A Trip to OC Men’s Central Jail
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law
On a Friday afternoon, we went with 19 other students from UCI Law on a tour of a local county jail, organized by the Orange County Human Rights Association (OCHRA). After the visit, as we shared our experience with friends, one question kept coming up: why visit a jail?
The Orange County Jail Intake Release Center is a maximum-security facility, housing male and female inmates, with an inmate-to-guard ratio far below average (a fact that deputies frequently cite to explain the jail’s very strict security policies). On any given day, some inmates are awaiting trial; some have been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to a year or less of incarceration; some are fighting death penalty convictions (and have been for years); others are detained under the authority of ICE, which pays the county to use the facility. It was pretty quiet when we were there. We were told we had to hurry and finish the tour before the rush began; apparently, Friday nights get busy.
We entered the jail the same way inmates do: through two massive, razor-wire topped sliding bays into a large lot full of armored buses and paddy wagons. Outside the main entrance was a blue sign stating that police officers must notify all foreign nationals of their right to contact their consulate, listing as authority the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and Customary International Law.
We briefly entered a room used for blood testing. The deputy explained that all blood testing is voluntary and is generally done to measure blood alcohol level. We passed the “tanks” where people wait out the worst of their intoxication, and saw several passed-out middle-aged men behind the reinforced glass. We passed the spot where deputies search people for drugs. We passed crowded holding cells where new arrivals awaited processing (mug shots, fingerprints, etc.). Each cell had a bench, one toilet partially hidden by a waist-high wall, a roll of toilet paper, and nothing else. Most people in the cells watched us as we walked by them.
At the end of the tour, we went upstairs to a “mod” housing inmates with various diagnosed mental and behavioral health issues. One inmate was taking a shower in full view of our group, with only his waist blocked by painted glass. Others, all wearing beige jumpsuits, stood up and watched us and the deputy explained various security procedures.
It does not shed any new light to say that the process of becoming an inmate at a jail is a process of dehumanization. The instruments of that process are unremarkable— a painted line on the floor for inmates to follow, color-coded bracelets identifying people based on the threat they have been assessed to pose to guards or other inmates, ads for bail bonds stuck to the glass walls of cells, bright lights, cameras, and guards.
We do not talk about privilege very openly or very often in law school. It should not diminish the reality of our problems to say that we have agency, means, access, social contacts, a higher standard of living than most humans on earth (now, and probably at any time in history), and we are preparing to enter a profession that will solidify this status and privilege for many of us. We are among the most privileged people in the world, and when we visit a jail, we are visiting some of the least.
The answer to the question, “Why visit a jail?” is an imperative. We are alive in a period of unprecedented mass human incarceration: more than two million people now sit in jail cells in America, and that number continues to rise. More people are incarcerated in this country today—both per capita and numerically— than ever before. Prisons are kept out of view for a number of reasons, but they have tremendous effects on society in a whole range of ways. The prison system, and those locked inside it, demand our attention.