Pinellas County Jail, Florida

The front entrance looks like a hospital or hotel where cars drive up and drop people off, except the hospitality is considerably worse when you enter.  Once inside, you’re escorted to one of several computer terminals attached to a rectangular counter and staffed by an officer, similar to a check-out counter in a supermarket but in reverse, as they relieve you of all your belongings.  You’re then put in a small holding area to wait.

You’re eventually retrieved and put through a metal detector, to ensure you’ve given them everything.  Here, though, it’s some ridiculously expensive 3D magnetronic contraption that must have cost taxpayers millions.  Afterwards, you’re issued a standard orange jump suit, one pair of underwear, socks, a t-shirt, shower slides for shoes and, if you’re lucky, a pair of gym shorts tor use in the mini-rec yard attached to your Pod (unit).  Officers then take you, one-by-one into a private room to strip naked and display every orifice before changing into a new uniform.  Whatever clothes you arrived in are then either stored, shipped to a location of your choice or thrown away.[1]  The final phase, involves escort to a stadium-sized seating area big enough for a few hundred to be finger-printed and DNA swabbed (now for my 4th time in just over two weeks), tested for HIV and Hepatitis C, have a picture taken and be issued your jail ID (which has a completely different number than your Federal Register number).

You then wait again, probably for hours, until your name is called to be given a small bar of soap, tiny tube of toothpaste, child-sized toothbrush, and a bed roll consisting of two thread-worn sheets, a pillow case and a tattered blanket.  It’s now time to be escorted to your Pod, which is done in a group with others, as the officer takes you on a tour, dropping inmates off here and there as she or he goes.  You enter the elevator face forward and do not turn around until instructed to do so.  Pinellas had an entire floor dedicated to federal inmates, which consisted of four separate Pods.  I, however, was initially housed on a separate floor in a Pod with just a smattering of federal inmates because the Fed floor was overcrowded.  Plus, the Feds has issued a “keep separate” order between my codefendants and I, not wanting us to accidently bump into each other.  “Keep separates” are generally utilized if there are security issues, like if one inmate snitches on another.  In this instance, however, my codefendants had already gone to trial by the time I was captured (which is a long story for another time), so it was just out of an abundance of caution.  Anyway, I must admit, it was emotionally rough watching addicts, low level offenders and temporary parole violators rotate in and out while I was still in dread fear of a LIFE sentence. 

As for security, I found myself doing time alongside drug kingpins and notorious motorcycle gang members, but most of the violent offenders were housed in a separate section of the jail.  One final note on this point is that getting in trouble, something that would be equivalent to a “shot” at a Federal facility does not count at all to your Federal security level.  God willing, it will never be an issue for you.  Regardless, something to know.     

The general population Pods at Pinellas were all open bay, meaning that you do not get locked into a cell with a door closing behind you.  Each separate cell had four to six bunks with a small area to stow personal belongings under the bed.  However, there were no lockers which, of course, occasionally led to thievery, given the cast of characters.  The opening of each cell was about 8 feet wide and 10 feet high, going back a good 15 feet deep.  The front, while wide-open, was like an imaginary force field impermissible to cross during count times and lockdown for the night at around 11pm.  The sole exception was that we could use the bathroom in the middle of the night since the Pod is set up with community style rest rooms.

The entrance to the pod has a desk and computer staffed by an officer, out in the open (unlike at FDC where the officer has a private office).  The pod is a rectangle with a two-story high ceiling leading from the entrance to the cells across the way.  On the long side to one end is a mostly enclosed outdoor rec area, like that in the FDC but smaller, with a basketball hoop and nothing else.  Next to rec, but inside, is a TV viewing area with one TV and 20 or so seats.  It’s tough to hear the sound over the hooting and hollering of others and forget about changing the channel.  If you’re in a Pod with a large Spanish speaking population, then there’s also a second TV dedicated to Spanish channels in the middle of the Pod.  There are various games such as monopoly, dominos and backgammon, typically missing pieces, so you’ll need to improvise.  Cards can also be bought from Commissary, with Pinochle and Spades, crowd favorites for killing time.  At this point, it’s all about preparing for either trial or a plea and otherwise just killing time. 

