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No Bail? Go to Jail!

We Americans don’t know much about how our criminal justice system works. We have the basics down. “Commit the crime, do the time!” as the pop cliche has it.

If only it were that simple.

Most Americans know that if you get arrested and post bail you’re released from custody while your case grinds through an overburdened court system.

That is, if you’re lucky enough to be able to post bail—which means you’re white enough; rich enough; well connected enough. But if you can’t get bail—which means you’re poor; probably a minority; you’ve burned bridges, are alone—you go to jail. Even though you’ve not been judged guilty. Even though the state has yet to prove that you did the crime you’re accused of. Even though you’re innocent until proven otherwise. Still you stay locked up in jail, not some special holding place, until your trial. You live with convicted criminals in the same conditions that society has set up to punish (because that’s what jails do) these wrongdoers.

I never understood this until I started working as a high school teacher in a county jail. On my first day I was given a tour by another teacher of the blocks where most of my students lived.

It was pretty disturbing: The suspicious, almost paranoid looks, “Who is this guy?” coming from all sides, inmates and correctional staff alike. The dark, crowded rows of barred cells, no bigger than a closet, each with a toilet bowl, a bunk, a washcloth-size sink. No privacy—ever. You eat, sleep, shit (but never cry, if you want to survive) in view of everybody. A soup of smells you can taste, like an old penny pressed to the tongue. A melee of sounds, day and night, shouting, cursing, screeching, rappin’, singing, jivin’, arguing, groaning. The boredom, and rage, and frustration, and fear as palpable as that soup of bitter smells and as that melee of deafening sounds, none of which you can ever get away from. And did I mention the roaches and water bugs as big as a fist?

There is the dayroom. But that’s no relief. All it is is a dirty concrete square, with chipped linoleum and water stained walls. The smells and noise and claustrophobia of the block trail in with each inmate as the TV blares and fights break out over what station to watch, or who cheated at cards, or Scrabble or Monopoly.

Many of the kids I taught weren’t serving time. They were waiting, waiting for a meeting with their Legal Aid lawyers or for them to return their phone calls; waiting for a hearing; waiting for the DA to stop quibbling about their charges; waiting for the paperwork to arrive; waiting for there to be room on the docket for their case to be heard; waiting for a new judge to be assigned; waiting from one postponement to another, often with months in between; just waiting.

I know that many Americans feel that prisoners have it too easy. Shelter, three meals a day, cable television, weights, medical care, no responsibilities. But that first day, touring the blocks, I didn’t see that red carpet treatment. I saw conditions that seemed so substandard that I couldn’t believe the law allowed it. But what was even more puzzling to me that first day and continued to puzzle me for the rest of my ten years there was how people—men and women, young and old—who were not convicted of a crime were forced to live in such horrific conditions.

The American justice system: Get arrested, can’t make bail, and you’re as good as convicted as you sit locked up, guilty until proven innocent

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