“Jail smelled cold,” Adam told me. He only spent one night in a county jail nearly a decade ago, but still, he can immediately conjure the scent. “It’s the cold of, like, old plaster and metal,” he said. That, mixed with sweaty feet and greasy pillowcases—the stifling odor of shared air and nutsacks. “Plus, I was housed with a crack addict,” Adam (who asked me to change his name for this piece) added, “who smelled of urine and just not showering for months on end.” Adam was talking about a jail in Connecticut, but it could have any correctional institution in the country. No matter where you go, it’s the same wall of rancidity that hits the minute you’re buzzed through the secured gate—the stench of thousands of men crammed into much too tiny space, raw humanity in all its disgusting nakedness.
The number of Americans who know this smell continues to grow, although it’s difficult to quantify exactly. Some, like Adam, are arrested and discharged, go to court and never serve an actual sentence. Others cycle in and out of the system their entire lives. We know that in 2012 there were some 6.9 million adults under correctional supervision in the US. That includes not only those housed in jails and prisons, but people on parole and probation—all of whom have likely spent at least one night locked up. That means one out of every 35 adult Americans knows the smell of which I write, likely a larger percentage than ever before. In the past four decades, our country’s prison population exploded 500 percent (with non-violent drug offenders making up much of that population), and continues to grow . At the same time, prison construction has slowed, and overcrowding persists.
Though recent attention on incarceration has been mainly focused on for-profit prison corporations and the treatment of juvenile offenders—both worthy subjects—it’s the visceral grotesqueness of human warehousing that outsiders never hear of, and likely never want to. In acknowledging how these conditions affect millions of Americans, how such scenes and scents literally change lives forever, you are forced to recognize just how foul mass incarceration has become. (more…)