On the opposite side of the rec yard is a kitchen area with one microwave, one dedicated hot water dispenser, a washer and dryer (solely to be used by the orderlies to do laundry), plus a shower and bathroom.  Yes, you read that correctly, the bathrooms are right next to the kitchen area, but it’s even worse than that.  The community toilets are porcelain but without any toilet seat, and on the ground floor there are four of them separated solely by cinderblock half-walls, leaving you taking care of business within full eyeshot of everyone.  There are 8 shower stalls in all with unsatisfying push-button sprays.  You’ll find people using them as pull up bars when the guards aren’t looking.  Four additional toilets are located on the second floor, right next to a “multi-purpose” room which is always locked and never actually used, and a second room dedicated to tele-visits (discussed shortly).

When you first enter a Pod, you’re handed off to the Pod officer and assigned a bunk.  At that bunk there may or may not be a mattress and, if there is, then it will easily be the worst one in the entire Pod because inmates always use each departure as a time to trade up.  The same applies to pillows but they’re even more scarce.  The officer on duty will help you find a mattress, but as for a pillow (and those gym shorts you may not have received), that’ll probably take a few days.  Even the best of mattresses are only a few inches thick, but it can make a big difference both physically and psychologically.  After a few days, when you figure out the lay of the land, you’ll get a chance to purchase an “upgrade” from someone, if you like, in exchange for commissary or phone calls.  There are many desperate people in county jail with no means to support themselves, constantly on the lookout for a hustle to make some money here and there.  Nonetheless, you’ll find many fellow inmates who are genuinely helpful and others who might be trying to jump on your case, so keep your street smarts and Spidey senses at full alert.

Breakfast is served at 4 am, lunch at 10 am and dinner at 2 pm.  Get used to it.  The food is literally gooey slop and drinks are colored sugary water that is rumored to contain saltpeter to keep our libidos in check.  The kosher meals for Muslims and Jews are of considerably better quality but in small portions.  Unlike the BOP in which you get to be whatever religion you like; county jail is extremely strict because kosher meals cost more.  You’ll be put through the ringer to confirm you’re Jewish or Muslim before being approved.  Each week, one cell is in charge of cleaning tables after each meal.  Everyone must participate.  Even the drug kingpins who had minions making them coffee and preparing special meals from commissary items had to partake. 

Commissary items can be purchased once a week and consist almost entirely of overpriced junk food.  One of the healthiest items are chunk light tuna at $3.00 for one single four ounce pack and the Ramen noodle soups you can buy at Walmart for like $.15-.20, but which now amazingly cost $1.00 (giving new meaning to license to steal).  Your commissary account has a purchasing limit (of $100 per week) and it will be deducted from your account at the jail.  Funds can be deposited into your county jail account by having a friend or family member follow the instructions on the county jail’s website.  Please be aware that no funds follow you from location to location as you travel from an Federal to county facility (and vice-a-versa).  They’re completely separate.  Some county jails, like the ones I was housed in, have an arrangement to transfer money between them by cutting a check and sending it along with the guards transporting you.  It’s an inefficient system, that can leave you making last minute, collect phone calls to family members for supplemental funds until the check shows up and clears.

The funds in your commissary account may also be used to buy postage stamps, envelopes, pens and calling cards to communicate with your loved ones.  There is no email system or typewriter available in county jail.  Phone cards may be purchased in $20 increments and are sold once a week.  Guard your card(s) carefully because people are prone to steal them.  There are two phone banks with four phones each, but you can always count on at least a couple being out of service at any given time.  Phone calls are charged in 20-minute increments whether you use the full 20 minutes or not.  So, a 5-minute call cost just as much as a 20-minute one.  Local calls were $3.00 at the time but local only consisted of the immediate county, not even an entire area code.  Calls to my dad in South Florida cost $8.00 and a fellow inmate who had to call Boston paid $18.00 (and, we’re considered the criminals).  Those calls were also notorious for dropping off mid-call.  We inmates, however, were not permitted to request any refunds.  That had to be done by our callees to some poorly operated phone center in India, that created a bizarre catch-22 scenario ensuring that no one I knew ever actually got credit.  Mail gets sent out by giving your letter(s) to the evening Unit CO.  Leave the envelope unsealed because they check everything going out.

