Surviving County Jail
Going to jail is difficult
Many people ignorantly think that people who go to jail are the only ones who have to bear the consequences of their actions - they aren't the only ones who pay the price, but their own families are secondary victims of their actions.
It can be helpful for family members to understand what their loved one is going through when they went to jail - remember, usually these secondary victims have done nothing wrong. So how does somebody go about learning about what life in county jail is really like?
Most people don't realize it, but there is a huge difference from one county jail to another. If you are serving time in the Cook County Jail, for instance, you will could be exposed to a lot of violence and a more hardened inmate population (in fact, most inmates agree that Cook County Jail is most similar to prison).
If you go to jail in Orange County, California, though, it might be a completely different story. Inmates in Orange County generally agree that there is very little violence and day-to-day jail life is more like high school than prison. Granted it is no walk in the park, but if you are facing jail time or know somebody who is you really should research that particular jail to find out what it's really like.
Telephones in Jail
One of the difference that you will see from jail to jail is a difference in the telephone policy. In many jails, for instance, inmates can only make collect calls to their loved ones. Other jails sell phone cards to inmates on commissary while some jails still offer good old-fashioned pay phones (these are increasingly less common because jails prefer not to have inmates carrying change around).
Another difference is the availability of phones - some jails only allow access during certain hours while others give inmates 24-hour access to phones. Sometimes your access to telephones is dependent on your classifications - trustees and inmates who have displayed a pattern of good behavior may have a lot more access to telephones than somebody in solitary confinement (which usually means 23-hours a day of lockdown with 1-hour in a yard).
Everybody knows what "time off for good behavior" means - well, kind of. Most people don't know that most jails that offer time off for good behavior give it to all inmates - it is up to the inmate to lose the privilege. In fact, it is almost difficult to lose time off - you usually have to do something really bad to pick up new charges in order to lose it (fighting with a guard, smuggling drugs, etc.). Usually a relatively minor infraction, such as gambling, won't result in a loss of time off.
Amount of time off
The amount of time off for good behavior varies wildly between jails, however. This is the one time that you really want to go to a high-traffic jail. While they tend to be more violent, they are usually also very overcrowded and jail administrators need to get the inmates out as quickly as possible to make room for new ones.
For example, inmates get virtually no time off in the Davidson County Jail in Tennessee. If you are doing time in the Los Angeles County Jail, however, you will typically serve just 10-25% of your sentence (just ask Paris Hilton).
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Meals in jail
One thing that doesn't vary too much between jails is the quality of the food - inmates almost always agree that the food served by the jail is virtually inedible (with a few notable exceptions in really small jails that are serving just a handful of inmates).
Outside of meals, however, inmates can usually buy their own food on commissary. Many people in jail rely on the food available on commissary for their meals (and either give their meals away or trade them for other snacks).
Frequency of commissary
Most jails only give inmates access to commissary once or twice a week. Other jails, however, such as large jails, have carts that come around once or twice a day. If you know somebody in one of these jails you should keep a little extra money on their "books" - this is the account that they can use to purchase commissary with. Having regular access to commissary makes it easier for inmates to get along with other inmates and have some comfort food while they are behind bars.
Cost of commissary
Commissary is not usually cheap - since they have a captive audience (no pun intended), they have no reason to keep prices reasonable or competitive. While in the free market you may get a package of Ramen for 10 cents, you may pay $2 for a package of Ramen in some jails (though it would normally be something like 80 cents).
Usually larger jails will also offer a wider variety of commissary than smaller jails - this is for the simple reason that they usually have more resources to work with (in fact, usually the company providing commissary services is commissioned out and shares their profits with the jail - this provides a slight advantage to tax payers in that it can offset some of the costs associated with incarceration).
Preparing for jail
If you know anybody going to jail or somebody currently incarcerated I highly recommend you read County Jail: A Survival Guide, a free ebook from Jail Media. It provides insight on what you need to do to get by behind bars and gives the family and friends of inmates a unique perspective that helps them understand what their loved one is facing.
Also, for more specific information on county jails in the United States see Jail Media's list of county jails.