Russell Brunelle (russellb) wrote,
Russell Brunelle

My 3/14/07 diary entry

Today I had the opportunity to participate in a group tour of downtown Seattle's King County Correctional Facility, organized by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (which was hosting its annual conference in Seattle this year).

In general, KCCF is a relatively large medium-security prison for county prisoners who will typically be incarcerated there no more than a year. My understanding is that the design of this facility is considered "second generation" by jail designers: rather than the traditional rows of two-person cells it's divided into a series of "pods," for which the jail staff in the middle of each circularly-arranged group of cells can see every prisoner and see into every cell.

Despite what some commentators seem to think, it was clear to me based on this experience that prisons actually aren't luxury hotels: although I wouldn't describe the environment as nightmarish, it was pretty grim.

In no particular order, what follows were my main take-aways from this tour:

  • Being a correctional officer is currently extremely lucrative, particularly given that higher education isn't required. You need a total of 12 weeks of training (at least as I remember what was being described), but after that you START at $19.60/hour plus benefits. And, the sky is pretty much the limit for overtime: they have some correctional officers who routinely make more than $100,000/year. Furthermore, there's apparently a shortage of correctional officers right now.
  • Remember the "Scared Straight" TV special that came out a long time ago, in which they took young criminals and tried to scare them by exposing them to hardened career criminals in an actual prison? And remember how that effort spawned similar attempts across the country? Then, remember how you stopped hearing about this kind of thing? Well, the reason you stopped hearing about it is that apparently not only did it fail to work, but it had the exact opposite effect: the reaction of the young troublemakers wasn't, "I should live a clean life and avoid jail so that I don't have to be around these tough prisoners," but rather, "Given that I'm going to jail eventually I should be as tough and ruthless as possible so that once I'm in jail my reputation will be such that these tough prisoners will leave me alone." Seriously: according to the corrections officer leading today's tour that was the typical result.
  • Transgendered prisoners apparently by policy aren't kept with either the male or female general prison population, and instead get individual cells (i.e. just as high-profile criminals would get). I was unclear as to whether this policy implies that transgendered prisoners can't participate in classes, as the other inmates can.
  • It's a myth that you can only get books through the jail commissary: as long as it's shipped directly from the publisher (or a bookstore like you can get whatever books you like, though as a practical matter you'd probably need to have a friend or family member order it for you. You can also check out books via the jail library, which works through the King County Library system. You can have only three books out at a time, but can trade them in for more whenever you like.
  • Despite popular belief, prisoners don't get their own personal television sets: unless they're isolated from the general population for some reason, the prisoners are in dorm-style arrangements with twelve prisoners (if I remember correctly) per cell, and there's one television for the cell. But the television isn't on all day (it's not on at all in the evening), it gets only two channels or something like that, and it can be taken away if the prisoners don't keep their cell clean or if they misbehave.
  • New prisoners get a little booklet called the "Inmate Information Handbook," in addition to seeing an orientation video on the TV set bolted to the wall of the intake cells. The first section of this booklet informs you that taking hostages is pointless, as any demands made under such circumstances will be flatly refused regardless of what you're threatening to do. The next section provides some practical tips on how to avoid getting raped by other prisoners, including "Don't be afraid to say NO," "Walk and stand with confidence," "Avoid secluded areas," "Avoid talking about sex or sexual acts," and "Do not accept gifts or indebt yourself to anyone."
  • One other remarkable line from the Inmate Information Handbook: "Being in jail may cause or increase some feelings, such as sadness or worry."
  • If you exhibit good behavior as a prisoner you gain/retain privileges, such as the ability to take various classes and training. Classes included "Creative Writing Skills," "Yoga Meditation," and "Healthy Sexuality."
  • Apparently at LEAST once a week someone with an outstanding warrant shows up to visit a prisoner. Obviously this visitor can be (and generally is) simply arrested on the spot.

Oh well, that's all that comes to mind.

On the whole this tour was a fascinating experience, and I'm glad I took the time to do it.
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