are typically awaiting bond or trial, or are serving non-federal sentences of less than one year. This jail is where I would be spending my weekend.
Here are 10 tips for surviving a weekend in jail:
If you know you are going to jail, wear nice-looking, but durable and comfortable clothing.
At this point, it’s a formality. Don’t wear slacks, dress shoes, a tie or a jacket. Once you’re in custody, your clothing will be tossed into a bag. At the same time, I do not recommend going before the judge wearing sweat pants, shorts or a t-shirt. The judge still has to approve your plea deal, and if it’s favorable, you don’t want to risk anything. I wore black cotton pants, a dress-casual shirt, tucked in, with a belt and nicer casual shoes. I looked nice, but they were clothes that could survive being balled up in a bag for a few days and still be presentable when I got out.
Don’t bring much with you.
I didn’t have much – a wallet with a credit card, health insurance card, student ID (since they were confiscating my driver’s license) and a house key; my glasses case (I was wearing my glasses, which they allowed me to keep); and a folder with my paperwork I would need when I was released. Leave everything else at home. You are generally not allowed to bring in toiletries, books, or well, anything. Your jail may have a more lenient policy. When in doubt, just call the jail and ask. I did, and the answer was “you bring you, yourself and you, everything else is provided.”
Unless you need to make calls or purchases, don’t bring cash.
I had $25 in cash on me, which I do not recommend unless you need to use your inmate account. I was not aware of this going in, but all cash on your person at your time of intake is applied to your inmate account, and upon your release, is returned to you via check, less a $2 processing fee. I was only in for 48 hours, and did not have any use for my account, so had I known, I would have gone in with nothing.
The intake process started as soon as the judge approved the plea deal. A deputy took me through a side door, which in my county, leads to underground passageways that go directly to the jail. I was handcuffed, then led through the passageways to the intake area. Here, the handcuffs were removed and everything was removed from my pockets, inventoried and placed in a storage bag. Like I said, you aren’t taking anything with you.
Prepare to nap and be bored – a whole lot
I was first placed into a temporary holding cell, which then filled with three other men, all of whom were in the same scenario as me; all had gone to court that morning, knowing they were going to jail. There was a young man on a wet reckless charge, which is just below a DWI – five days in jail. A man in his 30’s on a DWI 2nd – ten days in jail; and a man on a repeat offense of driving without a license, ten days in jail. We all immediately bonded while comparing charges and sentences, and the man on the driver’s license offense told us what to expect, as he’d been here before. There was a good bit of gallows humor in this situation, and we all got the impression that this might not be so bad if we stuck together.
Well, as soon as we were separated, the fun ended, and I never saw any of them again. I was removed first.
I was fingerprinted, photographed, strip-searched and given standard issue white socks, white boxers, white t-shirt, orange jumpsuit and slip-on shoes. I was then given two itchy blankets and taken to a holding cell, the same one in which I spent the night of my arrest. Only this time, it was not a drunk-tank. My fellow inmates were all those who had been arrested within the last 24 hours, not sentenced inmates like me. These were all people who probably were not going to make bond, or as I later discovered, being held without bond.
There were two young adults who were in the news for shooting random people with BB guns; a DWI-Drugs charge with possession and driving on a suspended license; a felony grand larceny charge for a man who told us he already did 27 years in the state penitentiary; and an immigrant who spoke very little English and had an ICE hold on his record.
However, we interacted very little. I found out about all of the charges by overhearing their phone calls. Mostly, we napped on the cold hard cinderblock benches or the floor. We got lunch and dinner and then we were taken to pre-classification holding by 5:00pm.
In the Prince William County jail, this is where everyone spends the next 24-72 hours. Felons, gang members, and low-level criminals like myself, male and female. Anyone deemed mentally unstable or a danger to themselves or others are placed in individual cells. Female inmates get a removable cover over their cell door windows.
If stable enough to get along, inmates are placed with a fellow inmate of the same crime level. My cell mate was the gentleman from holding with the DWI-D and possession charge. It appeared that the races were typically kept together, people who were arrested together were kept together and gang members were housed with members of their own gang.
This was an actual cell, with bunks, a thin mattress, the same standard issue blankets, a wash cloth, toothbrush, toothpaste and a bar of soap. I got the top bunk, and thus, a window. My view was to a parking lot, where I saw the same black Jeep Wrangler arrive first for the day, and then leave last.
This place was pure boredom, just more comfortable than the holding cell. You do not leave your cell, food is delivered to you. Nor do you want to leave your cell, as you are on a block with criminals of all levels. It’s loud at times, as various inmates engage in (often violent) trash-talking, they yell out things at people they know, and the mentally unstable inmates often yell nonsense and bang on their cell doors. This goes on most of the day and night, with a break between 4pm and 6pm (when inmates are moved) and 1am and 8am when everyone finally goes to sleep.
