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Incarceration in California

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How the Information Exchange Begins

Just about every person, at some point in their life, knows someone that has spent time in jail or prison. Mine is a wayward brother that has found a parental image in the correctional institute. It's actually the best place for him: A roof over his head, a warm place to sleep with a blanket, three square meals a day and lots of like minded friends to play with. Then, there's me. I enjoy writing the old fashioned way, with pen and paper. I write my brother letters and he inevitably sends me names of other inmates that have no one writing to them. That's how it starts, one lonely person in prison and one person that enjoys writing.

And that is how the letter exchanges begins. Eventually the letters turn to the conditions they are enduring in jail or prison. They are serving time for breaking the law, it's not supposed to be an enjoyable memory, but I do realize this is not what they want to hear at this time of their life, so I don't mention it.

The letters always start the same way, they profess their innocence and how they have been wrongfully convicted. For the most part I ignore the pleas of innocence and write about what is happening in the world, the weather, and how much time they received for their "wrongful conviction".

On occasion I wonder if my pen-pals honestly believe that they have been wrongfully convicted, or if they believe they can convince me that they are wrongly accused. I mean, in their heart of hearts (yes, they have a heart, they are human too) do they really, really, believe they are wrongly convicted? I believe, for the most part, it is the latter, they believe they can convince me that they are wrongly accused. I suppose sometimes a convicted man or woman can convince themselves that they did no wrong. But there's one thing I know for sure and that is most people don't get sent to jail or prison for J walking or giving someone the one finger wave, they probably had a knife or gun in their hand they're forgetting to mention. Don't get me wrong, there are some people that are convicted and sentenced for something they had nothing to do with. It's a very sad reality of our judicial system, blame someone, anyone, to appease the masses.

Prison & Jail are Not the Same Place

Many people are unaware that there is a difference between jail and prison. They are two different institutions. Jail is for short term, non-violent offenders. Meaning, if a person is sentenced to a year for petty theft, they will more than likely serve their time at the local jail. On the other hand, if the sentence is more than a year and it was a violent offense, the person is sent to a prison. Simply put; prison is long term & violent offenders, jail is short term & non-violent. Here you will find a cool site that has all kinds of comparisons including prison vs jail.

The time limit of one year is flexible. If there is severe over-crowding in the local jail, then the inmate will be moved to another jail immediately, and if that jail is over crowded, they may be sent to a prison. Sometimes a person is sentenced to several years but are juggled between jails until there is room at a prison for them. This can take several months of a prisoner waiting to transfer to prison.


When someone is arrested they arrive at a jail and they are booked. This means they have their fingerprints and their photo taken. If the crime is minor, they are ordered to appear in court, they sign a paper saying they promise to go to the hearing, and sent home on their own recognizance. If their crime warrants a full arrest or if they have been sentenced to time, then they are taken to the next step of incarceration, the rendering of personal property.

  • The prisoner is stripped of their personal possessions; rings, wallets, cash, coins, everything. It's then placed in a property bag with their name and inmate number (PFN) written on it. Do not expect to get all your money back. If you're in for a short sentence your odds of seeing your money again are around 2:5. And if you're in on a long sentencing, say goodbye to all the cash. Your chances of seeing it again are slim and more likely none.
  • After handing over all their belongings, it's time for the strip search to be conducted. This means everything off, everything. Then the inmate is ordered to perform certain calisthenics, to encourage any items he/she may have hidden on their person, to present itself. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. For more on that click here.
  • The next step is to be issued a standard set of clothing and slippers. A smock type shirt, usually of a high neon color and a pair of pants resembling the type used in martial arts, of the same high neon color are issued. The name of the jail or prison you are held in is emblazoned across the front or back.
  • A pair of rubber slippers or slip on rubber shoes are provided by the jail. The slippers are worn by every inmate, you will not find a single pair of Nikes or Reebok in a jail, unless they are worn by the guards. The slippers double as showering shoes. One inmate wrote, "The shower is one place you do not want to ever go barefoot....EVER." For me, that's just another reason to avoid jail or prison, the shower has things in it you can't wash off!

Prison provides the low level offenders with laced shoes. They are also provided the rubber slippers the jail provides. These are specifically for those showers I just discussed. It sounds like the showers are bad in both institutions.

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Over Crowding

Over crowding is a huge issue. In California it is not uncommon to have a 5' by 10' cell, intended for two inmates, accommodating four or even six inmates. Here is a news article talking about over crowding and the effect it is having on their budget. When there are three or four times the amount of inmates in a cell this kind of over-crowding causes problems with everything from how much time you're given in the yard to flushing the porcelain throne.

