Press Club

A Look Inside the Arlington County Jail

You may not realize it, but there’s a building in Courthouse that’s home to about 600 prisoners of Arlington’s criminal justice system. The Arlington County Detention Facility is the first urban high-rise jail in Virginia and “one of the most technically advanced direct supervision facilities in the county,” according to the county Sheriff’s Office, which is responsible for running the lock-up.

The current facility, built in 1994, is unimposing inside and out. Forget your tour of Alcatraz, this facility looks more like an office building than a prison to the average passerby. Inside, groups of prisoners are held in residential units that combine the functionality of a jail cell, prison yard and dining hall.

But make no mistake: behind the non-threatening interior — which somewhat resembles a public high school with a whole lot of doors — this is a facility built for security. Since it was built, not a single prisoner has escaped.

“Secure” is also a feeling you get while walking through the jail. The Hollywood image of mean-looking, hardened criminals who leer at guards and outsiders and are constantly looking for a fresh fish to shank (apologies for mixing movie metaphors) does not seem to apply here.

In fact, people were pretty friendly. One inmate, when told that his cell was going to be photographed, darted in and cleaned things up a bit, just to be polite. Another struck up a conversation about his artwork and a recent play he wrote.

Fights, jail administrators say, are extremely rare. Six months ago, a deputy was jumped by two inmates in the mental health ward. The scuffle ended when two “workforce inmates” pulled the culprits off of him. (The workforce inmates — who prepare food, pick up garbage around the County in orange jumpsuits, etc. — are generally seen as the best-behaved of the bunch.)

The biggest challenge for the housing unit guards who work most closely with the inmates isn’t fights, riots, contraband or escape attempts. Instead, like a teacher at a middle school, one guard said the challenge is “dealing with all the personalities.”

Here’s a glimpse of the Arlington County Detention Facility by the numbers:

  • 1,900 — Meal trays served, per day. Meals are prepared by inmates through a program run by food service giant Aramark. Excess meals are donated to local charities.
  • 515 — Current jail population (it’s down a bit from the normal average, we’re told, because crime is down)
  • 260 — Total jail staff (including civilians)
  • 205 — Sworn sheriff’s deputies
  • 165 — Sheriff’s deputies who work in the jail
  • $158 — Cost of housing one inmate per day. This is considered higher than most jails generally, but lower than some other urban facilities.
  • 136 — Number of security cameras
  • 80 — Number of female inmates
  • 65 — Number of inmates per housing unit
  • 33% — Approximate percentage of inmates who are on psychotropic medications
  • 32 — Average inmate stay, in days (most are either released to transferred to a state penitentiary following sentencing)
  • 23 — Number of hours per day that the higher-security “special” inmates spend in their cells
  • 12 — Length of housing unit guard shift, in hours. Guards work a six month rotation. Except for the higher-security areas, there is only one guard per housing unit at any given time.
  • 5 — Number of inmates on a house arrest program managed by the Sheriff’s Office.
  • 2 — Number of 20-minute visits prisoners are allowed per week
  • 0 — Number of guns and nightsticks guards are allowed to carry in the housing units.

More photos, after the jump.

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