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Holding Cells

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From across the property counter, a heavyset, middle-aged white man takes my name, height, weight, address, backpack, and belt. After a “good luck” and a hand shake, my arresting officer disappears through the heavy steel door we just entered.

Staring Kid

I have now been placed in the custody of the “holding cell” block of the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center on Ajo Way, just south of Tucson, Arizona. I’ll wait here either until my parents pick me up or until I am moved to a residential cell block. Until then I’ll sit. Sit along with the other kids who’ve gotten into trouble his morning—ones who huff glue or snort cocaine, who steal cigarettes or CDs, who beat each other up in front of cheering audiences of middle- or high school classmates.

So far, only one person is here today. It’s still early, though, just eleven a.m. He’s in cell 1. The kid is weird, though. He doesn’t fit. He doesn’t wear his hair shaved, doesn’t sport gang colors, or have visible tattoos. Instead, he has a tangled red jungle of a hairdo, he’s wearing a green golf shirt and tight-fitting jeans, and the only color on his pale skin comes from dense red freckles. In front of his cell—where we must leave our footwear out on display—rest a pair of beat-up white high-top Wal-Mart basketball shoes. Distinctly uncool; an unfamiliar sight in here.

“Can I bring a book with me?” I ask the property counter guy, hoping that maybe today I’ll get this little luxury. I’ve been here before. Boredom is likely to kick in soon, and I don’t expect my parents to be in any rush to get me out.

A resentful look from the property guy makes me feel foolish for having asked. “This isn’t a study hall.” Just as well. The Ajo Way holding cells are boring ninety per cent of the time. But then there are periodic little excitements. They pop up unexpectedly, unfolding in minute-long dramas, gripping your attention for a few energetic moments, and marking the passage of time.

Another officer comes from behind the counter to take me to cell 3. I look back at the red-haired kid in number one. He’s staring right at my face. From anyone else I’d take it as a gesture of outright aggression. But I don’t think this kid even realizes he’s doing it. Even though his cell is sixteen feet deep, his face is barely three inches from the large glass panel next to his door. I wonder what he could have possibly done. He doesn’t look like a bad kid. Poor guy. I walk away and he’s still staring, like he’s totally bewildered. He’ll be easy prey for the older, harder, teenage prisoners, if he’s unlucky enough to stay that long.

Girl with Braids

“Take off your belt,” I hear from the property counter, this time in a female voice. I spring to attention, plastering my face to the glass.

The cells, six of them, are all on one side of the hallway running from the entrance and property counter, at one end, to an exit into the residential block, at the other. Instead of gates, the cells have metal doors, painted pink, that open inward on hinges. No handles on the inside, though. And, instead of bars, glass. All the cell doors have large windows built in. Huge glass panels serve as walls separating the front of the cell from the hallway—so staff can observe us, I imagine, but with the consequence of turning everything outside the cells into a show for those inside.

Cell 3 gives an adequate vantage point from which to watch the action. It takes a minute, but using simple geometry I estimate that if the hallway is eight feet wide and the cells are spaced every ten feet, then I can see the action from about a thirty or thirty-five degree angle. It gives me a view of the whole counter area and the edge of the front door.

“Shoes off. Socks inside out.” The officer across the hall, also behind a thick glass panel, has changed. Now it is a short woman with curly orange hair, maybe thirty years old or so. Then again, people aged from their twenties to, say, forty are hard to tell apart. I turn my attention to what’s really interesting: the new prisoner. It is a tall, slender black girl, about my age. She’s the first girl I’ve ever seen in here. She has long, perfectly-braided hair that looks like it took a professional all day to do. Each braid is fastened at its base by a little gold-colored ring. There must be four or five dozen of them. I wonder if they’ll take those away.

She turns and looks at me for a moment. She is smiling and her face is beautiful. The arresting officer, a youngish white man with a thick blond mustache, says something to her and she laughs. She says something back and they laugh again. I can’t see any hostility between the captor and prisoner. They seem to be friends. It’s hard to understand.

