Going Undercover in Jailhouse USA

Inmate looking over barrier on prison wing, Portland Young Offenders Institution, Dorset, UK. (Photo by: Photofusion/UIG via
Inmate looking over barrier on prison wing, Portland Young Offenders Institution, Dorset, UK. (Photo by: Photofusion/UIG via Getty Images)

With 2.3 million inmates, the US network of jails and prisons is the most formidable and least forgiving penal system in the western world. It is one where sexual violence, random brutality and political extremism are everyday norms.

So, between 2004 and 2009, I went undercover in county jails across the USA to do some market research of my own. I also wanted to see how much I knew, or thought I knew, about life behind bars was true. I began with no preconceptions. I learned a lot. Some of if scary, some of it very scary, some enraging.

It wasn't easy. To gain entry, I had to lobby local sheriffs and jail supervisors, offering to be incarcerated under a suitably fabricated charge. Only a few agreed. Some saw it as an opportunity to test security and get feedback on inmate treatment. Once inside, throughout each jail term, they were the only people who knew who I was. And that made me dog meat: just like the rest of the cons.

Arrested, cuffed and booked, I was close enough to share the same breath as the lower depths of modern day America. Child molesters. Rapists. Murderers. Nazis. Gangbangers. Drug dealers. Thieves. Recidivists. Taxpayers. Voters. Citizens. People who were just like you and me.

But here the similarity ends. This microcosm is no cultural melting pot. Life in an all American jailhouse is not like the liberal, tolerant world outside. You eat with your own, you talk with your own, and, if needs be, you must be prepared to fight next to your own against anyone who is not of your color. Incarceration, and its hateful routine, had freed these Americans from living by the ordinary standards of a multicultural society.

In Kansas, I met people who have been inside so long they do not know about emails, iPhones or iPads; geriatric inmates addicted to eating toothpaste; bible bashing Jesus freaks (everyone finds God in jail!); illiterate cons unable to read the jailhouse rulebook; a recidivist who harassed his female probation officer with dirty calls from the cellblock payphone; an African-American date rapist obsessed with the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The only thing that united them was poverty.

Up in the moody badlands of Nebraska, county jails serve as debtors' prisons in all but name for African Americans and Native Americans addicted to drink, drugs and failure to pay child support. Up in the snowy wastes of Fargo, North Dakota, I was locked down in an appallingly racist subculture of gangs and malevolent eccentrics. I met a Romanian racketeer sent down for employing illegal immigrants. He'd been on hunger strike for 19 days. I crossed paths with a traumatized former child soldier from Somalia who called himself Rambo. And spent hours talking with a senile recidivist addicted to any kind of alcohol - including mouthwash and vanilla extract.

Down in Phoenix, Arizona, Maricopa County Jail was so full Joe Arpaio, the grandstanding media whore Sheriff, had put up Korean War era surplus tents in the searing desert to contain the overflow. "Tent City" came about due to the high costs of building a new housing unit ($120 million), and up to 2000 inmates live in temperatures of 122F during summertime. With its aggressive guards, snapping dogs, ominous guard towers and razor wired fences, "Tent City" is a concentration camp in all but name.

And in this American version of the Gulag Archipelago you starve. An inmate lives on two meals and 2,500 calories a day. No meat, no coffee, no salt, no pepper, no ketchup, no cigarettes, no profanities and no pornography. Rehabilitation is an alien concept. What you get is hard time and a kick up the ass.

Some inmates were sent out in chain gangs to pick up the litter of the suburbs or bury the dispossessed and anonymous dead in unmarked graves. All inmates wear black and white striped uniforms. But there is pink underwear to soften the Auschwitz chic. All the same, the humiliation is meant to be total.

Danger was a constant theme in every jail. Just like the movies, fights over food were a common occurrence at mealtimes. I got threatened with rape and a "cocktail" (urine, excrement and semen deployed from a cup), by one inmate, and banged up with two unemployed Nazis who wanted to assassinate "the First Coon" (Barack Obama) and "the First Cunt" (Hillary Clinton). To cap it off, I almost had my ill-stocked cover story -buying a drink for an underage girl in a bar - blown by a drunk who said he was a stockbroker (although his $2 haircut said otherwise).

Large swathes of the American penal system are privatized. In the US the corrections system is an $80 billion business. Is this the best use of hardworking families' hard won taxes? No. Privatization is not a panacea; it is a Pandora's box. Some states of the Union, Idaho, Kentucky and Mississippi and Texas, have ended their contracts with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a for-profit company that makes $1.7 billion each year for imprisoning people. The facilities run by CCA had a track record in those states for human rights abuses and mismanagement bordering on malfeasance.

Yet America is free enough to let me live in its jails and see their policy close up. It told me much about the effect of imprisonment, recidivism, and how to make money from both. Now I have an idea what it is like to be a statistic. Poor. Unfortunate. Forgotten. I have nightmares about it, but at least I don't get to wake up in jailhouse USA.