Friday, June 8, 2012

A Day in the Durango Hilton

My time in Maricopa county’s Durango jail

One of the silver linings that I attempted to make out of my prison sentence was that, in many ways, I was about to embark on my own “inside” documentary – given that I was politically active and fairly well read, I figured I might as well attempt to stay positive and use my time to focus on what incarceration is really like. And, lucky me, I would get to spend part of my time in the custody of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office – where prisoner mistreatment has been a red hot issue for much of the last 10-15 years.

(if you would like a summary of my entire situation and what led me to my jail trip, check out this post right here.) \

What's not to love?
The entrance to the MCSO’s Durango Jail, located in South Phoenix

After I was arrested and released, a plea offer was negotiated over a three month period. I would plead guilty and receive somewhere between 4-12 months in prison (I got 9), and the day (August 25th, 2011)I came that I had to plead guilty. Once you change your plea to guilty, you are immediately remanded to custody pending a sentencing hearing a month later. Since I hadn’t received a prison sentence yet, I was placed in the custody of the MCSO pending my sentencing, and for that month, I was incarcerated at Durango Jail, an all-male, minimum/medium security jail, holding mostly non-violent, first time offenders who had never served any prison time. 

While Tent City, Sheriff Joe’s favorite prop for the media/conservatives, gets the vast majority of the press regarding his jail operation, a large chunk of complaints regarding inhumane treatment originate from the county’s brick and mortar jails, including the recent controversy regarding the death of inmate Marty Atencio during booking, or off and on hunger strikes protesting the quality of food provided at the jails. In addition, nearly 90% of male inmates in a non-Tent City jail are considered legally innocent and are awaiting trial.
Here’s a quick summary on the logistics/setup of Durango Jail:
The Durango Jail was built in 1976 as a minimum security jail. The
Durango Jail houses approximately 2214 inmates in seven housing
units and two barracks buildings. Each housing unit contains four
“pods,” and each pod contains a general-purpose day room area with
metal tables and stools, and a bathroom area with sinks, toilets and
showers. There are two large outside areas for recreation.
What was it like? Does it live up to the “human rights violations/Amnesty International”  hype that we hear so often on the television? Yes and no, and that answer can depend on who you are and how you behave while you’re in custody. On a personal level, I had no issues with other inmates or staff, a little bit of money, and was quiet – and the stay was “tolerable”, in so far as I made it tolerable, because I had no other options. But, on the whole, Durango Jail is a pit of boredom and dehumanization, designed specifically to slowly suck the soul out of you day by day. They may not beat you physically, but staff are designed to treat detainees as a lower class of being, often calling names, screaming off the cuff, and sending the message that you are no longer equal to other human beings – in fact, one of the postcards available for indigent inmates to send mail on declares that inmates aren’t even as good as dogs: (sorry for the quality on this, best I could find)

MCSO's winning strategy on reducing recidivism.
The MCSO’s winning strategy on reducing recidivism: telling offenders they are worse than animals.

Throughout the whole experience, this is perhaps what bothered me the most. The attitude of jail staff as a whole enforces an inmate’s assumption that criminals can never be reformed and that somehow, their offense put them in a sub-human class that will never be able to recover from their mistakes – which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that sends them right back to jail or prison.

A card that the Sheriff’s Department likes to play when encountering that argument is that there are “plenty” of 12 step meetings, GED/HS Diploma classes, and religious services available to assist inmates in enriching their lives upon release. These things are offered – to typically less than 5 total inmates throughout the day in each “pod”, meaning that these classes and services don’t have space for roughly 80% of the general population in custody at the jail. The excuse is that larger numbers of attendees may result in a security threat, but given the non-violent, low-risk type of inmate typically incarcerated there, this makes no sense. Even in the Arizona Department of Corrections – the state prison system – self help and educational classes are not LIMITED by inmate participation numbers, with hundreds of inmates on each prison yard alone attending classes or meetings on a daily basis.

So what does that leave inmates with on a daily basis? Well, let’s start with the cells. At Durango, in each pod, there are roughly 20 cells, with each cell holding 4 people, double bunked. The cells are roughly the size of a high school storage closet (this isn’t a joke), but do not have doors. Inmates are bunked together without regard to race, as the race issue doesn’t really come into play until you reach prison. Each cell looks out into the central dayroom, with two long, steel picnic style tables, a TV high on the wall, and a large, communal bathroom, with shower curtains but no stalls. Dayroom access is typically allowed all day, from 6:00am until 10:00pm, unless the pod or jail is locked down. The dayroom has three “charge-a-call” collect phones for inmates to call on, and the TV is typically on ESPN or ESPN2. Meals are served at roughly 7am and then not again until about 5:30pm, with breakfast always being a large bread roll and old peanut butter. Dinner is typically indecipherable, and, at first, inedible, but you get used to it after a few days, out of necessity. I was never fed anything rotten, and was gross overall, but you learn how to make it work in the long run.

In terms of the inmates – most are normal people who screwed up. Durango’s general population also includes people charged on misdemeanors as well as felonies, but any violent felonies are housed at other jails. There were fights, and drama on a daily basis (amazing how dramatic straight men are when they get bored), but as long as you didn’t go looking for trouble, it never found you. In many ways, this is the easiest place to get along with so many inmates and offenders: often, in jail or prison, they are stone cold sober and have a clear head/thought process. I’ve witnessed first hand seemingly sane, logical people turn into banshees when they get high, and that’s the problem for many drug addicts who keep going in and out of our criminal justice system.

Long story short – the reason why I made it through my time at Durango is because I knew that the detention staff would always win. Because I was healthy, mentally stable, and out of trouble, I didn’t have any reason to ever speak with staff – removing myself as a potential target. The trouble is, many inmates with medical/mental issues don’t have that luxury, and generally, those are the inmates who have their rights violated, and those are the inmates that we need to fight to protect.  My experience with the MCSO was horrible, but I expected horrible and that made it tolerable. The idea – however – that Joe’s “tough jails” in any way prevent people from going out and committing more crime is laughable.