The lady who will now be taking all names and belts is off doing something else as the strange pair continues to talk. I don’t care particularly what they’re saying, though. Are they going to take those tiny gold rings out of her hair? I don’t think the prospect has even occurred to the girl yet.

The lady comes back to the property counter. “All right-ee,” she says slowly and pauses. Here it comes! “You need to take those things out of your hair.

Drama! “Excuse me?!” the girl cries and switches her shoulders defiantly. I press forward more intently, maybe as close as a thirty-six or thirty-eight degree angle of view. Under such circumstances, finer points make a big difference. If they take those away—! They must have cost a fortune or at least taken forever to put in. Not to mention—how are they going to take each one of those out? With pliers? Scissors? “I am sorry,” the girl says, chin thrust forward, hands on her waist, as if in control, “but you are not taking my rings!”

I am shocked when the arresting officer backs her up. “Come on,” he says to the property officer, his voice trailing off, and gives a sideways nod.

But the counter lady repeats her demand, “Hand them over!”

The girl shifts to a beseeching tone, “Puh-lease, you ain’t gonna take my rings away, are you?” Astonishingly, after a few more rounds, the girl with braids wins and goes into cell 2, little gold rings and all.

Little Blond Boy

“Take off your belt. Shoes off.”

I leap forward and attach myself to the window again. What the hell is this? Where’s the criminal? All I see is a seven year-old kid with his dad and a Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy. But the boy has his shoes off, so he must have done something. He has short blond hair. He looks around furtively at the rest of us. Scared eyes focus on me for a moment and then recoil. I don’t mean to frighten him, but I can’t look away.

They ask him if he knows where he is. No, he shakes his head, he doesn’t. You’re in jail, little boy! Your dad can’t help you here. Go back home and play with your toys! What did you do anyway?

He goes to cell 5, paraded past every cell, staring at us on his way. Terrified, but just like the rest of us, he is unable to avert his gaze.


No one has come in for what I guess to be about an hour. I look around for any diversion. All over the bench are carvings of names and “tags.” Even the window is inscribed. Under the pink paint of the walls and the bench there is brittle, dark gray concrete. “Li’l Playa”—“player,” I assume, not the Spanish word for “beach”—is scratched unevenly next to my right pants pocket. A little further down is “INSANE,” a familiar street name. Maybe it’s the same guy I know. Some of the names I can’t read, they’re so illegible.

I stick my left thumbnail into the paint and pull out a chunk; easier than I would have thought. I dig more until it’s a “cu.” My nail gets sore, though, so I decide to take a break. Now I understand why the writing is so poor. The paint flakes off so unevenly that it’s difficult to dig with any precision.

Before I can get back to carving a welcome distraction comes along. A fat man with greasy hair barrels down the hallway carrying a tray of brown paper bags. He comes to my door with a goofy smile and mouths the words, “Want a lunch?” Yeah, I nod my head vigorously. Cracking the door a few inches, he hands it to me. Apparently not afraid that I might try to stomp the door shut on his forearm, as a guard in “real” prison would be. “Thanks,” I mumble without looking at his face, only at his hand and the bag. Inside I find a limp bologna sandwich, a mayonnaise packet, an orange, and a carton of milk. I squeeze every last drop of mayo onto the sandwich and gobble it up in three bites. Next I peel the orange, letting its juice drip down my fingers and onto the bench and my blue jeans. On the floor I see an old orange stem, toward which I toss my own. One long gulp of milk later, my lunch is finished. Should have made it last longer—kill more time. I resume work on my carving. The “r” is easy but the “t” comes out a bit mangled. I have to make the “i” with an “x” in place of the dot.


Yet another overweight, middle-aged man lurches up to my door, this time bearing a giant, plastic, accordion-pump plunger in one hand. He gives me a perplexed look, his lower lip sagging as he exhales. He runs the palm of his free hand swiftly from his forehead over his dandruff-dusted hair. With a look of dumb confusion he squeezes the rolls of fat on the back of his neck a couple times. He looks toward the property counter and back again several times before lumbering toward it clumsily.

