Community Experience: Utah County Jail

Today I had the opportunity to tour the correctional facility in Spanish Fork, Utah. This community was extremely foreign to me and very eye-opening. At the beginning of the tour, the tour guide explained to us that the experience is unlike what we might expect; how correctional facilities are portrayed in the media and entertainment do not reflect how they are in real life. Before this experience I definitely think I had the “one story” image of prison and jail that is shown in drama television and includes inmates interacting with one another and living a rather complex lifestyle while in confinement. This was not what I found and the realization was very disturbing to me because I had entertained somewhat the notion that people in jail had a quality of life that was perhaps superior to what they might have experienced “on the streets” and that things weren’t that bad for them because so much tax money was going towards housing and feeding them. I had often heard them (mostly prisons) spoken about as a “burden” and a menace to society. For example, I imagined that they had a greater degree of mobility and opportunities for education and recreation. I did not realize the complete lack of privacy, and level of physical control exerted over them. Some of them had almost no agency in what they had the choice to do. It helped me to realize the toll that such an experience could have on a person.

Some of the risks that accompany considering this wider view of humanity include having to feel more of an obligation to serve those in the jail and those at risk (youth). I feel more of a desire to help the conditions of the jail improve. I also see those in the jail more as human individuals and not as evil incarnate that should always be kept from society. As I was in the jail I thought of the people I know personally who served time in jail, and how it might have felt for them. I feel more gratitude for those that volunteer to help these people by spending time with them, doing bible studies, Sunday schools, etc. I personally think that abandoning my somewhat indifferent view about correctional facilities means taking a more active, responsive stance when it comes to protecting, educating, and providing resources for teenagers (and people in general).  

Besides the shock of lifestyle within the jail, I was surprised by many of the things the officer who was giving us the tour told us about the people who were there and their situations. It was interesting to me to learn about this poorly-represented group. We were told that it was very rare that the jail would receive an inmate and they would only serve a term once. According to our tour guide, about ninety-percent of the crimes the inmates committed were drug-related. Because most of these people had chronic addictions, their need for drugs (and money for drugs) often fueled their crimes. One thing the officer said to me that was disturbing is that “for many of these people their first sentence ends up being a life sentence.”

It was disturbing to hear (and even see) people in a way that seemed so dehumanizing to me. When we asked the officer if the inmates often get sentences to get rehabilitation or other long-term “help”, he said that didn’t happen often because of the scarcity of those resources and the extent of the people who need the help. I got a sense of the people being very categorized and not truly “seen” as individuals. When they first arrive, they are assessed based on their temperament and background and assigned in a specific living quarter. Those who were undocumented (“illegal”) were kept in separate living areas. We walked through the living areas which were confined, claustrophobic, and small. We were told that the prisoners lost the privilege of privacy by being in jail, and therefore the walls were transparent glass. We could see everything. It was one of the strangest experiences I’ve had; it felt like a zoo. There was not even privacy for those who weren’t clothed or those who were using the bathroom. I couldn’t imagine living there.

Depending on the unit they were in, they got between a few hours a day to an hour or so a week to leave their cell. There were some books, television, and a few communal seating areas for small groups to use at a time. (The entire jail is never allowed to interact all together). There was an outdoor area, but it was about the size of a classroom with cement walls about thirty feet high and fencing over the top. Perhaps because I am so claustrophobic, it was stifling to me and very disturbing.

I realized later in the tour that many of the people in the jail didn’t intend to form a habit or addiction and were often trying to self-medicate other deep problems in their life. For example, the officer showed us several series of “mug shots” that depicted the same person over a short time span (usually between two to seven years) but in a progression of several different arrests. The object was to observe the physical differences that the people experienced, typically as a result of their drug addictions and lifestyle. This was very difficult and disturbing for me because most of them were around my age and seeing them at the beginning of their “jail years” they usually just looked like average young adults that I know. It was disturbing because it made me realize that it is in my power to fall to temptations and I could even end up in a similar situation; Essentially, my friends and I are really not immune from what these young adults experienced.

One girl I remember in particular was shown over a series of about five photographs, taken at various times that she was admitted into the jail. The first picture she was smiling, looked bright, clean, healthy, and alive. They successively got worse and she eventually looked completely unlike her original self. The main change in her appearance was due to her severe drug addiction. However, we learned that experiences in her adolescent years contributed to the beginning of her addiction. She experienced sexual abuse and it really affected her ability to cope psychologically and emotionally. She tried to “self-medicate” to help her deal with the trauma and eventually developed a severe addiction. The last photograph of her was when she was beginning to “get better”, although she had also developed bulimia and was not yet totally well. This just made me think about the students I will have in my classroom that might have incredible struggles at home or in their personal lives. Adolescents could be affected or traumatized by any number of factors including any kind of abuse, poverty, difficult transitions (such as immigration and learning English), divorce, experiencing discrimination based on race, gender, or something else, etcetera. I hope that as a teacher I can contribute to a “safe place” environment at school where they know they can receive needed resources and support. I also hope that by facilitating an environment where we all recognize that we are individually “others” we can gain mutual support and respect for one another. I think that by advocating for students, building personal relationships with them that help them feel loved and valued, and helping to give them hope, I can perhaps help my students avoid such dangerous and harmful “escapes” and instead practice real ways to deal with and cope with difficult issues.  

Although this jail generally only holds adults ages eighteen and over, most of the inmates’ problems (particularly drug usage, which can also be encouraged by other life circumstances) begin or occur during adolescence. The tour guide told us that many of the younger inmates are the ones who “act out” because they try to create a reputation for themselves. While they are young, the are still dealing with the developmental issue of identity. Students who struggle repeatedly with the same, seemingly “inescapable” circumstances and problems often begin to associate those issues with their own personal identity.

On the tour we also learned that in the jail they have inmates walk on either side of the hall and the staff walk in the middle to avoid any potential interactions between those that know each other. They assume that many do know each other because of past associations (friendship, mutual crime, drug circles, even family). Some have developed gangs or other related crowds. I think this a trend that can develop even as early as adolescence. When social relationships begin to change, it is a pivotal time when many adolescents determine their identity and their associations with others. By helping to promote a positive self-image and promising future in students, it can encourage them to make responsible choices. I think it also can help them to have eye-opening experiences, such as this one was for me, that help them to realize the larger world and the consequences for specific choices in the culture in which we are a part of. I think many of the young people that end up in the “crime circle” often begin with an unfair disadvantage or propensity (because of issues at home, with poverty, racial identifications, etc.) toward it. By modeling for students how to deal with difficult things “head on”, they might be able to avert or get out of these pitfalls.

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