Spartanburg County, South Carolina suffered from one of the worst health rates a couple of years ago. With high pregnancy rates, high crime rates and high poverty rates, the county was headed in what seemed to be a horrible direction.
After much collaboration with nonprofits and other foundations, there was a big change in the health rates of Spartanburg. One of the biggest changes was the implementation of new programs in their detention center.
For a mass media and health class, I had the opportunity to visit the Spartanburg Detention Center and experience something that can only be described as life-changing. Each student took away something different from the experience, but here’s what I learned and what I'll never forget:
1. Being in jail doesn’t necessarily mean you’re guilty.
One of the first lessons learned that day was there's a difference between being arrested and being convicted. Most people who are put in jail are people who were arrested and are awaiting their court date, not actual convicted felons.
After their court date, if these people are proven not guilty, they can continue with their everyday lives, granted they're not placed on probation. This was essential to understanding the people we would encounter during our tour. We were about to encounter possibly innocent citizens who are sitting in a jail cell because they don’t have enough money to bail themselves out.
In a similar light, there are people who actually committed a crime roaming freely around the county because they were wealthy enough to bail themselves out. All they have to do is wait for their court date. This is extremely unfair, in my opinion, but this is just how our justice system works.
2. You eat where you sh*t.
Jail is no joke, and the inmates we talked to made sure we understood this. When the tour began, I didn’t think we would actually be able to walk around the jail and see how these people lived.
One of the first rooms we saw was a room for three female inmates. The sheriff asked them to step outside for us to see it, but there was really nothing to see.
All these women had was a small room equipped with a bunkbed, a twin-sized mattress on the floor next to them and about 3 feet of space between each bed.
There was a small sink and a small toilet. There is no cafeteria at the detention center, and the food is delivered directly to their cells. There was absolutely no room for activities that involved any kind of physical movement.
3. You can't judge circumstances you've never experienced.
As soon as the sheriff asked the three women to step outside, they respected his orders and walked out, backs against the wall. One of them was holding a book, which is not something I would typically expect from an inmate.
When the sheriff asked them to say a few words to the young women touring the detention center, what they had to say changed my perception of them almost immediately. They were all mothers. One of them had been in jail every year since 2007.
“And why do you think you keep coming back?” asked the sheriff.
“Drugs,” she said.
Her voice, her sad eyes and her story were powerful enough to make me view her differently. And that’s when it hit me: It’s wrong to judge someone before hearing his or her story.
4. It’s never too late.
The Spartanburg County Detention Center has many programs that are used to encourage the inmates’ mental health. They implemented GED programs in which the inmates can earn a degree after participating for a couple of months.
The sheriff told us a story about a boy who was 23 years old. The court decided he was innocent, so he was forced to leave the facility before finishing his GED course. He begged the officers to let him stay and finish.
After many arrangements, he was able to graduate. The determination some of these inmates exhibited is something we all can take a lesson from.
This boy actually wanted to stay in prison in order to finish his education. That is admirable.
With determination, people can take the people they were and turn themselves into something entirely different and positive. They can become the people they want to be. With a strong mind and good intentions for oneself, anything is possible.
Many of these people are way beyond the point in their lives where they need to be worried about getting a GED, but they recognized it’s a necessary step in becoming successful in this world, especially after being arrested and imprisoned.
It’s never too late to go back to school or even teach yourself something new. It’s never too late to do something you’ve always wanted to do, but never could. And it’s definitely never too late to successfully become the person you always dreamed of being.
5. It could be anyone.
The sheriff who gave us the tour made sure we knew the risks of being an irresponsible adult.
"Every single person in this room is one bad decision away from ending up at a detention center," he said.
Think about how many bad decisions we all make or how many bad decisions our friends make that can send them to a detention center, but these decisions (luckily) go unnoticed by the law. It’s important to think about that every time someone is about to make a irrational decision, like driving a car after one too many beers.
My trip to South Carolina was an extremely educational one. Anyone we know — even ourselves — may end up in jail because of the way our justice system is set up.
I’m not trying to minimize the actions of some of these inmates. Some of them have done a lot of bad things, and they know that. I’m trying to show our communities that just because someone is in jail or has been to jail, that doesn't mean he or she is necessarily a bad person.
We need to make sure others know how important it is to never judge a book by its cover because you can never truly understand someone else's circumstances. But, you can try and put yourself in other people's shoes, just like I did by spending a day at the Spartan County Detention Center. At the end of the day, that makes all of us more human.