American Jail and Prison
Air Date: March 21, 2022
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Michael L. Walker. He’s the author of the new Oxford University volume “Indefinite: Doing Time in Jail.” And he’s a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. Thank you so much for joining me today, Professor.
WALKER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you just from the outset, you start the book in this fashion, and I think it’s important for our viewers to hear about the birthday that was most eventful, that ultimately led you to document what you do in this book.
WALKER: So, interesting enough, today’s my birthday too!
HEFFNER: So today is that day!
WALKER: Is also, yeah, it’s still February 7th. So it’s still my birthday. Yes! That particular day, I was facing a number of things when, so I was a graduate student. It was my first year of graduate school and I had been arrested and I was on campus. So when you’re arrested and you’re on any kind of campus property I wasn’t like by classrooms or anything, but if you’re in arrested on a campus property that triggers an investigation from the campus. So while I’m dealing with the actual criminal case, outside of campus, I now have a separate case that’s happening with judicial affairs at the campus. This particular day on my birthday, I decided I was going to kind of do a good thing for myself. And I was like, I’m just feeling down. I’m dealing with a lot of pressure, as a single father and first-generation graduate student.
So I just was thinking that I need to try to do something good today. So I decided I would go down to the courthouse and just pay some traffic fines that I knew I had. So I was like, all right, well, I’ll set up a payment plan. I go down there, and I’m immediately arrested while waiting in the waiting area. And I wasn’t planning on this obviously this day. Being arrested meant a few different things. One, it meant that I had not took that meeting with judicial affairs with the university. Eventually I was as a result, expelled from university. I didn’t get a chance to sort of explain what was going on. It also was a crushing blow that day because it was my birthday. And because I needed to then scramble to figure out a way to have my mother drive out to come pick up my son. I also sort of gave up. If you’ve never faced criminal charges, you have a lot of court cases. You keep going over and over and over and over again. And it seems for a little while that that’s all you’re doing. So at this point I just sort of gave up. Essentially what happened was charges that had I thought were dropped, were refiled. So I wasn’t expecting this. So I take the reader in the beginning parts just through what that experience was; what was sort of my mental state was, and how I end up in what we would call a safety cell.
HEFFNER: But can you, can you, and I know this is personal and you’re, you’re a scholar. And you know, you’re thinking about this through the lens of a scholar now, but also through the experience of someone who was incarcerated and who overcame the system.
WALKER: So the journey for me, at least with regard to being incarcerated really starts with depression. I don’t know, you know, we live in a time now where depression and sort of mood disorders and mental health is increasingly being considered as something as important as it really is. But it hasn’t always been that way as I’m sure, you know. And I’m six, four, I’m 260 pounds. And for me, a tall black man, I couldn’t fathom having a mental health issue. I thought that I should always just fight through it. I figured if I was feeling a way, I didn’t understand that mental, like a mood disorder that, that depression actually meant that my actual biochemistry would be changed or would be off. I didn’t understand that. And I kind of just thought I’m down. I don’t want to; I don’t want to let anyone know that I’m feeling a particular way. I have a son have to take care of, but you know, you really can’t, you really, this is, you know, this is the issue with mental health. You really just can’t just force your way through or will your way through these types of things. At least I couldn’t. And so in the end I just became really self-destructive. I lived kind of two lives. One life was a graduate student, and I was doing really well. I finished my first year, nothing but A’s. I did really well. At the same time, I was also living this really self-destructive life lifestyle. And as I started getting in trouble, this other lifestyle really started to overcome my ability to sort of just be healthy in this, in my normal life, as a father and a graduate student. And I was, I lost the ability to sort of hide that other life.
