Jail and Prison Myths and Truths – What Really Goes On in Jails?

For many people the idea of being in jail or prison is a frightening one. Being locked in a building, surrounded by armed guards and layers of razor wire can be daunting. But is it as bad as television, movies and the media want us to believe?  The answer is both yes and no.


1. I could be killed in Jail.


However, let’s look at the numbers. An eight-year study that reviewed all inmate deaths between the years 2000-2007, found that out of a total of 8,097 deaths, less than 2% (171) were homicides.

Given that approximately 15 million inmates were arrested and booked into jails each year, over an eight year period, the chance of being killed while in jail was 1/100,000 of one percent, or stated another way, a one-in-10-million chance.

On another note:

30% of all deaths in Jails were due to suicide.

53% of all deaths were due to Illnesses, including AIDS.

10% of all deaths were due to accidents or intoxication.

There was a 25% higher chance of being murdered in a prison than in a jail, however the chance of this happening at all was surprisingly remote,

2. I could get beat up in Jail.


Jails and prisons are notorious for fights. As long as that is understood, fights can usually be avoided by trying to keep calm and showing respect towards the other inmates. However, as in life on the outside, sometimes fights cannot be avoided. In jail, it is rare that a fight lasts for more than 20-30 seconds. With guards and closed-circuit cameras everywhere and the unmistakable ‘silence’ that overtakes a ‘yard’, a dining area or any unit where a fight breaks out, not to mention the attention of every surrounding inmate, fights are ended by the authorities as soon as they begin. Even if a person can’t defend himself that well, if he hangs on, the police will come to end the disturbance immediately.

3. Jails are filthy and ridden with disease.

False and True.

Most jails and prisons are like hospitals. Because of the high concentration of people occupying them, the chance for disease to spread quickly, and the fear of lawsuits, a lot of attention is focused on keeping the facility clean. Everyone has a stake in keeping it clean, from the staff to the inmates, as no one wants to get sick. In addition, since inmates do all the work and any job is coveted as it means time out their cell, they will do whatever it takes to do an excellent job because there are plenty of people waiting in line for their job and they don’t want to lose it.

Most jails issue fresh clothing twice a week for men and more often for women. The clothing is cleaned in industrial washing machines, and while inmates are issued underwear that was worn by someone else prior to being washed, in general the clothing is always fresh and clean. Prisons assign used clothing, however as an inmate, you are able to purchase your own undergarments from the commissary.

On the other hand, there are issues with MRSA (staph infections), just as there are in health clubs and hospitals worldwide these days. Lice can also be a problem, primarily in female units where they tend to groom more frequently and spread these insects from scalp to scalp through direct contact such as braiding each other’s hair.

OETA Story on Jail Food in Muskogee County, Oklahoma

Jail Food Video

4. The food is terrible and unhealthy.

True and False.

Most jails and prisons buy their food from food brokers who sell lots of frozen and canned goods that are close to their expiration dates. Further, the boxes of frozen food are usually stamped with a label that clearly states ‘For institutional use only’, which is code for jails and prisons. It is never used for restaurants or any other use. Many inmate kitchen workers report cooking with food that comes in boxes stamped ‘not for human consumption’, a code for animal/pet food use. The food generally tastes as bad it looks.

Spices are rarely used so the food is bland. In place of meat, many meals are laced with a grainy mixture of corn meal that adds texture and fill, but has no flavor.

On the positive side, many jails and prisons now operate small farms where they use inmate labor to grow their own fresh vegetables and fruits. While it may not be organically grown, it is fresh and more healthy than the canned vegetable ‘throw away’ lots that are the only other option, and there is satisfaction in growing it.

Federal law mandates that inmates receive at least two hot meals a day, with a combined total of 2,000 calories. You won’t starve in jail, but given that accused terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay receive a diet of 3,400 calories a day, it cannot be argued that our government thinks more highly of its American prisoners.

Go here to find out all the information about your city or county jail, state or federal prisons.



About Mark Miclette 682 Articles
writes about inmates, jails, prisons, courts and the lives of people who live and work within the United States Criminal Justice System. His mission can be summed up in a single word; transparency.