I napped off and on for the next 38 hours. Seriously, that’s it. The most boring, but reflective 38 hours of my life. When awake, I tried to meditate and pray, but mostly I thought about how to fix my life so that I would never, ever be back there again.
You Get Three Meals Per Day – And They Come Early
When in holding, you do not have access to a clock. This causes time to become slow, and can drive you crazy. However, three meals per day are delivered at specific times, so you can gauge the time of day based on when you receive your meals. In my jail, breakfast is 5:30am, lunch is 11:00am and dinner is 4:30pm. Most inmates take their meals and go back to bed and eat them later, or eat and then go back to bed. Lunch was always two bologna and cheese sandwiches with a side of unsalted sunflower seeds and cookies. One day it came with an apple, the other day, a small bag of Doritos. One day it came with apple juice, the other it did not.
Breakfast was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milk and a banana. One day it came with a hard boiled egg.
Dinner was more rounded; day one was chicken nuggets with BBQ sauce, baked beans, canned corn, a slice of white bread and plain white cake. Day two was a sloppy joe with canned green beans, a soggy chocolate chip cookie and brown rice. Again, one day it came with apple juice, one day it did not.
Using The Jail Toilet – Inmate Etiquette
Each holding cell is outfitted with a metal toilet/sink/water fountain contraption.
You learn very quickly not to care about urinating or having someone else urinate in front of you. However, there is etiquette when it comes to doing your other business:
- Give your roommate a heads up. “Hey man, I gotta take a shit” is the universal language.
- Wait for your roommate to prepare – which is usually burrowing under the covers, head and all.
- Do your business and immediately flush twice.
- Wipe quickly, and flush again, twice. This will minimize any odors lingering in the room.
Do what the correctional officers ask of you and be polite
In my experience, all of the correctional officers were firm, but professional. Some of them were even friendly and good humored. It seems that once they realize you aren’t going to be any trouble, they treat you a little better. Use your “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” politeness, and respect is reciprocated. Don’t ask for things unless you really need them. If asked to do something, do it.
This will also make it more likely for you to receive help quickly if you really do need it. An inmate in a nearby cell constantly called out to the officers to ask for things. Eventually, they figured he was being annoying for the fun of it, and they stopped responding.
Keep your head down and don’t try to make friends
I was cordial to my cell-mate, and he was cordial to me, but ultimately, I didn’t trust him. He had a long record, was having mild drug withdrawals and was becoming more frustrated the longer he was locked up without finding anyone to post his bond. I decided to keep my distance, and either nap most of the time, or pretend to nap.
Sure enough, out of desperation just before he was to be moved to the main area, he asked me if I would sign for his bond when I got out. I was very uncomfortable with this proposition, as I did not know this man. I told him point blank that I was broke and could not afford to take on that risk. Luckily, he dropped it.
If you are only there for a few days, you do not need to forge alliances or establish friendships. Many times these will get you in trouble, as longer term inmates and those with longer records tend to be manipulative and are looking for something in return.
Just don’t engage with this, especially if you’re only there for a few days. It’s not worth it. While in holding, I heard too many cat-calls and simple trash-talk escalate quickly into real threats of violence. Remember, you’re only there for a few days, and if you get caught up in anything, you’ll likely have to stay longer.
In addition, your behavior in pre-classification is monitored and used for or against you when it comes to your classification. If you are misbehaving and lobbing threats of violence here, it is assumed you cannot be trusted in the lower classifications, and may be classified as dangerous.
I woke up when breakfast was delivered at 5:30am. It was a wonderful feeling, knowing I was going to be released that morning. I ate most of the food, brushed my teeth, and then waited.
It seemed like forever, and I dozed off in the meantime. But at 7:15am, a correctional officer notified me to gather my things for release. At 7:30am, I was taken from my cell and led back to intake where I was given my street clothes to change back into. Then I was given my possessions, less the cash. Finally, I was led to the public lobby.
In the lobby, there was a phone to dial inmate accounts. I gave my name and date of birth and about five minutes later, a clerk came out with a check for $23.
From there, I walked out of the front door of the jail to a blazing hot summer morning.
There really isn’t anything eventful to report on for the release process. So I will leave one last tip: vow to never return to this place ever again.
Further Reading – Other Perspectives
Never Speed In Virginia: Lessons From My Three Days In Jail – Automotive writer spends three days in the Rappahanock-Warren Regional Jail