And it took me some time before I could even go get help. It was almost before, just before I got expelled that I finally started to go see somebody, finally got on some medication to help deal with the mood disorder. Finally started going, getting counseling. This is all it, it was a really difficult pathway to even get there. And I think that if I wasn’t at rock bottom, I probably never would’ve gone. And I say, rock bottom, I suffered suicide attempts. I really went through it before I got to the point where I was okay, now my life’s about to be over. This is how deep the depression was for me. So when I got kicked out and I, this particular day, it happened on my birthday. It was too much. It was more than I could handle. So ended up being, going through the intake process. One of the first things that you experienced is deputies. You know, there’s, there’s the cold, there’s the smell of a jail. The smell is so specific that I was recently doing a study with an undergraduate student and here in Minneapolis, and we’re around a corner from a jail inside of the courthouse building, and I could smell the jail before we get there. So it’s just, it’s such a very unique kind of smell. It’s like this mildewy old meat smell. It’s hard to describe. So I go through the intake process, but because I interrupted it, normally what happens is they do a deputy or a correctional officer and at the county levels, oftentimes it’ll be custodial deputies. They’ll do a, some type of screening about mental health. And I interrupted this person and I said no, I’ve had mental health issues. You shouldn’t just check the box and said that I I’m fine. Well, that triggered a different set of procedures. They immediately put me in a suicide cell or a safety cell. Well, the safety cell, whoever was in there before, this person had had flung, maybe I’m not even sure if it was just one person, but there was flung excrement all over the cell. So you have to now imagine, aright? So I interrupt this process by saying, yes, I’ve had a mood disorder. I am in fact, in the moment, still dealing with depression, still trying to deal with it. And then the response from the jail is all right, we have a place for you. But this place just deepens the depression. It makes it much more acute for me, much more problematic, much more difficult for me to get over. I spend 72 hours in that that holding cell.
And during that time, you’re not even actually formally booked into the jail. So you’re there and not there. Strangely enough. So you, so someone on the outside, you know, if you, for example, were my family member, you couldn’t look me up. So I finally am out of that cell, and I am sort of matriculated on to, throughout the process, through the intake process. I’m given, you know, they change me out of this suicide, sort of safety dress that they give you, put me in normal county oranges. Then they got to go to a pre-housing holding cell in the intake, so I’m sent to a formal housing unit. Now I have friends who’ve been to jail. I have cousins who’ve been to jail. And the experience is not one that everybody shares. What I’ve learned more recently is that the average person just doesn’t know what a jail is, or the difference between jail and prison.
So let me just say briefly that jail is for, generally supposed to be for pretrial detention. Something like 70 percent of people who are in jail, haven’t yet been found guilty of the charges that they’re facing. So most of the time you’re just there because you’re too poor to get out. That’s really the only reason. It’s not because you’ve been found guilty yet. So there’s an assumption I think, as my wife told me recently, and she’s like, I just thought everybody in jail was there because they already, you know, were guilty. It’s like, no, that’s not how that works. So if you’re in prison, you’ve already been convicted of a felony. In jail, you may be there for two days, two weeks, two months, two years. One guy was in there for nine years waiting to be adjudicated. So these are people who are doing what I call indefinite time.
The problem is you don’t know when you’re going to get out and, and you’re waiting for the court system to not be backed up enough or whatever’s going to happen so that you can just have some type of conclusion of some sort. That is what makes jail so significant, so different from prison. As one gentleman was explaining to me, he said, going to prison is like working at, working for the government. You just put your head down, they try to make it comfortable for you. You do your job. And you’ll be just fine. Going to jail is like working at McDonald’s. The pay sucks. Everything sucks. You’re going to be mistreated for sure. And not to say that these McDonald’s always treating mistreating everybody, but this is the analogy that we use in order to make sense of it. But the reality is that, you know, if we told everybody here, you know, sit here on this, you know, stay here in your room that you’re in for two weeks. You could do it for two weeks.
But if I tell you, stay in that room until, and I don’t tell you when you’re coming out and you see other people go in and they come out, then that starts to shift the way that you understand it. So the experience I had was you lose sense of what the meaning of time is in free society, because there is no clocks on the walls, or if there are clocks, they’re broken. You don’t see natural sunlight for two, three weeks at a time. Meanwhile, the institutional lights never cut off. You have to learn to sleep under those lights. You learn to eat and drink food that would probably turn your stomach otherwise. You learn to live in what we would call batch living. So with two and three and five and six and 160 different people in one little area. So you learn that you are sharing bodies in a way that you would not normally do.
So all these really interesting rules have to have to come about in order to make this possible. And one of them is that no one sort of tells you before you go in, is that race relations really do dominate the jails, at least in Southern California. So you, the deputy won’t tell you, a custodial deputy won’t tell you, hey, race is the way that we’re going to classify you. But they will just take a look at you. And they’ll say, well, if you look black, or if you look Latino, if you white, then you’ll be either associated with, or classified as either the blacks and the blacks include Asian Americans, interestingly enough. If you are classified as south sider, that will include anybody who’s Latino, anybody who looks brown, anybody who’s got sort of a Latino sounding last name, it’s not scientific at all. It’s basically how the custodial deputy thought you, where they thought you would fit in best. And then if you are quote a wood, this is just anybody who the custodial deputy thought was white, like in the most generic term that you can imagine.
Those three classifications, at least in general housing, in general population, they determine everything. So there will be a set of tables just for the blacks, a set of tables just for the south side, and for the woods. There’s a phone in each housing unit. That’s designated by race. There are showers that are designated by race, where you walk is designated by race. With whom you can talk and share, all of these things are designated by race. And these what we call in general, the politics they exist also in gang culture, in Southern California. But in jail, it’s different and it’s much more difficult to deal with.
HEFFNER: And let me ask you Michael, so once you’re in that jail, you know, how did you ultimately overcome those conditions and regain your freedom?
WALKER: So this is sort of an interesting I want to be careful here because there’s, I worry about… I’ll say this. So part of what makes, what allowed me to sort of be where I am today, is that I was in many regards sort of abnormal. In general, the average prisoner in jail or in prison, isn’t somebody who has a graduate degree or even has an undergraduate degree or has any kind of graduate training. I’m also as a sociologist somebody who’s naturally given towards sociology. I’m the guy who goes to the popular, you know, the public space and is happy to just people watch and make a whole day out of that. I know many of us do this, but it’s, it’s the kind of thing that leads you to be sort of a natural sociologist. We’re all theorists in our own ways.
So when I first went, I thought I was going to get out in three days because I had a nonviolent charge and my public defender said, oh, just sign this deal, this plea deal, you’ll be out in three days. And I remember telling people this and everybody laughing at me and it’s like, yeah, man, I was told that four years ago. You’re not going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere. Yeah, I was told that, and I thought, you know, I was going to be out on the weekend and here I still am three and a half years ago. So there’s this reality check. You’re not going anywhere. So the first thing I did, I started writing about the things are just unique to me. I wrote to my mother often. My mother wrote me often. I wrote about just how I felt. I had a tremendous amount of, of guilt and self-loathing that I needed to get out.
But I also started writing about just what I saw that was going on. That gave me, so at first, all the field notes were just kind of together, but then I needed a way to compartmentalize this for myself. I’m like, all right, I, here’s how I feel. Here’s my personal life. But then here’s what I see going on. And what I see going on morphed into an ethnography. I had not planned on doing this. I was interested in something totally different in graduate school. This seemed natural for me to do, and it gave me something to do. And what I found after talking to others in there was that yeah, a lot of people actually said that they could write a book about the color of the walls. As one guy said, he’s like, I write the book just on the color of the paint that they choose. I don’t know why they choose this paint. It’s driving me crazy, the food in here. So I wasn’t alone in, I don’t want to, you know, we have to remember that these are people and people are, are observing the worlds, just like the rest, just like I am. And I’m not special in that regard. But you put your head down, you, to the extent that you can. I had a sense, I had a release date, so that’s the good news. Right? I knew that I knew what my release date was, and my only fear was not letting it get out so that somebody wouldn’t out of sort of bitterness try to create a situation where I got a new charge and couldn’t get out. So my only concern was just making sure that I just try to everyday sort of get out and sort of remind myself that I have something that I’m something else to do.
I have a child. I have responsibilities that are waiting on me for me. For me, that was the way to make it out just, but I couldn’t, I won’t say I did the time, day by day. That’s not how your, the structure of your jail time is. Because it’s indefinite. You do your jail time. For some people, they do a court appearance by court appearance. One guy said that’s every three months. For me, it was Sunday to Sunday because I hated clothing exchanges. And that’s when they did ’em on Sundays. Another person did, one of my cellmates did it from Sunday to Sunday because that’s the day that you, we couldn’t get mail. So he would always say, I know it’s a new Sunday because my girlfriend didn’t write me a letter. And she writes me faithfully. Another person did it from visit to visit. His wife would visit him. And when she did, when he didn’t get a visit, that’s how he knew. That’s how he marked time. So we learned to do, you know, you do your time based upon these little events that become important to you. And in that way, you find a way to sort of get out now. Not everybody does, as you said. Right? Many of the people that I was in with are still, have matriculated on the prison strangely. Interestingly enough, one of the guys I was in with is home and free, and I, he and I have conversation every now and again.
