On Thursday night I went to jail. Luckily I was an invited guest of the Sheriff’s department, and not in a handcuffed-in-the-back-of-a-cruiser kind of way. The Adult Detention Center (ADC) tour was an optional part of the FCPD Citizens Police Academy that I’ve been attending for the last ten weeks.
In Virginia, the jails are run by the Sheriff’s Department. There’s a difference between a jail and a prison. At least here, the jail is where suspects go to await trial, or to serve a sentence of less than 12-18 months. Prison is for convicted felons serving sentences of more than one year.
That wording is even important. Someone sentenced to 13 months will go to the jail. A sentence of one year means prison. Not sure why.
We started our tour in the courthouse. They’re modern, high-ceilinged rooms with computer monitors for the judge, clerk, lawyers, and juries, as well as large monitors for the gallery. Lawyers use digital overhead projectors or computers to display evidence, and the judge can control which monitors are turned on.
Next up, the Sheriff’s department served us dinner. We didn’t get prison food—or the dreaded “loaf” that troublemakers get—we ate what the staff eats. Before the meal, our guide (Sergeant W) gave an overview of jail life.
The floors are organized so that the higher you go, the higher the level of security. Cells on the exterior of the building are also lower security than those on the inside: no window.
Virginia uses what’s called lock-in-lock-out, where the inmates are locked into their cells at night, and locked out of their cells for 12 hours each day. LILO helps prevent attacks where one inmate is pulled into an open cell. It also provides them less time to do things like make weapons or try to tunnel through a wall.
Because they are forced into a common room all day, they’re easier to keep an eye on.
Inmates eat two warm meals a day—both in their cell—and a cold lunch. They’re awakened for breakfast at 0430 each day, and forced to leave their cell at 0830. The jail tries to get them into a responsible habit of waking early so when they’re released they won’t be used to sleeping the day away.
They get one hour of recreation room time to play basketball or volleyball, or use aerobic machines. There are no free weights or weight machines in the jail. The purpose of rec time is to burn energy, not build lean, mean fighters.
And speaking of fighting, Sergeant W showed us how even the simplest things could become weapons. He made about 12 layers of one-ply toilet paper, then twisted it several times until it became strong enough that none of the guys in class could break it! Cheap TP turned noose or garrote. If wet repeatedly like paper-mache, it could be turned into a bat.
An untwisted paper clip can become a weapon if poked into the face, eyes, side of the head. A light switch cover can be ground to a sharp edge and used as a shank or to cut away at the block wall or metal bars.
In jail inmates lose many of their rights. They can be searched without probable cause, for any reason at all. Everything in jail is a privilege, and as such, can be taken away for punishment. For example, phone time. (All phone calls are recorded, BTW.) The only thing allowed on TVs are sports, educational shows, and TVLand.
After dinner, we started the actual tour, beginning in the sally port where the police cars come in through a large metal door into an underground garage. The offender is brought into an airlock-type anteroom where they must wait until the heavy, metal door clangs shut behind them before the entrance into the intake area opens.
I wrote about the frightening sound of that door shutting in my ride-along post. It still made me jump every time on the jail tour too.
Once the detainee enters the intake area, deputies give him (since ~90% are men, I’ll use “he”) a pat down, just in case the arresting officer missed something. He’s then taken by the arresting officer to the magistrate where the officer states the case for arrest. When the magistrate issues the warrant, the inmate is in-processed by a deputy including basic personal and medical information (in case of a medical emergency they need to know about health issues), fingerprints, and photo.
The inmate is put in a holding cell until categorized for placement into the larger population. The logistics of placement are based on a complicated mix of his alleged crime, past behavior, possibility of mental health issues, and even things like gang affiliation. The goal is to avoid conflicts between other inmates as much as possible.
We passed several individual cells for those identified with mental health concerns, or those causing trouble in the main holding cell. We were warned to stay away from the food slot to avoid being grabbed. It’s kind of sad looking through the window at men or women in a room the size of a closet with nothing more than a slab for a bed and a tiny potty.
We all got quite a shock when we glanced into one cell to find a man stark naked, facing the window!
The Fairfax ADC has a video arraignment system so that inmates don’t have to be transported to court. This is especially handy for inmates who have warrants in other jurisdictions within Virginia. Actually, it’s handy for those jurisdictions who don’t have to spend the money or time to send two officers to transport him. It’s also safer for the officers and the inmate, and reduces the chance of escape.
Next we visited each of the levels of the jail building. We even went inside a the women’s day room to get a look around. That was a bit awkward, and we tried to look around without making eye contact or staring.
Sergeant W also stopped an inmate who was cleaning the corridor—the lower-risk inmates can clean, do laundry, or work in the kitchen—and asked him a few questions. The man had been incarcerated in North Carolina and D.C., and the Fairfax ADC was by far the strictest place he’d been, but also the safest. He didn’t want to say what he’d done, but he was working on his GED in jail.
The ADC provides educational classes focused on core values like anger management, parenting, and the high school equivalency exam. They also have a law library and a regular library. All the books are PG. No sex scenes! And nothing violent. I joked that I guess my books would never end up in the jail library. I think I’m good with that. 😉
Inmates can have visitors, but all visits are strictly no contact. They’re done through a clear shield on a phone. Sorry, no conjugals here. Also, all contact is monitored.
One thing that really struck me was how clean the ADC was. Outside of the one “padded” cell we looked at—not actually padded, just bare—which was kind of sticky, the whole building gleamed. Nothing cluttered the halls, the floors and walls were shiny and unmarked, the cells were neat.
Inmates are limited to one standard-sized box of personal items. Anything that doesn’t fit will be thrown out by the deputies. The policy reduces clutter and fire hazard (intentional or otherwise).
Our last stop was for a quick Q&A session with one of the female deputies. Since she guards both men and women’s sections—just like men do—she really has to work on her command presence. She has to be stern but fair, and work harder than a man might because she has no size advantage for the intimidation factor.
She must let the inmates know up front that she’s not a pushover just because she’s a woman. In fact, it's important for male deputies to establish right away that they're not easily swayed, too. Some of the inmates are master manipulators, so all deputies must remain on guard.
Overall, I came away very impressed with the ADC and the Sheriff’s department. Jail was an eye-opener. Not that I ever doubted my desire to stay out, but clean as it was, I know the only way I want to go back is if I’m getting another tour!