Quickly I carve as much of the “s” as I can, hopefully enough for the next visitor to recognize my name as “curtis.” The “s” comes out looking a bit like a question mark, though.

The property counter lady is at my door within a few seconds, telling me, “You gotta move.” I was supposed to have been put in cell 4, she says, because 3 has a backed-up toilet.

Moving is like a field trip. For a few seconds I get to walk the hall and entertain everyone else. Without a belt, I have to duck-walk and bunch up the front of my jeans in one fist to keep them from falling down to my ankles, using the other hand to carry my dark brown steel-toed boots. As expected, there are faces pressed against the glass walls of 2 and 5, staring back at me unflinchingly. I briefly take note of the red-haired staring kid in one. He seems to have maintained the same position since I entered. Already I’m anticipating what new amusements cell 4 holds in store.

I take my place and look around for a few moments. The architecture, of course, is identical; only a different collection of tags and names, to which I once again begin to carefully to add my own.

Guy with black jeans and Slayer shirt

“Take off your belt.”

It’s harder to see from the new cell. I guesstimate that from here I have barely a twenty-five degree angle of vision to the counter. I have to strain now just to see the end of it.

This kid has on tight black jeans, a black denim jacket and black sneakers. His dark brown hair is short on top and long in back in the old 1980’s heavy metal style. Already I don’t like him. His black shirt bears the name of the band Slayer, printed to resemble blood dripping from helter-skelter slashes across his chest.

What a loser, I think to myself. The kid is at least fifteen or sixteen, and wearing the style of a middle- or elementary-school child. I hope they don’t stick him in my cell. Something about his face strikes me as lifeless, devoid of personality. I can see that the property counter lady is being especially rude to this kid. He frets over her repeated orders to prove that he has no contraband secreted in his clothing. I wonder if she’s getting some pleasure out of his discomfort. I certainly am.

The arresting officer has stepped into my line of vision now, peering down the row of cells. He looks young for a cop and reminds me of Sean Penn’s character from the movie Colors, cocky and stiff with disdain for the juvenile delinquents he encounters each day. He’s even got a high-and-tight crew cut, as if to give the impression he’s some tough-ass Marine drill sergeant.

They send the long-haired kid in all black down the hall. He glances into each cell quickly as he walks by. I stare him down, but he seems too dull to recognize the implied threat: Don’t come in my cell! Luckily for me, he passes by and ends up stuck all the way at the end of the row, in 6. I doubt he’ll be able to see anything from his window. Good.

The badass Sean Penn-wannabe arresting officer walks along the row behind him, but more slowly. Swaggering, trying to intimidate us. He takes this all so seriously, stern and rigid, oblivious to the fact that we’re staring back because he is our entertainment. To dramatize his contempt he stops at each cell and glares in. Something about his smug look tries to show us that he’s better that the rest of us. He’s not, though. He’s the kind of officer we love to laugh at and taunt whenever we get the opportunity. Dirty scumbag.

“Wow,” he gasps as he gets in front of me. Officer Badass looks at my hair, curling his lip. Maybe, like a lot of adults, he doesn’t like white kids wearing their hair in dreadlocks. He begins speaking directly to me through the glass. “You ought to shave that mess right off and start over.” He stares, waiting for my response. All I can think to do is wink at him. As if compelled to imitate my expression, his left eye starts twitching. His mouth straightens from sneer to grimace. He turns on one foot, military style, and marches back out the door in front, facing straight ahead.


I lay on the bench, drifting in and out of a nap. I hear a faint moaning and slowly realize it’s not a dream. At first I can’t tell if it’s coming from a human, from the plumbing, the ventilation—or what. It continues, a voice—I can tell now—cracking slightly. It sounds like a lame ghost sound from a cartoon for little kids. It gets louder and louder. Whoever it is just keeps moaning and moaning. Nonstop. Five minutes later, it’s still going. Someone in the place is moaning!

