“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.
We don’t know what our own homes smell like, after you strip last night’s dinner and the various “fresheners” we add to mask the natural scent of our existence. This home smell is part of our life, a part of us, often unrecognizable to us, but there. Other people can smell it on us, but we’re immune.
It’s not clear how long it takes prisoners to stop noticing their new homes’ odors, but it happens there too; one day they wake up and that smell is no longer something separate, but a part of their clothing, in their hair, seeping out their pores.
Though I was never forced to wake up to this smell for years on end, I am one of the millions who knows it well. Pursuing a degree in criminal justice, I interned at a county jail and a federal immigration (ICE) holding facility in 2002. After college, I worked full-time in a men’s maximum security state prison in Nebraska for about three years, before moving in-and-out of facilities in my brief role as a probation and parole officer for the state of North Carolina.
During my time in the system, I saw how America has turned the art of warehousing humans into a science. At every level, jails and prisons set occupancy standards: how many square feet per inmate, how many inmates per toilet, how many square inches of fresh air must be circulated through the cinderblock walls and heavy steel doors. Yet many of these standards weren’t updated as prison populations exploded. In California, for example, where the U.S. Supreme Court ordered thousands of inmates be released due to overcrowding that constituted “cruel and unusual punishment”, some 360 men were living in what had been one of San Quentin’s gymnasiums. Prison populations may have grown from about 400,000 in 1980 to 1.6 million in 2012, but prison construction didn’t keep up. By 2012, federal prisons were operating 35 percent above capacity. Today, 17 states are operating facilities over their designed capacity, with Illinois faring worst at 151%.
As the War on Drugs and minimum sentencing requirements swept an unprecedented number of inmates into the system, single-person cells became double-occupancy and bunks replaced beds. Mattresses placed on the floor temporarily became permanent. The state started to pack men like sardines just inches from their shared toilets, in medium- and maximum-security cell houses holding hundreds of people and just a few showers. In dorms, bunk beds were precariously positioned, one-atop-another-atop-another, in row after row of vinyl-covered mattresses on paint-chipped metal frames. Hundreds of men now sleep in a single room, with a bank of toilets and urinals positioned across a back wall, often with nothing separating them from the room where inmates gather to eat, play cards, socialize, and complain—occasionally, about other inmates’ hygiene.
“If you were a savage before you came in, then you going to be a savage in there,” Greg, 39, who served a three-year prison term for drug trafficking, told me. “If you had no rules or sense of decorum before you came in, then that’s the way you’re going to live in there.”
Greg is an acquaintance who talked to me while walking in between classes on campus in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Like Adam, that’s not his real name. He, too, has done what he can to embrace life after incarceration, pursuing a degree in graphic design and starting a personal-training business.) Some people “wouldn’t shower for days on end and, you know, they live a very filthy lifestyle on the inside, because that’s what they lived on the outside,” said Greg. “If they were homeless or didn’t have good hygiene, or didn’t take showers on the outside, then that’s what they’ll do on the inside, regardless of whether they are living with 50 other human beings in a confined space.”
Institutional life operates under many of the same rules as the free world, like group pressure. If someone’s particularly disgusting, he’ll hear about it; and in prison, subtle hints are never the order of the day. “You put that individual’s stuff into the hallway and tell the correctional officer that that individual can’t stay anymore because they’re dirty,” Greg says, recalling the type of justice dealt his prison’s dirtiest cellmates. “And the officer knows when it comes to that, when people are saying someone’s got to go, that they can no longer guarantee that individual’s safety.”
But that stink can’t always be attributed to unclean individuals—and it’s not like a locker room, where the only activity within is the cleansing of sweaty bodies. Entire lives are lived in prison, day after day, as draconian sentences slowly tick on by. There are no windows to crack here. Closed-in by cinderblocks and metal: sweating, breathing, shitting, pissing, and vomiting (not to mention the occasional broken air conditioner or sewage back-up).
It may be masked by other scents, but the sleepy, fleshy, stank is still there, lying beneath the surface. It’s hidden by Simple Green, the alcohol-free chemical used on nearly every surface—put in spray bottles, mop buckets, and jugs. It’s just underneath the smell of commissary foods—burritos made with crushed chips, bean dip, the spice packet from Cup Noodles, and whatever else was purchased at the prison store. It’s masked, slightly, by the odors staff bring in from their own homes, or the smell of the one variety of soap as you pass by communal showers.
Aside from the men and women who are serving life sentences or waiting for the death penalty, or those who die behind bars before their sentence ends, there will come a day for each inmate when the smells of the outside world will hit them in the face, a wave equal parts newness and nostalgia. The nose-blinders will come down, but familiar scents like home-cooked meals and fresh baths will do little to erase the institutional odor from their olfactory memories. Outside prison walls, they’ll likely find that the only thing fouler than the stench of mass incarceration is the way most of us—with our detergents, perfumes and denial—work so hard to ignore it.
Elizabeth Renter is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethRenter.