The U.S. imprisons close to 1 percent of its citizens, a rate higher than any other society. The poor are disproportionately represented.
The Salt Lake County jail opened in 2000 and within 21 days was full and remains so to this day. About 2,000 individuals reside at the jail at a cost of $106 per prisoner per day.
At the Salt Lake County jail, an inmate is allowed a single 30-minute visit two days a week. Should an inmate be visited by an acquaintance during the morning, a family member seeking a visit in the afternoon will be turned away by jailers. As a result, the prisoner may lose meaningful contact with family and loved ones.
Food at the Salt Lake County jail seems to be part of the punishment. Portions are meager, about the size of a small TV dinner. There are no seconds. Residents eat at 6 a.m., 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. No other food items are provided, and many inmates experience hunger between meals, especially through the long evening hours.
A commissary program allows prisoners to purchase items such as food and hygiene products from an off-site vendor who ships the goods to the jail. The jail provides no funds to prisoners, and the cost of most items is significantly inflated. Prisoners depend on family and friends to maintain their commissary account in order to supplement their diet, relieve hunger and acquire hygiene essentials. Many neglected prisoners go without, and the poor suffer the most. One prisoner was without reading glasses for days until a friend contributed funds to the prisoner’s commissary account. The glasses cost the inmate perhaps 50 percent more than the price in a store.
A company operates a telephone system to facilitate calls from prisoners. Family or friends pay in advance. Calls are limited to a few minutes and the cost is significant. Again, the poor suffer the most.
A jail is crowded with little privacy. At the Salt Lake County jail, there is a toilet in each cell occupied by two prisoners. There is little to block the view of the toilet from outside the cell. This is a sensitive issue for women prisoners, who can readily be seen by fellow inmates as well as guards, some of whom are male. All are placed in an uncomfortable situation.
Prisoners experience periods of heat and cold. Inmates are issued only light clothing plus one light blanket and a thin coat. In addition, excessive noise, night and day, disrupts sleep, potentially resulting in sleep deprivation and the physical and cognitive results that follow.
Lack of control over life events engenders stress. Recently a young female prisoner was traumatized while being moved to another state. Without notice she was whisked into the bed of a vehicle somewhat like a delivery truck. Male and female prisoners sat awkwardly together on a wooden plank about 10 inches wide in the truck’s cargo area. There were no seat belts and no heat. This woman’s clothing was inadequate for the frigid conditions as two guards occupied the heated cab of the truck. The prisoner described that she felt like a dog trapped and confined by a dog catcher. She traveled for hour after hour in cramped, cold conditions among strangers en route to an unfamiliar destination. Helpless!
Efforts are provided at the Salt Lake County jail to promote rehabilitation. However, punishment seems to be built into the daily routine. Is this approach significantly reducing recidivism? Clearly not.
During the period of four years after release, 74 percent of former inmates at the Salt Lake County jail become inmates once again. Better funding, innovative treatment approaches and, above all, education and meaningful job training leading to systematic integration into society are needed.
Expensive? Yes. But at a cost of $106 per prisoner per day, the present system is costing taxpayers dearly.
John Seaman is a retired school psychologist and a retired adjunct professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College.