The Human Toll of Jail – Eight Essays

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

In 2016, the Vera Institute of Justice published The Human Toll of Jail, a series of essays written by people held in jails across the nation and their families, as well as individuals who worked in jails. Now, in 2023, Vera has partnered with PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program on a new set of eight stories of life inside jail, all written by incarcerated people. 

This round of essays includes stories about the pressure of the pretrial court process, stories about mental health spirals caused by solitary confinement, stories about being treated as something less-than-human, and stories of violence, death, and medical crises ignored by jail staff.

In one essay, author Ben Frandsen describes being shuffled around for three days in LA County’s notorious Inmate Reception Center (IRC), where people are sent to be processed into the jail system after arrest.

I repeated the same sadistic circuit—morose guy, window, window, bench, next window, medical with a different doctor, deputy at the end of the hall cut off my wristband again. It had now been 47 hours. No sleep. No toothbrush. No soap.

“Go to window 32.”

“Wait. I’ve already done—”


About 16 hours later I looked up through bleary eyes at the first doctor again.

“Say ‘ah.’”

“No, wait,” I said frantically. “This is the third time I’ve been in this office. I haven’t slept in three days. They just keep sending me around in circles. Please, look at the name. Remember? Captain Frandsen.”

Recognition flickered in his eyes. “Oh, right. Let me make a call.”

They put me back in the first holding cell from three days ago, only there were even more men stuffed inside this time. They must really think we are animals, I thought, slumping onto a bench with a groan. “I can’t believe,” I said to no one in particular, “they’ve been processing me for three days.”

Frandsen describes seeing the IRC for the first time, a “disgustingly filthy” place packed with people sitting and sleeping on benches and floors covered in moldy sandwiches and trash.

Frandsen’s experience occurred approximately two decades ago, yet, recent reports of conditions inside the overcrowded and dysfunctional entryway to the county’s jail system still resemble some of Frandsen’s descriptions.

Late last year, the LA County Sheriff’s Department came under fire for inhumane treatment inside the IRC.

Both the county’s Office of Inspector General and ACLU lawyers reported seeing garbage, feces, and urine on the floors of the facility.

Crowded and unsanitary conditions at the Inmate Reception Center
Photo of the Inmate Reception Center Clinic / An exhibit in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the LA County Sheriff’s Department alleging inhumane conditions at the facility.

The OIG found that some people with mental illness had been chained to benches for “over sixty hours each.” One man diagnosed with schizophrenia was reportedly cuffed to the jail’s front bench for more than 99 hours.

Cut off from communication

In another essay, Rahsaan Thomas, co-host of the award-winning (and Pulitzer-nominated) Ear Hustle podcast, tells of the ADA-violating treatment deaf people receive in California’s jails, where interpreters, hearing aids, and phone call accommodations are rarely offered. 

Jaime Paredes told Thomas that over the 8 years he spent in Ventura County Jail, he received more than 1,400 disciplinary write-ups from officers who thought he was being rebellious. “I wasn’t,” Paredes told Thomas. “I couldn’t hear them.”

One person who goes by “Never Broke Again” reports going four years without being able to use a phone while in the Santa Rita County Jail.

“It took two weeks for someone to bring me a phone for Deaf people, but it didn’t work very well,” he said. “I went four years without a phone call in Santa Rita Jail.”

Both Paredes and Never Broke Again described not receiving a hearing aid for about a year and that the county jails where they were held allowed only one hearing aid per person.

Locked down

A third essayist, Elizabeth Hawes, describes being stuck in a cell for 23 hours per day for 14 months. 

When I think of jail, I think of being tired and having no one to talk to. I think about running out of paper and envelopes. How the guards would toss our cells—knocking our few toiletries off the ledge above the metal sinks in our rooms, throwing our clothes and books on the floor. I think about not being outside for more than a year. Of not understanding what was happening to me in court or how the legal system really works.

I think about being cold and usually hungry. I think of people coming down from heroin and just off meth, begging for anything sweet. I think of my best friend dying from an out-of-the-blue heart attack at the age of 46 and how I sob for three days and can’t attend his funeral or speak with his mother. I think of my wedding anniversary and not being able to see my husband because the jail was on a lockdown, and we couldn’t have any visits.

Head over to Vera to the rest of the three stories, and the five other jail essays.


  • There’s prisons in Pennsylvania Sci camp hill and dauphin County prison that r truly corrupt and break the law all the time the Co’s falsify write ups and u go to the hole and the the parole board doesn’t let u out u get a hit and it’s a complete lie I spent over 90 days in 2017 in the hole at Sci camp hill cause I went to high school with a guard in the early 90s they called it a separation it’s not disciplinary but I was treated like an animal and like I did something wrong the whole time they burn people for there trays people don’t eat and the starving ! Once i went to court from sci camp hill to dauphin County for court u stay a week tops well i got a write up from a female co and
    Her husband worked there to and some how he got the sheriff’s dept to leave me in the hole for over a month when i wasnt even supposed to be there i was a state inmate and he paid another inmate to try to assault me with alot of food but the guy took the food and did nothing because he was treated horribly there to . dauphin County is so dirty ,u see cockroaches and mice all the time and they abuse people and lie to and alot if people have died there . See the whole rehabilitation stuff is a facade for the public u go in and come out worse for sure they don’t want to help anyone they wouldn’t have a job then , Pennsylvania is a mass incarceration state its big business , big money for the government and these crooked scumbags ! The parole board is even worse these people have stolen away so many people’s lives I’ve done more time for dirty urine then pedophiles do for touching kids it’s sickening all of it I did 2 years one time for a 25 dollar fine and dirty urine and I had no write ups . I just did 18 months at Sci Benner for a non violent misdemeanor over a year 23 hours a day in your cell cause covid they create and generate anger , hatred, and lots of mental health problems for people who are non violent offenders it’s unreal . My one Friend had a 5 to 15 year sentence and they made him do it all , can u imagine doing 10 years extra and u didn’t even commit a crime . How can these corrupt people have this power to steal your life away and then u go home and u have trouble getting opportunities and then ofcourse people commit more crimes cause they need money not to mention u feel alienated from society I’ve been thru it all and it’s insane how these things can happen. Dauphin County takes half of any money u get sent in and none of it goes to fines or court costs or helping u they bill u for living in a hellhole it’s insanity honesty and its a God damn shame nobody cares or does anything about it !

  • I think this is a great prevention tool to show to elementary school kids.
    Do not do the crime if you can’t do the time.

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