The Saturday I Spent in Jail

I spent all day Saturday in the local county jail. What? Why? How’d I end up there, you ask?

Welcome to the sensationalized headline…it’s my first try and I can barely make it a sentence without coming clean! Saturday’s leadership class had us in the county jail, meeting the Sergeant and Deputy Sheriffs, touring the facility and hearing the story of one inmate incarcerated at that location. Y’all got really excited thinking I went to jail, huh?

Can I just side-note to say how awesome Leadership Arlington is?

Back to jail. The Arlington County Jail is in  my neighborhood. I literally walk past it every single day. I’d never been inside, never really knew what was going on behind those doors. I wouldn’t say I was nervous about it, but it did pop in to my head from time to time that there were people in there who had committed crimes, who were in prison jump suits, who couldn’t walk the street.

Being able to see behind the doors to the jail was really fascinating. Arlington, Virginia is a really progressive county and leads the nation (and world) in many of it’s practices – civil, judicial, urban planning, education, etc. This county jail is no exception. A really great article with some facts and figures was published a few years ago by ArlNow.

The jail hosts up to 700 inmates – some pretrial, some serving shorter (less than 2 year) sentences and some in rehabilitation programs for alcohol or narcotics use. The male and female population are segregated. There are 77 inmates to each deputy sheriff. It seems like things could get a little unruly. But, what I heard and experienced was anything but what you see on “The Wire”. There were no metal bars. No hissing and yelling down a hallway of cell after cell. The rooms had doors that closed, with small windows. It almost looked more like a hospital than what you think of as a jail cell.

Arlington County believes that when you treat an inmate like an adult, with respect, mutual expectation and understanding, that the inmate will (for the most part) behave like an adult. If you treat a person like an unruly animal – caged, chained, disrespected – they will behave like an unruly animal and fight back. The Arlington County Jail, to paraphrase the Sergeant, relies on the verbal skills of the deputy sheriffs to manage the jail community. The use of force is always a last resort.

What I witnessed inside of the Arlington County Jail was an extremely controlled environment, where the people in charge were given the power they required and the inmates respected the process.

While we were standing in the lobby of a living quarters floor, the elevator doors opened, a 6 foot 5+ inmate walked out (unguarded) and very quietly and quickly walked around our group (literally about a foot away from me) to the entrance of his section. He was free to move around, trusted to go where he was meant to go, and given that respect.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are eyes and ears everywhere around the jail. If he didn’t follow protocol, veered off on his journey, or disrespected the staff, he would have been disciplined immediately and possibly sent to solitary confinement. I’m sure that happens often, if not daily.

But what I witnessed was a jail system that fostered basic human decency, where there was a sense of respect between the inmates and the people in charge. I am proud to be a part of a community where these practices are in place. And I am so grateful to be a part of a program that helps me peel back the layers of my community to see and understand how and why things are done the way they are here.

Next time you are in Arlington, put a tour of the county jail on your to-do list. It is truly an eye-opening experience. Assuming you haven’t gotten yourself in there all on your own 🙂


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