What I Learned On My Recent Trip to Jail

I found myself deep below the city streets of downtown Minneapolis on Monday last September, shoulder-to-shoulder in an underground city occupied by 800 of my fellow blaze orange Minnesotans. None of them were there for deer hunting, though.

The sign on the wall, the one near the line of new arrivals waiting to make their one free phone call, read “Hennepin County Jail.” That was before one of the high-risk inmates pressed his face against the glass of a window a few feet away and peered in at me. Oh, and my aunt.

I’m wondering how long I can keep this up before I’m found out. Not about a crime, but that I didn’t get booked into jail that day. I did, however, take a gander at the booking process, from fingerprinting to mugshots and “cooling off” rooms to a friendly jail orientation video. A few of the denizens even demonstrated those steps, willingly or not.

My aunt won a tour of the Hennepin County Jail, as well as a coffee meeting in Sheriff Richard Stanek’s office, through a charity silent auction. I was eager to accept her invitation, especially since getting a free taxi to and tour of the facility usually requires alcohol, nudity and hijinx – two of which I’ve graciously relieved the city of Minneapolis from enduring.

The jail tour stuck us everywhere except in a cell with an inmate. They didn’t want to upset the population, you see. There was one incident, though, but we “just missed show” on the high-risk level, as one deputy put it.

The temptation with any law enforcement/jail tour write-up is to humanize the situation. That’s quite trendy on the Interwebs. Look at my shaggy hair and writerly frump. I’m not trendy. But I’d probably score some points by writing, “these were just people like you and me” or “with a few wrong turns, that could’ve been me wagging my dick over a communal toilet.” But I don’t even have to do that. Because this was a pre-trial jail full of detainees, not a prison of convicts. Everyone in there was, legally, innocent.

But then why were they behind bars? That’s not how you treat an innocent person. Isn’t there some hypocrisy inherent in a system that kisses the ring of “innocent until proven guilty” but locks up those same people? Couldn’t someone go broke defending themselves for something they didn’t do? Isn’t being arrested its own form of punishment that can be doled out without much oversight? Isn’t the system set up so that those with money stand the best chance because they can make bail and work on their defense outside of the jail system?

Yeah, I promised I wouldn’t get trendy. But this is the Internet. By law, you have to get outraged about something after 500 words. Go ahead and count. I’m innocent until proven guilty.

Jail, like life, is way too nuanced to make the kinds of generalizations that are easy to make and defend, from all sides of the political spectrum, because there is rarely anyone present to offer a counterpoint. Still, at the end of the tour of the facility, I came to few solid conclusions about the Hennepin County Jail (and incarceration in general) other than…

Jails Aren’t Always Full of Convicts, So Don’t Treat Them Like They’re Guilty

This particular jail emphasized a reward system for good behavior, treatment for the sick/addicted/injured and giving the population something to do, such as a communal TV space, books, board games and a gym. This made sense to me. And, no, this wasn’t the kind of palace some political hacks like to preach on about. It had just enough. Few people were going to be there for longer than 12 months, and some might wind up released. Again, these were, legally, innocent people not convicted of anything.

Staff Does Its Best

I got the impression the staff did its best and actually gave a damn about their wards. Our tour guide, an active officer, was certainly informative and seemed rational. She explained in detail why they did the things they did, answered my curveball questions and was a true professional the entire time. Nothing gave me pause. It’s hard to confirm any of this without getting arrested in Hennepin County, but that’s how it appeared to me.

But I’m Not Willing to See If That’s True

I don’t want to go to jail. Not that I needed to be scared straight or anything, but your identity is stripped from you. That’s probably the worst. It’s one thing to see that effect in movies or TV. It’s a whole other thing to feel it sucking at you through the osmosis of uniform, sterile facilities parched for something different. You’d be totally out of your element in there. It’d be, I imagine, like getting jettisoned onto the moon in the time it takes for the booking to complete. And that would, for lack of a better term, fuck with you.

The Joke’s On You

There’s a certain dark humor in knowing that people up above on the city level have no idea they’re walking on top of an inverted city of Minnesota’s Most Wanted. The irony is that you put people away only to have them get closer. Might as well be a metaphor for that whole revolving door thing.

Get Help, but Also Get It Together

It’s a fine thing to help people who need it, but at a certain point, the onus is on you. The jail would help get you up to a certain par – sober you up, patch the holes, check the oil – but it was on you to get your shit together. Our tour officer said they don’t literally handhold people unless there’s a reason, in which case they’re probably breaking out the restraints. If you’re asked to go down the hall, take a left and head to room B, that’s what you do. Because you’re going to have a tougher time if you can’t be an adult about things.

Hey, that’s kind of like life outside the bars. See, they’re just like us.

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