I lean forward on the bench and look to the other side of the hall. Through the glass panels running along it I can see the counter lady busily working in a cubicle. Typing, filing, organizing. She’s not even paying attention. It’s too weird. One of the kids is moaning some sort of deafening mock ghost sound, and she’s not even looking up from her computer. I sit up straight and listen to the bizarre sound for at least ten minutes. When it stops abruptly I’m rather disappointed. Still the employee doesn’t look up.

Grinning little fat kid

“Take off your belts.”

Two Indian kids wearing all blue, maybe fifteen and sixteen, maybe from the reservation on the west side, come inside with two officers. I can barely see through a reflection on the glass wall, but there is a third kid, this one much younger, standing outside with his own officer. The first two get taken in right away. One of them is immediately steered into cell 1 with the staring kid, who, as far as I can tell from the reflection, doesn’t even react to his new cellmate. The second is pulled along by his arresting officer, who leads him to my door, stops briefly, and then continues on to place him in six with the heavy metal guy.

Now the third kid comes in, also wearing all blue. He can’t be much more than four feet tall and probably about as wide. I guess that he is only nine years old. At first I can’t quite see his face. But as I watch he turns and looks at each cell, one at a time. There’s something different about this kid, something special. When he looks at me I realize what it is....

He’s laughing! His face is squeezed tight, eyes bulging and shoulders dancing about. With an expression that only little kids seem to make, he is trying to contain the laughter, but he can’t do it. He keeps standing there convulsing and looking up and down the row at us, grinning wider than I’ve seen anyone grin in a long time. I start to laugh a little too. This is great.

He looks at us as if we were all sharing this hilarious joke with him. And he won’t stop laughing! In the reflections I can see that everyone else is smiling and starting to laugh too. Everyone but the staring kid in cell. He still hasn’t moved, I don’t think.

Up until now the fat kid hasn’t quite laughed out loud, only made facial expressions and body spasms. Despite the stern lecture being delivered by his arresting officer the boy grins and shudders with growing amusement. His body twists and turns as he tries to contain his glee. Yet his facial expression is unchanged and the muscles of his upper body only jerk more and more, as if trying to restrain one giant belch of hysterics.

The officer is really mad now. His face is purple with humiliation. “Wipe that grin off your face, young man,” he orders in a tone that might make a weaker boy fall to the ground and cry. But this boy is only encouraged by the infuriated authority figure beside him. Muscles somewhere low in his torso seize up, causing him to bend forward, his shoulders and face lurching out as he explodes in laughter. Now he makes no effort to conceal his utter joy. He laughs in jolt after jolt of unbridled enthusiasm. The rest of us burst out in uproarious laughter too, slapping our windows, escalating the comedy into an irrepressible frenzy.

The cop turns redder now, realizing there is nothing he can do. The kid faces us as he slowly stumbles past, bellowing so forcefully that his eyes are squeezed into narrow slits between his eyebrows and cheeks. His mouth is open so wide it’s as if he’s swallowing up all the emotional energy of his admiring audience. Trying to escape as quickly as possible, the officer rushes the boy down the hall.

It’s all great entertainment. We start hooting and cheering the kid along as the defeated, humiliated officer puts him in cell 5. Everyone is laughing at full volume now. Some of us are hopping up and down. People are kicking and banging the walls and doors. No one even cares what the kid thinks is so funny. It doesn’t matter. It’s the best thing we’ve seen all day. Hell, it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen!

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, freelance sociologist, PhD from UCLA 2009. To contact him, see his website or email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Editor's comment: Now, for those of you who wonder why the forces of law 'n' order decided to apprehend this charming, articulate, young man, I suggest you look at this photograph of Curtis at the time of arrest. The shirt's good, but was he arrested for a hairstyle offence?


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