Jails are places where men and women are detained while awaiting adjudication of their criminal charges. After arrest, if they are not able to find money for bail and are not release on their “own recognizance” they have to remain in detention until their trial. Jail residents are “detainees” not “prisoners.”
Detainees are people who are have not yet been found guilty of a crime. Detainees are often people caught up in our immigration and detention system. They may have been charged with a crime, or they may just be awaiting action from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), a part of the Department of Homeland Security.
For detainees there are often more urgent issues confronting them – they have been quickly removed from their daily lives- they may have child care and custody concerns, job and property concerns, even pet care. They may be detoxing and sick from active addiction. There is often a level of desperation in jail detainees that challenges the volunteer or chaplain because the needs are so immediate, demanding and plentiful. The experience of being in jail is akin to being in the emergency room of a hospital awaiting triage. Detainees are living in a state of crisis, even shock. They are not sure how long they will be in jail or perhaps beyond that in prison.
Crimes for which people are held in detention range from cases of drug possession, prostitution, burglary to assault and murder. People in jail are often there for the first time, though the majority of urban jail detainees are men and women who have chronic problems of drug addiction and/or mental illness and have done time in jails or prisons already. People with a wide range of personal problems and a wide range of criminal charges are thrown together into a chaotic environment. Streetwise detainees are mixed with people who have never been in trouble before. Fear and anxiety are ever present realities.
Jails are therefore somewhat more unpredictable and unstable environments. The amount of services offered to detainees in terms of mental health, education and religious programming can vary considerably from one county jail to another. Each county is generally a separate entity under the administration of a sheriff who is usually an elected official. Since the primary mission of a jail is to safely house detainees awaiting trial, the focus of the mission is not necessarily going to be on rehabilitation.
The crisis environment and the lack of stability can be an asset for Jail Chaplains. Often men and women who find themselves in jail are in crisis and seek out any guidance and help. Chaplains in these environments must have the basic skills to listen and counsel men and women in crisis. Because there is a fairly rapid turnover in the population and the stays in jails are generally much shorter than for those serving time in prisons, the Jail chaplains may only meet with detainees a few times before they are sentenced, released or moved.
Jail Officers have a somewhat different perspective than Correctional Officers in prisons. This affects how religious programming is offered in Jails. The kinds of services Jail chaplains and volunteers can offer are more limited than they may be in a state prison system. Most modern jails lack chapel space so volunteers must improvise and use whatever spaces are permitted.