HEFFNER: When you say you have had a particular deadline, a particular, you know, sentence in effect, a period, you were, you were there for how long was that? How long was that period?
WALKER: So my, the deal that I signed was for 180 days, but if I did 120 of them without any kind of issues, I’d get out on 120. So I just told myself 120. And in the end, that’s what I did. In the end I did a total about 134 days altogether, 120 consecutively.
HEFFNER: And, you know, you differentiate again between jail and prison. But we also often, as a society don’t understand the impact of parole or probation in kind of the beginning and the end of these processes. And I just wonder what your thought process is about that. In your case, was it something that was entirely avoidable, or you know, does everyone come in or go out in one of those ways?
WALKER: Well, not everyone goes out, right? So, you know, we shouldn’t assume that people who are arrested are in fact guilty of whatever they’ve been charged. Right? So there’s that. So some people will be found innocent. I don’t want to say, found innocent is a very strange form of phrasing in our criminal justice system, but some people will not be found guilty, I should say. And others will be guilty, but the nature of the way it happens will depend, you know, they may accept the plea deal. Jail is such a punishing environment. If you accept the plea deal, oftentimes that comes with probation. It could be formal probation where you have to check in with somebody monthly or weekly depending, or it could be informal where they’ll just say, you’re not, you know, you’re on probation, but you don’t have to check in with anybody. Both of them are difficult. They offer their own levels of difficulty. Either way, every other interaction you have with a police officer while you’re on probation is an opportunity where you’re likely to go back to jail. So there’s a feeling that you could, you know, it sort of unlocks a new set of behaviors that they can give to you. If you’re pulled over, they ask you, are you on parole or probation? You must tell them, legally. And once you tell them that, then they have the right to, you know, they’ll treat you very, they’ll treat you as if you are in fact guilty or likely guilty of something. So, it’s difficult to escape that. For me, luck. I mean, I was definitely pulled over more times, speeding, changing lanes, one time just sitting at a stoplight with my mother and my grandfather. Like, I, you didn’t have to be doing anything. I’ve been pulled over for having a century from my rear-view window, mirror, that is. So the, the slightest thing, how I sort of escaped those things to the extent that I can say that I’ve escaped them is going back to graduate school. I’m just fortunate that I was able to get back in. They didn’t make it easy. I’ll tell you that, but I was able to get back in. and so to finish up my PhD and then be here.
HEFFNER: Yeah. I mean, I, among your contemporaries, you know, I don’t want to presume this, but I think it’s probably safe to presume that most PhD recipients and folks who are colleagues in your sociology department at U of M did not have, did not share that experience, or any part of it. And so I wonder what that, how that ought to inform these efforts underway to revise or reform the criminal justice system. You know, there’s been a lot of rhetoric around it. There have been some legislative steps taken federally and certainly in states, but if there’s anything about jail that you saw as necessitating prescriptive legislative action to change the system, what were those things?
WALKER: So let me first just say that in general I try to stay away from policy-oriented questions only because, and I’m going to give you my honest answer. My honest answer is I think that it’s going, if you want, if you want to see real change, we need to see almost like a full revolution of values. The things that we think are important in our society.
Right now, we seem to really value in general, throwing people into jail or throwing people into prison and just sort of forgetting about them. That seems to be our general perspective. And we make a lot of assumptions of people who are there and why they got there and why they deserve to be there. And then we, because we think you deserve to be there, then any number of degradations that you experience are thought to be legitimate. So one of the problems that I, so I’m just saying just off the bat, unless we change what we value, fundamentally, I just don’t see much change happening. This doesn’t mean that we haven’t had change. Like you said, right. There’s been a push to change, to shut down Men’s Central Jail, but I know a custodial deputy who works there and he’s like, it’s business as usual. We’re not doing anything. What has been a push to change to shut down Riker’s jail, but it’s open. And so I’m not sure, you know, there’s, we have the rhetoric, as you said, and then we have practice, like what’s actually happening.
