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What is Jail Really Like? 5 Ways Hollywood Doesn't Do it Justice

What is Jail Really Like

With much of the modern television craze being centered on the expansion of platforms like Netflix, there are a few shows to thank for the outbreaks of episode marathons and binge-watching. One of these popular shows is “Orange is the New Black,” which gives viewers a look into life behind bars in a women’s prison facility.

Add this to the long list of TV shows and movies that take place in prisons. But with all of the hype around life in jail, you might be left wondering, “What is jail really like? Is this an accurate depiction?”

We set out to answer that very question by speaking with those who know exactly what it’s like. How do they know? Because they’ve been there! Our conversations revealed a few surprising things Hollywood typically gets wrong.

5 things that might surprise you about life behind bars

1. Cameras can’t capture smell  

It’s impossible to portray all five human senses through a camera lens, which means viewers will never get the full effect of what jail is really like without being there. The most obvious feature that’s missing is the atrocious smells.

“If you have ever been in a jail, you know the smell of 300 or 400 men in the same place with poor circulation with any number of bodily fluids mixed with the smell of microwaved bologna,” says Kevin Paulson, a sheriff's captain who has worked in a prison for more than 20 years. Add to the list the smell of burnt hair and industrial soap and you’ll have a more accurate idea of what being in jail is like, Paulson adds.

2. Sleep becomes an art form

Keeping with the theme of human senses, the amount of constant noise that exists in jail is something that simply can’t be experienced, according to Sean Ramsey, who has worked in a jail as a correctional officer. The constant ambient sounds of people watching TV, working out or play dominoes with no regards for anyone else makes sleeping a form of art, Ramsey explains.

“You really have to find a way to drown out ambient noises in a place where quiet usually means something’s about to happen,” says Ramsey.

With movies and television series intending to entertain viewers rather than annoy them, it’s obvious why directors choose to leave out this feature of prison.

3. Calling it ‘food’ is a stretch

“The food is REALLY bad. I mean, really,” says Laura Roser, now a writer and artist who works to share her incarceration story and help others overcome their obstacles. “If I ever go to jail again, I'm going to tell them I'm pregnant because the pregnant women get real milk and actual vegetables.” She says typical jail food is not suitable for a growing fetus, which explains a lot about the quality of ingredients.

What about beverages? “One of the more foul tasting and foul smelling concoctions is called ‘pruno,’” Paulson says.  This jail-made alcohol consists of collected oranges and orange juice with bread mashed in a plastic bag and left to ferment underneath a person's bed.

Think about jail food the next time you are watching a Hollywood prison film while enjoying your big bowl of buttery popcorn!

4. Not all inmates are threatening

Picture a typical prisoner you might see in a movie. You’re probably envisioning tough, tattooed individual who spends their days lifting weights. But how common is this character in real-life prisons?

On recounting her own experiences, Roser found this to be one of the most surprising things: “The women cried a lot. I thought everyone would be somewhat tough. Nope. They cried when they thought about their kids, what would happen to them, missing their boyfriends…”

Experiences in jail will certainly vary between men and women, along with a number of other added circumstances. But Rosers personal experience behind bars definitely challenges what you might expect based on Hollywood’s interpretation.

5. There is hope for prisoners

Paulson says the most shocking thing Hollywood typically neglects in movies about jail is that hope still exists for inmates. He disputes how most shows make it appear as if being incarcerated is the end of the line for offenders.

He recalls a particular instance during his career where an inmate was adamant about making a phone call to his wife. Instead, Paulson gave the man a pen and paper and encouraged him to write a letter to her about how he was going to turn his life around.

Years later, the sink in Paulson’s home broke. When the plumber came to fix the sink and recognized Paulson, he revealed himself as the man he helped in jail and thanked him. The moral of the story? Rehabilitation is attainable and hops exists for inmates – and not just the hope of escaping from prison that Hollywood usually focuses on.

Unlocking the truth

So the next time you’re watching your favorite prison-based show and think to yourself, “That doesn’t look so bad” – think again!

Just take our sources' word for it that you don’t ever want to fully understand what jail is really like. The only way you want to be anywhere near a prison is if you’re working in one.

Learn more about careers working with criminal offenders: Parole Officer vs. Probation Officer: Which One is Right for You?


Aaron Lawrence

Aaron is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. His interest in writing articles for students stems from his passion for poetry and fiction and the belief that all words can educate.

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