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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cop school: The jail tour

The Adult Detention Center in Fairfax [No photos allowed inside.]
The young women were sitting on the floor playing cards and laughing. They looked like they didn’t have a care in the world. But they weren’t at a slumber party—they were doing time at the Fairfax County Adult  Detention Center (ADC).

The field trip to jail last week was an eye-opening experience for participants in the Citizens Police Academy. We saw the inmates up-close as they spent a typical evening behind bars. Except there are no bars—the cells have heavy, solid doors with a window and a slot for delivering meals.

As we prepared for the tour, our guide, Sgt. George Wright of the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the ADC, warned us, “you are going to walk through the toughest neighborhood in all of Fairfax County—at nighttime.”

On any given day, the ADC houses 1,200 to 1,500 prisoners, including about 100 women. Inmates usually spend 12 months or less in the county jail. 

Some are held there until they can be sentenced, and others have been given life sentences and are waiting for a bed in a state prison. We walked by the halls where the so-called Beltway snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, spent some time after their arrest in 2002. Muhammad was executed in 2009.

Lots of rules

Every aspect of the lives of residents of the ADC is closely regulated. They are woken up for breakfast between 4 and 6 a.m., they must vacate their cells during the day, and are locked back in at 11 p.m. There are cameras everywhere, and all their phone calls are monitored and recorded. Inmates and their cells can be searched at any time. Both men and women were dark green jumpsuits.

We caught up with Devin, a ginger-haired 26-year-old from Herndon, sweeping the hallway. Like all inmates with jobs, we was wearing a bright red jumpsuit. He told us he was serving a three-month sentence for “a domestic situation with my girlfriend” and was waiting for sentencing for a drug charge.

Inmates with jobs wash the floors, scrub the baseboards, and clean “biohazard spills,” Wright says. They are not paid but are given five days of credit for every 30 days they work.

Each 8 x 10-foot cinderblock cell contains a built-in ledge for sleeping, along with a desk, metal toilet, small sink, and a couple of pegs on the wall for hanging laundry. Any personal items must fit in a small bin.

According to Wright, there is a 75 to 85 percent recidivism rate. The same people cycle back and forth through the prison system several times, he says. “Some finally get their act together, and some don’t.” The oldest prisoners are in their mid-80s.

Inmates are given different classifications, depending on their prior record and behavior. Those with severe medical or psychological issues are put in protective custody and cannot socialize with other prisoners. If they are danger of hurting themselves, they are housed in a padded call known as a “rubber room,” he says. “Inmates coming off the street who can’t be put in with the general population are put in administrative segregation.” Those who have committed a violent crime or have a history of violence were a red wristband.

Inmates who violate the behavior rules can be put into solitary confinement for up to 15 days. Instead of regular meals, they are given a “loaf”—a mix of vegetables and “nutritional substances” baked in a pan—three times a day.

Inmates who have been locked up for non-violent crimes are allowed to hang out together in large rooms. In the women’s area, about a dozen women were watching TV, chatting, talking on phones, or having snacks at six-sided metal tables. The common area was surrounded on three sides by 48 cells on two stories.

According to Deputy Tracey Roberts, who works the midnight shift, most of the women inmates at the ADC had been charged with larceny, prostitution, narcotics, or lesser crimes.

In a smaller room in the men’s area, two guys were playing chess, while others were watching bastketball on TV or just hanging around. There was a Monopoly game set out on a table. (Don’t know if it had a “get out of jail free” card.)

In the modular units, there is one deputy for 100 prisoners. The guards do not carry firearms, ammunition, or knives inside the prison—just mace and a radio. Having weapons “makes them a target,” Wright says. In some cases, male deputies work in the women’s area, and women supervise the male inmates. “We charge them if they try to use sexuality on the guards,” he says.

“You set the tone early on,” Roberts added. “If you’re professional, they won’t try anything.”

When the inmates are grouped together in a common room, “they learn to tolerate each other,” Wright says. It also minimizes their opportunities for suicide. The officers make sure people in different gangs are not put together.

“We never had a murder here,” Wright says. “We’ve had assaults in here. We’ve had malicious woundings and domestic disputes. The same things that happen on the street, happen in here.”

When people are first checked into the prison, they are strip-searched and all their possessions, including jewelry and money, are sealed in plastic and stored in the property room until they are released.

They are transported to the hospital if a cavity search is needed. Wright says when a homeless woman was searched a while back, a bundle of $900 in twenties was found  “in her business,” and another time, a double-sided razor was found in a man’s rectum.

Long days

The jail has a law library for inmates who plan to defend themselves in court. There’s also a regular library but there’s no Internet access and you won’t find anything like Soldier of Fortune or magazines with nudity.

Inmates can take classes in things like basic reading and math, GED preparation, and computer skills, although there is no Internet access. They can take part in religious sessions, mentoring, and anger management, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous groups.

Inmates can work out in the gym for an hour a day and can play basketball and volleyball, beginning at 5 a.m. Three to four staff members supervise up to 50 inmates at a time in the gym.

The visiting area is like what you see in the movies. Inmates and guests are separated by thick glass panels and use a phone receiver to talk.

Inmates are charged $2 a day for their upkeep. They are allowed five pairs of underwear and socks—white or gray—and can buy snacks and cosmetics at the commissary, but soap and shampoo are “low quality,” Roberts says. “It’s not like what you can buy in stores.” Women have been known to make eye shadow out of Skittles, as they’re not allowed to have makeup, she says. And they are limited to one roll of toilet paper a week.

Wright knows of only a couple of escapes at the ADC. About 33 years ago, an inmate used a piece of metal from a zipper to take a door off its hinges so he and his buddy could escape. Both were apprehended fairly quickly. About six or seven years ago, two inmates got out by widening a crack in the concrete. One was captured right away; the other was found in North Carolina a month later.

The best part of the tour was escaping into the night as the thick double doors clanged shut behind us.

This is part of our series on the Citizens Police Academy. Previous articles covered the police training academy, the 911 call center, life on patrol, and domestic violence.


  1. 75 85 percent recidivsm rate? Thats a lot of people coming back. I wonder how many of those intentionally try to come back. The amazing thing is how some resources/privileges criminals get in jail is more than what some law-abiding citizens can get/afford.

  2. Are you kidding me? So delusional !

  3. Wow, I seriously doubt you have people itching to break into Fairfax ADC to get back in.. the "loaf" that was referred to; just say you wouldnt want to eat it..

    Depending where you are classified and what part of the jail you are housed at, you are not allowed back into your cell until after the evening.. The new side of the jail, you are allowed in your cell all day - but you may not use you blanket (they keep it quite chilly in there)

    You must be ready and up at 8:00am to clean your cell daily - mop - make bed - fight the other 48 - 50 inmates for the only 2 mops available and hope we are done by 9am. All that's quite fun - then you get to be envy by some of the inmates option to grab 2 (two) breakfast / dinner trays with more portions just because they are called "houseman" ...

    I dunno, it's actually quiet a different experience.