1L Jail Tour

Shirley Diaz
Class of 2018

On October 30, 2015, a group of 1Ls, chaperoned by Professor Richardson, visited the Orange County jail on 550 N Flower St. in Santa Ana. As a first year criminal law student, I was excited to visit the jail to see a segment of the criminal justice system in my own community up close and in action. The bus ride to the jail reminded me of an elementary school field trip, full of the excited chatter of students and the freedom of riding around town without a seatbelt on. Stepping off the bus and walking to the facility, I take a video Snapchat to show my non-law school friends all of the interesting criminal law experience I am getting. As we approach the building, we are greeted by two police officers, and they escort us to the entrance used by the officers and visitors like ourselves. At this point I am still full of excitement, and I am inclined to take a liking to these officers because they seem organized and eager to show us their facility. We store our purses and cell phones in offices and lockers and then officially begin the tour by going through a steel and glass double door chamber into the secured interior of the Orange County jail.

The inside of the jail is mostly white. White floors, walls, and ceilings, but the doors are brown. The hallway we enter is occupied by a sort of command center where officers sit behind a glass and monitor access in and out of the chamber on too many screens for them to focus on. We are given a detailed explanation of how the door chamber works, a brief on the level of security at the jail ,and then our guide gives a shout out to the door keepers behind the glass for their excellent security skills before leading us further into the jail. As soon as we start walking I forget which way we came in. We are led left down a hallway, right to another section, up escalators, down escalators; I begin to think it’s designed as a maze.

Finally, we see people in custody as we arrive to the booking area. People in civilian clothes wait behind glass cells to get assigned a permanent cell or to be let out on their own recognizance. I get the sensation that I’m visiting a zoo, only with people on display, so I try not to stare. Some of those in custody react with shame, they weren’t counting on a huge group of people visiting the jail. Others were undisturbed and ignored us, while the more daring ones waved, smiled, yelled and put on a show as it were. We continue to make our way through the jail, following the booking process all the way to the interior where the more permanent residents stay. Here people are held behind literal bars and the sensation changes from visiting a zoo to being in a slaughter house. Some cells are so large they house nearly thirty men in a hall of bunk beds, other are smaller and cram in three to four men.

We walk across the space in an enclosed hallway and below we can observe the men communicating with each other using sign language. The officer guiding us boasts that he has learned their sign language and uses is as a way to build trust with the inmates. We turn a corner and reach the dining hall. The officers warn it is the most dangerous place in the jail because it is where they are most outnumbered. He also shares the agreement the jail guards have with gang leaders to separate inmates in cells by race and to schedule their lunch times in a segregated manner. We are offered a taste of the lunch for the day but no one from our class is brave enough to take a nibble, even though I’m sure we were all curious to try it.

Our tour then moves to a more familiar setting: a courtroom. It was far from grandiose. It was literally an extra unused room that was transformed into a “courtroom” by adding a wooden bench for the judge and a cage for the defendant. The officers brag to us that the judge is so efficient he can go through over two-hundred arraignments in a day. We do the math and decide each defendant gets about three minutes to decide to plead guilty.

We then make our way out of the secured double door chamber and into the main lobby of the building where I feel like I’m breathing fresh air again, even though I’m still indoors. The last tidbit we get from the officers is that the interior of the jail uses recycled air instead of air conditioning, which accounts for the noticeable difference in air quality. He also mentions the satisfaction he gets when an inmate in one section of the jail is insubordinate to the point where he is required to use pepper spray because the recycled air system carries the spray throughout the jail and irritates the other inmates as a reminder to behave. That concluded our tour and we proceed to collect our belongings and appreciate our freedom by stepping out onto the open sidewalk and back into the bus.

The tour gave me a lot to think about regarding judicial efficiency over the individual right to a trial, overall jail conditions, and the role I play in all of this as a citizen and future lawyer. I encourage students to visit the jail when the next opportunity arises or to talk to someone who has visited a facility to hear about their individual experience.