The visit policy was liberal in terms of days and hours but consisted solely of video visits which was very unsatisfying on several levels.  To begin with, your visitors need to show up at the jail, just to use the system, watching you on a monitor in some other building.   My Dad drove five hours, once a month, to see me for a few consecutive days over some awful quality video stream.  Moreover, visitors are supervised and admonished by bullying staff for the most minor of nonsense during the only 20 or 30 minutes allotted.  My dad would stay at a hotel, show up and wait 30 additional minutes for me to be called.  At that point, I would go to a second-floor room and pick up an antiquated phone for the visit.  I didn’t have my kids visit because that would only have been pure torture.  No contact, no real connection whatsoever.

Laundry gets done twice a week by Pod orderlies.  These are fellow inmates who get paid a modest salary of about $60 per month to do chores around the Pod.  All the pod’s clothes get thrown into the washer altogether.  While you label your own to ensure you get yours back, it’s horribly disgusting, given many of your fellow inmates’ hygiene habits.  It’s best, to discreetly throw a Pod orderly a few extra bucks (in either tuna or commissary) to do your laundry separately.  This way it comes back both cleaner and folded.  At the end of the day, though, that only does so much, considering those same washers and dryers are also used to clean the Pod’s mop heads. 

Haircuts are supposed to be available once a week and inmates rush (run) from their cells to get put on a list right after afternoon count.  Since it’s free and most people don’t tip in county (unlike the FDC), many people sign up for a haircut each and every week.  The problem is, there are usually more inmates on the list than can be cut any given night.  Occasionally, the officer will try to prioritize anyone who expects to go to court shortly.  Another way up is to out tip others, so the barber sneaks you in while no one’s paying attention.  There’s only one barber for the entire floor and the qualifications are pretty low for the job.  The sole equipment, like at the FDC, is an electric razor.  At times, when the razor is broken or a barber leaves and has not yet been replaced, haircuts are cancelled for the week.  We once went over a month with no haircuts.          

Be prepared to for complete frustration and desperation when it comes to medical care.  If a pain or illness arises, you request a form from the Pod officer, fill it out and hand it back in.  With any luck you’re seen by a nurse within 48 hours, or so, at a cost of $10.00.  A doctor comes by once a week for more serious issues, but it can take weeks before you’re actually seen – there’s a long list of people in front of you.  It’s while incarcerated that you first truly appreciate just how much we take general self-care for granted.  In one instance, for example, I developed a wicked case of hemorrhoids from the sandpaper-like toilet paper and God-awful diet.  I then waited almost a week to be seen by a doctor and get medication as the inflammation grew to the size of a cannonball.  Dental care is non-existent.  The sole option is to pull a bad tooth and take some aspirin.  One of my co-defendants had practically his entire mouth emptied during his 4 years in county jail awaiting trial.  Finally, you’ll be housed with people who have AIDS, contagious Hepatitis C and open staph and mursa infections, since those run rampant.[2]  Keep your distance.  Cleanliness in the Pod is superficial at best.

Prescription medicine is delivered twice a day by a nurse with a cart of pre-proportioned doses.  Pills and creams are distributed for various ailments ranging from high-cholesterol, mental health issues, open wounds and, of course, hemorrhoids, which are a chronic problem.  The nurse also checks the blood sugar levels of diabetics, some of whom passed out every so often as their levels popped and spiraled because required mid-meal snacks rarely arrived on schedule.  Eligibility for medicine is determined based on the information you provided during intake so be mindful to include everything.  However, just like at the FDC, do not expect any hard drugs like Valium, Xanax, or opioids, those are strictly forbidden. 

Pinellas county jail was more liberal than the the Feds in giving out anxiety and stress relieving meds once you got approval.  However, getting approval wasn’t so easy.  What I discovered, though, is that a strategically placed call from your attorney to the US Marshalls can work wonders.  My complaints about anxiety pending sentencing were routinely ignored for six months.  One simple phone call changed all that, getting me seen by a Psychiatrist and set up to receive three different types of pills within one week.  The challenge, however, was staying up for 11 pm count because pills are distributed between 8 pm and psych meds can make you sleepy.  Some inmates cheek their pills to hold onto and take later (or sell to fellow inmates).  Many jails are therefore crushing all pills, regardless of the fact that it undermined their efficacy. 

