07.20.10

Lindsay's Jail Life

Lohan may not be serving her whole sentence, but she won't get off lightly. Writer Piper Kerman, who served 11 months, on what the actress can expect, from the strip search to prisoners' secret lines of communication.

After weeks of high drama, self-destructive starlet Lindsay Lohan has self-surrendered at the Lynwood jail in Los Angeles, where she’ll experience markedly different treatment than celebrities are accustomed to—and markedly different treatment than most prisoners receive. Still, the basics apply: On arrival, she was likely divested of all her possessions, excepting legal paperwork and personal photos; subjected to a strip search (the “squat and cough”); and none too gently reminded by staff from her first moment in custody that for these few weeks she is “state property.” It’s in the jail’s interest to make sure her stay, which a sheriff said Tuesday will be 14 days of her 90-day sentence, is highly secure, and this will mean 23-hour solitary lockdown.

Lonely, she may choose to “talk on the vents” to the other prisoners by whispering into the air ducts, a common practice in many facilities.


Lindsay Lohan Arrives at Jail

Video screenshot

Avi Steinberg: Lindsay Lohan’s Jailhouse Reading List Jail time is actually quite different from prison time—moment by moment, I’d say it’s worse, though jail sentences tend to be much shorter. I spent 11 months in a women’s federal prison in Danbury Connecticut, but the conclusion of my 13-month sentence was in a federal jail in Chicago. (I was transported there in shackles on “Con Air,” which really does exist.) Jails are crowded, chaotic, dirty places, and people would always arrive at “real prison” from county or city jails disheveled, and with profound relief on their faces. City and county jails often house folks who live on the edge of homelessness, have been arrested for very low-level offenses, or are on their way to bigger prisons and longer bids. Tragically, the three largest mental health facilities in the country are Rikers Island, the Cook County Jail, and the Los Angeles County Jail, and I assure you that incarceration does not improve the condition of the mentally ill, who are endlessly recycled through the prison system.

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For those of us lucky enough not to struggle daily with insanity, the worst part of jail time is the utter boredom. In a real prison, an ordinary inmate takes part in a highly structured and socially intricate machinery that focuses on keeping the institution running. Prisoners who are not security risks work, usually to maintain the facility—I was a construction worker. They follow the daily rhythms dictated by the prison and carve out their own friendships, rituals, and patterns that help mark their time and perhaps hasten their sentence. But in a jail, there is precious little opportunity to fill the time with any constructive activity; occasional visits to the library, severely limited “rec time” in a gym or a yard, religious observance, and the constant blare of televisions are about the only options. Many people try to sleep the time away with the aid of abundant psych meds; self-motivated prisoners write copious letters and read every book they can get their hands on.

Lohan will have a much more constrained and solitary existence than most prisoners, as she will be isolated in “protective custody,” alone even during her one hour out of her cell. Lonely, she may choose to “talk on the vents” to the other prisoners by whispering into the air ducts, a common practice in many facilities. At the federal jail in Chicago, which housed hundreds of men and a handful of women, the vents were a conduit to romance, and conversing on them was a punishable offense. However there was no Segregated Housing Unit, aka the SHU or the Hole, for women in that federal jail. Instead, if a female acted out, she could be sent to Cook County Jail, the largest in the U.S. with approximately 10,000 inmates. “You do not want to go there!” counseled the local prisoners who were in the know, and I absolutely believed them.

Does all this misery add up to better public safety? While some people watch Lohan’s predicament with glee, it’s sobering to think that California spends an average of more than $45,000 per prisoner per year, a price the state government can ill afford. The American correctional system is unquestionably punitive, but it certainly doesn’t rehabilitate; a staggering number of prisoners return to jail or prison despite its horrors. There is little clear path visible to a different life for most of the millions of Americans behind bars, and there are huge barriers in employment, housing, health, and family reunification that are known to consistently trip people up in their efforts to go straight.

Given that a big swath of the prison and jail population is nonviolent offenders, especially among female prisoners, it seems like there are smarter alternatives to a safe society. I spent time with just a handful of the thousands of women who are released from prisons and jails every year in this country. If Lohan leaves her incarceration with something productive drawn from the experience, she will be among the few nonviolent offenders for whom jail time was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars.

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Piper Kerman is the author of the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Spiegel & Grau). A vice president of a Washington, D.C.–based communications firm that works with foundations and nonprofits and a graduate of Smith College, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband.