A glimpse of what life’s like behind bars

Reporter spends some time inside O.C. Jail learning about how prisoners interact, deputies’ duties in the chow hall and what the colored wristbands mean.

April 09, 2010|By Jennifer BaumanFor

I spent a couple of hours locked inside the Orange County Central Jail complex in Santa Ana, even though I didn’t commit a crime.

I was a guest, invited to join some county officials for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Intake/Release Center, as well as the Central Men’s Jail.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to shoot video or take photographs because of security concerns, so I can’t show you what it looked like behind bars, but I can tell you how it felt. In one word: creepy!


Before the tour began, we had to go through an entryway called a “sally port.” It’s basically a secured space protected by a double set of electronically controlled gates to prevent any inmates from escaping. One barred gate slammed shut with a loud bang before the second gate opened, creating a couple of moments when I felt, well, trapped.

We started at the entrance of the Intake/Release Center where a woman in handcuffs was wearing a heavy sweater, long skirt and a pair of lamb’s wool boots, despite the 80-degree day. She was belligerent and started screaming for help when the female deputy tried to pat her down.

“Oh man!” I thought. “Glad I don’t have that job!”

The Central Men’s Jail reminded me of something you’d see in a film like “The Shawshank Redemption.” The 42-year-old facility has the old-style linear cells, stacked on two levels, with two walls of inmates facing each other.

Deputies walk down a glass-enclosed corridor to keep an eye on the men in their cells. The glass has a reflective coating which inmates use to see and communicate with each other on both levels, deputies told me. They also pass notes, called “kites,” through the ventilation system, and use a prison version of sign language.

There was a pretty young woman in our group who attracted a lot of attention from the incarcerated men. I noticed one inmate groping himself while watching the woman and using a lewd hand gesture I can’t describe for you in a family publication.

Deputy M. Stafford told me most of the talk among inmates is about sharing information, such as buying or selling what little dope gets in the jail by inmates using what deputies call, colorfully, a “prison wallet.” For the uninformed, like me, a “prison wallet” holds whatever riches you can stuff up your rear end.

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