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Locked up: A tour of the SLO County jail 

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the SLO County Jail on April 28, was the smell. 

It was a mix of the antiseptic cleaning chemicals and the organic scent that exists when large numbers of humans are forced to live within a confined space. It was nearing lunchtime when I walked in, and the smell of the food (cafeteria food always smells exactly the same no matter what the actual food item is) added yet another olfactory layer to take in. 

click to enlarge BEHIND BARS:  A tour of the SLO County jail was a window into our criminal justice system. - PHOTO BY CHRIS MCGUINNESS
  • BEHIND BARS: A tour of the SLO County jail was a window into our criminal justice system.

The smell wasn’t necessarily unpleasant or overpowering, just odd. It was a completely utilitarian smell, born not of a desire to please anyone, but comprised starkly of the sum of its parts, both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It was the same feeling I had about the jail itself, which I checked out as part of an annual public tour hosted by the SLO Sheriff’s Office during National County Government Month. 

For someone like me—who’s never been arrested, booked, or spent the night in any county lockup before—the facility was a mash-up of contradictions. Sure, this was a place where men and women, some of them dangerous, were housed away from law-abiding residents under the careful scrutiny of correctional deputies, but the menace exists side by side with the mundane, familiar, and everyday.

As we walked the halls, we saw all the iconic aspects of incarcerated life one would expect. The bare, concrete yard where the inmates get exercise, the communal dorm-style “pods” where they slept on bunk beds; the tall doors of the cells where the more dangerous inmates live alone, spending 23 hours each day inside; rough hands wrapped around old-school iron bars in the section of the facility they referred to as “the old jail.”


But for every object or experience that was alien to me (the isolation cells, for example, that were bare of anything save a hole in the floor to function as a toilet) there were constant reminders that the jail was, at its heart, a human endeavor. I saw men and woman hunched over phones as they spoke with their families on the jail’s phone and video visitation system. I watched them play cards in the pods, or stand and talk in shafts of sunlight in the yard. 

Later, in a box filled with odd, ugly looking homemade weapons confiscated from inmates, I saw an intricate Oakland Raiders logo carved out of a bar of soap, a testament to the fact that there is creativity, talent, and even beauty in places you wouldn’t really think to find it. 

While we tend to think of our criminal justice system as cold, calculating, and mechanical, it’s still essentially made up of people. For all that jails and prisons represent to those outside that system, the reality is these places are a microcosm of the human experience. There is hope, anger, joy, despair, violence, boredom: everything good and bad, everything wasted and redeemable about ourselves distilled and packed into a single space. 

It’s a lot to take away from a short tour of single county jail. But I’m glad I went, and if given the chance, you should too. As a country, we are finally taking a hard look our criminal justice system. From the state’s public safety realignment, to questioning the use of solitary confinement, to rethinking harsh sentencing for drug offenses, to coming to grips with the role that systemic and historic racism plays in the overwhelmingly lopsided numbers of people of color in the prison system, these are issues those of us in the free world get to discuss over coffee and a morning newspaper, or in Facebook comments, far from the reality of the people directly impacted by those very issues. When we pass up chances to get closer to that system and the people in it, we are doing a disservice to ourselves as citizens, and forgetting our role in our own government. 


The jailers, judges, sheriffs, and our lawmakers are simply stewards of the citizens, and we can’t forget that it’s really up to us to weigh and carefully consider these issues; to investigate, participate, and not forget how our decisions ripple out to other people, who despite their bad choices are more like us than we sometimes want to admit.

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.


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