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Surviving County Jail

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Going to jail is difficult

Many people ignorantly think that people who go to jail are the only ones who have to bear the consequences of their actions - they aren't the only ones who pay the price, but their own families are secondary victims of their actions.

It can be helpful for family members to understand what their loved one is going through when they went to jail - remember, usually these secondary victims have done nothing wrong. So how does somebody go about learning about what life in county jail is really like?


Most people don't realize it, but there is a huge difference from one county jail to another. If you are serving time in the Cook County Jail, for instance, you will could be exposed to a lot of violence and a more hardened inmate population (in fact, most inmates agree that Cook County Jail is most similar to prison).

If you go to jail in Orange County, California, though, it might be a completely different story. Inmates in Orange County generally agree that there is very little violence and day-to-day jail life is more like high school than prison. Granted it is no walk in the park, but if you are facing jail time or know somebody who is you really should research that particular jail to find out what it's really like.

Telephones in Jail

One of the difference that you will see from jail to jail is a difference in the telephone policy. In many jails, for instance, inmates can only make collect calls to their loved ones. Other jails sell phone cards to inmates on commissary while some jails still offer good old-fashioned pay phones (these are increasingly less common because jails prefer not to have inmates carrying change around).

Another difference is the availability of phones - some jails only allow access during certain hours while others give inmates 24-hour access to phones. Sometimes your access to telephones is dependent on your classifications - trustees and inmates who have displayed a pattern of good behavior may have a lot more access to telephones than somebody in solitary confinement (which usually means 23-hours a day of lockdown with 1-hour in a yard).


Good Behavior

Everybody knows what "time off for good behavior" means - well, kind of. Most people don't know that most jails that offer time off for good behavior give it to all inmates - it is up to the inmate to lose the privilege. In fact, it is almost difficult to lose time off - you usually have to do something really bad to pick up new charges in order to lose it (fighting with a guard, smuggling drugs, etc.). Usually a relatively minor infraction, such as gambling, won't result in a loss of time off.

Amount of time off

The amount of time off for good behavior varies wildly between jails, however. This is the one time that you really want to go to a high-traffic jail. While they tend to be more violent, they are usually also very overcrowded and jail administrators need to get the inmates out as quickly as possible to make room for new ones.

For example, inmates get virtually no time off in the Davidson County Jail in Tennessee. If you are doing time in the Los Angeles County Jail, however, you will typically serve just 10-25% of your sentence (just ask Paris Hilton).

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Meals in jail

One thing that doesn't vary too much between jails is the quality of the food - inmates almost always agree that the food served by the jail is virtually inedible (with a few notable exceptions in really small jails that are serving just a handful of inmates).

Outside of meals, however, inmates can usually buy their own food on commissary. Many people in jail rely on the food available on commissary for their meals (and either give their meals away or trade them for other snacks).

Frequency of commissary

Most jails only give inmates access to commissary once or twice a week. Other jails, however, such as large jails, have carts that come around once or twice a day. If you know somebody in one of these jails you should keep a little extra money on their "books" - this is the account that they can use to purchase commissary with. Having regular access to commissary makes it easier for inmates to get along with other inmates and have some comfort food while they are behind bars.

Cost of commissary

Commissary is not usually cheap - since they have a captive audience (no pun intended), they have no reason to keep prices reasonable or competitive. While in the free market you may get a package of Ramen for 10 cents, you may pay $2 for a package of Ramen in some jails (though it would normally be something like 80 cents).

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Commissary selection

Usually larger jails will also offer a wider variety of commissary than smaller jails - this is for the simple reason that they usually have more resources to work with (in fact, usually the company providing commissary services is commissioned out and shares their profits with the jail - this provides a slight advantage to tax payers in that it can offset some of the costs associated with incarceration).

Preparing for jail

If you know anybody going to jail or somebody currently incarcerated I highly recommend you read County Jail: A Survival Guide, a free ebook from Jail Media. It provides insight on what you need to do to get by behind bars and gives the family and friends of inmates a unique perspective that helps them understand what their loved one is facing.

Also, for more specific information on county jails in the United States see Jail Media's list of county jails.


ruiz on July 08, 2012:

rodrego: you can't even ignorant ass stfu and go back to school!

Rodregro on May 31, 2012:

Jail is a GREAT place for the trash people, enjoy you will be back and you will always be trash

X-Con from The Free World! on February 09, 2012:

I disagree with you about having to catch a new charge in order to loose good time. Those are separate issues. I know that not to be true from personal experience. I did 8 years in federal prison, which included a one-year stay in county jail prior for sentencing reasons. I write it about it extensively in my hubs.

You could definitely loose good time for gambling, contrary to what you mentioned. That counts for other minor infractions, too. Prison officials don't want people breaking the rules. One of the ways they discourage them from doing so is by holding loss of good time over their heads. That is the purpose of the good time system.

For those who commit more aggravated offenses, like stabbing another inmate, they receive a new charge which adds time to the sentence they are already doing. Losing good time cannot add time to the sentence an inmate is already doing.

n2O11 on September 30, 2011:

Anyone have any clue about how much good time an inmate would get on a 3 month sentence in nassau county jail.

fluke2010 from everywhere at all times. on January 26, 2011:

I live in the U.K where we lock up far to many people, beleive me your kinda "lucky" you have county jails we just have prison, everyone over here goes in with everyone else it don't matter what you have done a first time offender will share a cell with someone who has killed people, one thing I know about for sure is that we turn out more hardened violent criminals because of the way our system works. seems the suffering of the families is unversal though, you hub has inspired me to write about the U.K system

mark on October 27, 2010:

im doing 40 days nov 1st on-ill post how it was after i get out

Bob E on October 04, 2010:

I spent 3 months in the Adams County Jail in Colorado. I can attest to the horror of jail "Chow". I preferred to call it "Slop". It's also a four letter word. There is a significant amount of tomfoolery concerning the handing out of extra trays. In one case I observed, the deputies were threatening to charge someone with theft for taking an extra tray. Sometimes they were handed out by randomly picking out inmate ID cards, sometimes those with the assigned duty to hand out the trays simply gave them to friends.

Although the private company charged with providing meals, Aramark, stated that they provided 3000 calories per day, I am no fool and would guess that it was closer to 2000. I'm not a huge person, only 140 pounds, so the calories went further towards filling my gut than they would a significantly larger person.

"I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole" - Merle Haggard

John Wilkin on September 28, 2010:

We've spent hours trying to find an online commissary services for LA County Peter Pitchess Dentention Center East Facility/Wayside Honor Ranch to provide some money for meals for an inmate to no avail. We've called numerous services and none of them service this facility.

An suggestions?

reddgurl2005 on July 20, 2010:

Food at the Brevard County Jail is the worst stuff I've ever tried in my life. The overall experience of Brevard County Jail was about as close to "Hell" as a person can get without dying. I had to sleep on the floor while there in a bubble with 7 women, they give you a mat the thickness of a penny to sleep on,and the length of a toddler. freezing cold, with an undersized sheet. The staff are so hateful, rude, and none of the charges that are bought against you are true, they're ALWAYS EXAGGERATED to the point that you look like a monster to people that don't know you. If you ask's all a BIG MONEY GETTING GAME....THE COURTS, THE JAIL, THE CORRECTIONS Dept. The whole criminal codes, charges, database of charges, inventory of procedures, NEEDS A massive OVERHAUL.......

LaShon on June 03, 2010:

A lot of money can be spent maintaining a prisoner's lifestyle. Some of the girlfriends I've met spend hundreds a dollars a month putting money on the inmate's book and paying for phone calls.

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