WALKER: So one of the things that I experienced that I, that I think is key is major issues with sleep hygiene. So sleep hygiene is its own contributor to depression. It is not necessarily that you have depression, and it can go that other way. You can have a mood disorder and then that leads to poor sleep hygiene. But it often can lead just the opposite. It can be the opposite too. Poor sleep hygiene, leading to some type of mood disorder or hypertension or increased risk of stroke increase like the, the number of things that you can end up suffering because your sleep hygiene is bad are you know, kind of scary to think about. So at one point, as an older, a guy who had been there for three and a half years told me, he is like, everybody goes to mental health here in jail at some point, for sleep. And it’s not just that it’s cold. It’s not just that you’re sleeping on a metal slab. It’s the lights. The lights never going out is a problem. And it’s not, it’s that kind of light that you see when you walk into like a hospital. I don’t know how else to describe it. That what I would just call institutional lighting. It’s the only places I see that type of light. And it’s, you have to, so if you’re sleeping on the top bunk, you’re only about three and a half feet from those lights. So they’re right in your face. And it’s so cold. And you have such a little blanket that you really can’t ever, you there’s, that you have to decide, do you want to be warm, or do you want to be blinded through the lights, through your eyelids? But that created all kinds of problems. A simple solution to this, one would be figuring out when you could in fact cut the lights off because not every part of the jail has the lights on all the time.
They pick and choose, deputies do, custodial workers do, when they’re going to have the lights on and have the lights off. It’s relatively arbitrary. I would’ve challenged them to even come up with a, a sort of a legitimate, rational way of why they, they make these decisions. But also people need to see natural sunlight. You need that to help regulate your normal systems. So the jail scheduling is kind of insane. You, they serve breakfast around 4:30 AM. They serve lunch around 10:30 AM and then dinner at 4:30. So now you’ve got this 12 and a half hour. You have this 12-hour forced fasting period from dinner to breakfast again. Well, a lot of people go hungry. And the hunger helps to increase the likelihood of you having some type of mood disorder in part, because it’s so stressful to be hungry all the time. It creates tension. People start to argue, they start to have fights. And you’re fighting about things that have nothing to do with the actual issue, because you can’t do anything about the poor sleep you’re getting and the hunger that you experience. These are things that they could change if they wanted to.
HEFFNER: You would say that this is specific to jails as opposed to prison? I’m sure that there are issues with sleep hygiene you know, in in prisons too. But you’re describing a problem that you think is one specific to jails more so than, than prisons?
WALKER: Right, I think if you to take the average jail in the average prison, you’ll find that this is a more acute problem in jail than it is in prison.
WALKER: So in prison you can have, you may have a hot plate in your cell. You know, the mattress is thicker. The lights may go out. There’s resources that people are allowed to send you. It’s not easy. It’s not cheap. It’s still difficult. It’s still a ridiculously spartan environment. But in jail, there are no such resources. The understanding is that jail is for short time, short term living. Even though you can be there for many, many years, the idea is that you’re not supposed to be here. So there’s no resources allocated.
HEFFNER: And I think your point, your point is, you know, it’s so sensible. And I know you said you don’t want to get into public policy, but you, you know, when you do, in a narrow way, often it can be extremely impactful. And I think you’re making the point, in the seconds we have left, that without sleep hygiene, you can’t recuperate or rehabilitate?
WALKER: Absolutely. Any efforts towards mental health are doomed to fail in jail in part, because the function of jail is not really meant to help you with your mental health issue, but also the environment necessarily creates a mental health crisis for you, primarily through sleep, if by nothing else.
HEFFNER: And do you have any motivation you know, to try to bring that message to, you know, from state house to state house, or federally, because like you said, when it comes to federal action or, you know, overarching reform, you know, you do really need a revolution in values. This is a kind of revolution in a narrow sense, in tactics, and in scheduling and logistics, but it could be really meaningful. And I wonder, you know, again, we only have seconds left, but if you are at all motivated to try to change this you know, in addition to the sociological ethnography of the prison, of the jail that you’ve done, really beautifully. Have you, have you been motivated at all to try to change this in jails?
WALKER: Yes, I am. So strangely enough, this is a fight that I’m prepared to take on. The first step I thought for myself was to be completely honest about what a jail experience looks like.
HEFFNER: Yeah. Hence the book.
WALKER: And I hope that if this story
HEFFNER: You know what I mean? Like I started with the book, but I’m hoping that conversations like this,
HEFFNER: Absolutely. For sure. Well, Michael,
HEFFNER: We’re honored to host you. Thank you for sharing.
HEFFNER: What is personal intellectual and an academic volume. If you’re interested in the experience or the academic orientation around, you know, how we do sociology, read Michael’s book, “Indefinite.” Professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. Michael, thank you so much for your time today.
WALKER: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
HEFFNER: Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.