Two Decades of Prison Did Not Prepare Me for the Horrors of County Jail
May 16, 2023
When I was 22 years old, I committed robbery and murder. I pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 years, of which I have so far served two decades. During that time, I’ve experienced the squalor and dangerous conditions of various state prisons. I’ve lived in a crumbling penitentiary built in the 1800s. I’ve been put in isolation for weeks on end because of Covid exposure and infection. Still, I was not prepared for what I found when I was transferred to a county jail for two weeks last December.
Along with people serving short sentences for relatively minor offenses, jails house people who are awaiting trial and either didn’t get bail or simply couldn’t pay it — people, that is, who have not been convicted of any crime.
Despite that fact, conditions in these facilities are often worse, and sometimes much worse, than those in the prisons where people who are convicted of the worst crimes are confined. Jails throw people together in overcrowded units that may be controlled by the most violent people in the room. Like prisons, jails house a disproportionate number of people experiencing addiction or chronic health conditions but jails lack the resources to treat them and adequate staffing overall. Udi Ofer, a professor at Princeton University who focuses on policing and criminal justice reform, told me that jails “regularly rely on even harsher conditions of confinement” than prisons do.
As a prison writer, journalist and criminal justice activist, I try to communicate to anyone who will listen that the vast majority of incarcerated people will eventually return to their communities. The trauma they suffer on the inside comes with them. Just as a very short time in solitary confinement can cause lasting harm, weeks or months in county jail can have a huge negative impact on people’s lives, even after they are released. What happens in jails doesn’t stay in jails.
I may be in prison for decades to come, but Mr. Starkovich, like many men I met in county jail, could be released in the coming weeks. He will carry the memory of hunger, violence and fear with him.