In jail there are several inmates in one cell with one throne. If the throne is not clogged, an inmate will clog it by filling it with gobs of tissue. In a prison, rarely is the porcelain throne attacked. There is an unspoken law among the prison inmates, that includes several courtesy rules each person must abide by. One of them is the porcelain throne must never be desecrated!

The jail system has such over-crowding issues that exercise time is limited to once, or twice, a week, for an hour or so. But, if you're in a prison there's an opportunity to play sports with the locals. Several times a week a game is set up, by the prison officials, where the inmates vs the locals. It is reported to be a lot of fun and a fresh change from the rare exercise time provided by a jail.

The weight sets at both the jails and prisons have been removed. Apparently the inmates were initially incarcerated looking something like Waldo from the Where's Waldo book series. During their incarceration they would work out everyday with the weight sets provided and upon release they looked more like Sylvester Stallion in Rocky. It was making jail and prison look like a health spa for potential heavy weight boxers, so they eliminated the weights. Besides, a 50lb weight or a barbell can be a potential hazard for a rival inmate.


Yes, gangs are in the jail system. Usually known gang members are housed separately. But, with several hours a day to put their minds to work, inmates affiliated with a gang can still coordinate with others of their gang in different pods. As a matter of fact a news item provided by WiiConnect24 an APNewsBreak wrote, "An Idaho prison is being partially run by the gang inmate population". There is a good deal of evidence to support the claim. It started when prison officials placed related gang members in the same pod. Their pod becomes their territory and they control the other inmates within it. Allowing a few high profile gangs to control parts of the prison had meant the prison would spend less money on staffing. Now that is a different way of thinking.

Money appears to be an issue for inmates as well. A citizen can provide monetary support for an inmate if they so wish. The term is called, "Putting money on their books". I am not certain if a citizen can call in and put "money on books" from their ATM or charge card, but an inmate wrote telling me a citizen can walk into a jail or prison and hand money to the counter officer and request it be applied to a specific inmates book. This money can then be used to purchase cigarettes (cigs are not available at all institutions), candy, soda and even small televisions. Yes, I said televisions. I can't help but wonder if they get free cable? A prisoner can also use the funds to provide gifts for protection from, or for, other inmates. This practice is discouraged, and if discovered by jail officials, the inmate is relieved of the item, but they rarely find out.


Cell Phones

Cell phones are certainly not allowed in either institution, but that doesn't mean they are not smuggled in, often. Hidden in human body cavities, or swallowed whole, and retrieved later in the restroom, is all too common. I can't say I could make a phone call on one of these devices knowing where it's been, but apparently the inmates don't mind at all. Trading favors or purchasing items with money on their books, the inmates will pay high prices to make a phone call on these cell phones. I once dropped my cell phone into a puddle and it was ruined. How an inmate can ingest a cell phone, have it travel through their body and come out the other end, and it still works, is beyond me. And do you know what? I just don't want to ask how that works out for them.

One letter told of a sophisticated system the jail would soon implement, that would scramble the signal of said smuggled cell phones. This would make the phones useless within the compound. It sounds like a pricey deal to invest in. I'm not certain the government would purchase and then implement such a pricey device. Well, come to think of it, who am I kidding, of course they would. :) Just to stop cell phone calls among inmates, I don't know, but I can see it happening, that was the last word I heard from the inmates on that subject.

Free Room & Board

Everything an inmate needs is provided for them by the institution, IE. tax payers, at both the jail and prison levels. Also, the indigenous are provided envelopes and stamps at no cost so they can have communication with the outside world. On a regular schedule each inmate that requests these items is provided a predetermined allotment. But, if an inmate has a sweet-tooth that is not charged to the tax payers, thank goodness. The inmate must have money put on their books to purchase candy.

As expected the food is one of the top complaints among inmates. Apparently peanut butter and jelly on stale bread doesn't whet the appetite or digest easily, but nobody promised them good food.

A friend of mine used to say, "Prisoners should be grateful! They are provided free room and board, a warm, safe (that is arguable), place to sleep at night, and three square meals a day, delivered free of charge!" I must say he has a point, yet I never witnessed him trying to get a piece of that pie.

I have learned a lot through exchanging mail with inmates. I know for certain jail and/or prison is somewhere I certainly don't want to be now, or ever!

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