Shakedowns are done regularly and average once a week, which is particularly ridiculous since there are so few places to hide things and almost nothing to hide.  Less contraband gets into county jail because there are no interpersonal visits.  During a shake down, a half dozen officers come rushing in with wild abandon, yelling and screaming for you to immediately return to your cells.  You’ll find that most officers are harsh, to keep us inmates in check.[3]  Some, however, actually treat us somewhat human.  You’ll then be called cell-by-cell in only your t-shirt, shorts and shower slides to be patted down and sent to the outer rec area for a half hour to forty-five minutes.  This is especially awful at night during the cold winter months.  The officers then tear the Pod to shreds removing such important contraband as excess sheets, pillows, blankets, and prison given food or disposable plastic spoons that we may have taken from meals, for later use.  Of course, Commissary doesn’t sell plastic spoons, making it impossible to prepare coffee or actually eat most of Commissary without that contraband spoon.  (Alas, an issue for a later day.)  In any event, on occasion they do come across some genuine contraband like cheeked medicine or drugs, but that’s extremely rare.  The orderlies return to clean up the hurricane-like aftermath before we inmates are allowed to return to reorder their own individual bunks.

Visits from attorney and clergy are in person, in specially reserved mini rooms on the same floor as your Pod.  There’s no limit on visits when preparing for trial but it can get absurdly expensive.  I hired a law firm, so, depending on how many lawyers came for any individual visit, travel time alone added anywhere from $1,000-$3,000 onto the bill.  Many inmates, especially drug kingpins, use this time to have elegant meals snuck in to enjoy while discussing their case.  While that’s technically prohibited, it’s not as if the guards are constantly keeping an eye on you.  These same special inmates, coincidentally enough, also enjoy considerable alone time with some of the most (escort looking) attractive paralegals (read between the lines as you wish).

Pinellas provides regular weekly programs for various religious services and alcoholics anonymous, that you sign up for in advance and have limited capacity.  Frankly, it’s a bit of relief just to get out of the tedium of the Pod, so I wholeheartedly suggest taking advantage of them.

There is a complaint system giving you the opportunity to formally express a grievance.  This goes all the way up to the Sherriff who is ultimately in charge.  In Pinellas, the forms eventually got to the intended recipients, but the process itself was filled with obstruction and indifference.  It was exactly that kind of attitude that led me to discover the US Marshall solution descried above.

If you need to be in communication with authorities to cooperate while incarcerated, you’ll be called out of the Pod and escorted to the Special Investigative Unit (SIU).  Word can quickly get back to fellow inmates when this happens, but the jail is usually smart enough to set up a convenient excuse, like going to see your attorney or a doctor.  It still feels awkward regardless.  The last thing you want is to be outed as a snitch.  You’re then escorted through long catacombs of the old section of the prison where higher security inmates are kept in old fashioned cells with bars and few amenities.  That’s when you truly get a sense of what prison could be.

Going to court is a genuine adventure.  A list goes up the night before, so everyone is aware of who’s leaving the following morning.  You’ll already have been told by your attorney, but just because she or he told you doesn’t make it so.  Mistakes get made and people miss court dates, re-scheduled weeks or months later.  Departure is after 4 am breakfast, when you’re escorted in group through the catacombs to the basement exit which is, interestingly enough, located right just past SIU.  Once there, you’re deposited in old-fashioned, barred cells to wait until 8 am when it’s time to leave.  Any given morning, drama may ensue because both defendants and witnesses against are often going to court for trial at the same time.  In those instances, the defendants are diverted to side cells with no windows, so they don’t see who else is being transported.  But again, mistakes happen. 

Transportation is via dog-catcher vans.  Defendants in one and witnesses or those going to court for other reasons (i.e. to get sentenced) in another.  You enter the back, shackled at the wrists and ankles, sliding back and forth as the van negotiates traffic on its way to court.  Transport is handled by an outside contractor, which charges much lower rates than the unionized officers.  Once at court, you’re handed off to US Marshalls who then put you in basement holding cells.  You’re later retrieved and placed in a separate holding cell on the floor of the courtroom until it’s your turn to be seen.

I’ve heard that Pinellas has a new email system involving iPads, which can also be used to view certain pre-approved movies, at additional cost.  The email system is their own internal one, like used by the Feds, but it lets you communicate directly with someone’s personal email.  They seem to have only a few per Unit, which I imagine leads to some conflict.  I would also guess the cost is outrageous. 

[1] Each transfer to a new location, results in throwing away an entire uniform, as if they were disposable.  In one week, I had three full uniforms thrown away by the new facility I was transferred to. 

[2] We were even on lockdown for three weeks because someone came down with chicken pox.

[3] Guards were more laid back at the private county jail, but equally inefficient.