The Jail Inferno

The Jail Inferno

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To understand the difficulties of running a large jail, imagine that your job is personally to shepherd each of the thousands of commuters streaming through New York’s massive Penn Station to their trains safely and on time . . . except that the commuters are all criminals who keep changing their travel plans, and their trains, to which they don’t want to go, have no fixed timetables. A cross-section of the entire universe of criminal offenders, from the most hardened murderer to the most deranged vagrant, cycles through the nation’s 3,365 jails. But the majority of jail inmates show up with no predictable release date, since they have as yet only been charged with a crime and are awaiting a trial that may or may not occur and whose duration is unknown. Even before their trials begin, they may make bail at any moment and be released. Planning for pretrial detainees is therefore no easy task. “The ones who stay less than 36 hours drive you out of your mind,” says Michael Jacobson, a former corrections commissioner in New York City. “You think: ‘Couldn’t you have made bail ten hours ago rather than coming into my facility?’ ” Prisons, by contrast, hold only post-conviction defendants who have been found guilty or pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to a known term of more than a year. (Prisons and jails differ as well in their government overseers: the former are run by states and the federal government, the latter by cities and counties.)

[S]urveillance, said Foucault in Discipline and Punish, turns inmates into powerless subjects of the “disciplinary” state. Foucault called jails and prisons “Panopticons,” after a circular prison model by eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham that let guards observe a large number of inmates from a central position.

But jails and prisons are also reverse Panopticons; to walk around one is to be under constant observation from the inmates. The moment that Deputy Warden Thomas Hall enters another Rikers punitive segregation unit, inmates watching from their cells unleash a torrent of obscenities: “Fucking Hall!” “Call Hall!” While the authorities’ surveillance of inmates is often protective—as in the ubiquitous suicide watches—the inmates’ surveillance of the authorities can be aimed at corrupting them. Like surveillance, power in jails flows between officers and inmates in multiple directions.

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