It’s a pleasure to be here sharing my first post on the Murder Books Blog. Thanks to the crew for letting me contribute.

You might know that I worked in prisons for the better part of thirty years. You get to know a bit about how the system works and a great deal about those who end up there—on both sides of the bars.

At the risk of dating myself, there was a popular song back in the day called, 30 Days in the Hole by Humble Pie. The lyrics talk about a drug-addled, jailhouse-bound guy destined for thirty days in the hole to mend his ways. A cool song that made you want to avoid going to the “hole,” but like most pop culture, it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of life behind bars.

For a few years, I worked in what you might call the “hole.” One of the most common misconceptions about what happens behind the wall is that a cop can throw someone in the “hole” for the slightest reason. And it’s always portrayed in movies as a dank, dark, moldy dungeon.

The reference to the “hole” comes from the Black Hole of Calcutta where upwards of 100 British prisoners died overnight in a small dungeon in the 1750s. Since those historic times, the legend of the “hole” flourished. The first American prisons were built upon the principle that isolation and silence would lead to penitence—marking the penitentiary movement in the 1800s.

Over time, prisons shifted away from isolation and used the practice sparingly to separate disruptive inmates from the general population. In correctional systems across the country, removing an inmate from the general population and placing them into restricted housing comes with a list of procedural safeguards and due process rights.

And it starts with the reason for placement. Contrary to what you’ve seen on television, an officer can’t toss an inmate in “the hole” as a punishment for minor infractions, or to mess with them.

In California, removal from the general population isn’t taken lightly. Placement in limited Administrative Segregation beds is reserved for inmates who pose a risk to staff or other inmates. 

Think of it as a jail within a jail. If you commit a crime in prison—say stabbing another inmate (something frowned upon in polite prison society), you will be removed from the general population and placed in Administrative Segregation (Ad/Seg) pending a disciplinary hearing.

The Security Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison.
  • You’ll have the right to a written notice of the charges against you.
  • A lieutenant must approve the initial placement, and it’s reviewed by a captain or higher management level staff member within 24 hours.
  • You have the right to a timely hearing on the charges.
  • You have the right to call witnesses.
  • You have the right to have a staff member collect evidence for you.
  • You have the right to appeal Disciplinary Hearing Officer’s finding.

So, what happens if they find someone guilty of an in-prison offense, like that pesky stabbing assault? What are they going to do? Send them to prison? Well, yes. Yes, they are.

A guilty finding for that offense could earn a 12-month term in a Security Housing Unit (SHU). Think maximum security units, like Corcoran, Pelican Bay, or Supermax Florence, Arizona.

Main Corridor at Pelican Bay

Confined to a cell for 22 hours a day, the inmate may have dayroom access with their cellmate. SHU doesn’t mean solitary confinement. They have access to a small exercise yard, a law library, visiting, medical and mental health treatment, and purchase items from the canteen. The SHU inmate may even have their television in the cell.

Working in a unit of violent inmates in SHU is considered a high-stress assignment. You know what you’re dealing with and what you can expect from them. Throwing urine through the cell bars at officers as they pass a food tray into the cell is far too common. We all wore stab-resistant vests on the tier because you never knew when the next assault attempt would happen—and it will happen.

The idea is to remove the most violent, disruptive influences from the general population to allow those on the mainline to do their time without threats of violence or extortion.

Going to the “hole” isn’t arbitrary. You earn your way there and you can earn your way back out, starting with keeping sharp stabby objects away from others.

James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been twice nominated for the Silver Falchion for Best Procedural Mystery and Best Thriller, as well as The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include Dead Drop, Black Label, At What Cost, Bury the Past, and Little River. You can find out more at www.jamesletoile.com 

7 thoughts on “30 DAYS IN THE HOLE

  1. Reblogged this on James L'Etoile and commented:

    I’ve been invited to contribute to the team over at Murder Books. It’s a roster full of authors who know how the system really works.

    Pop culture, television, and movies rarely get the details right. They’ve made most believe if you’re in prison, you can get tossed in the “hole” for no reason other than to mess with you. Let’s take a look at what really happbens:


  2. Thanks, Jim, for a very informative post. I have enormous respect for those, like you, who spent a career in corrections. When I was an officer in the Army Military Police, I was assigned as the Commander of the Area Confinement Facility at Fort Ord for a few months. Although in the Vietnam era it housed 300 military prisoners, during my time, we averaged 20, most in pre-trial, awaiting court martials. Long sentences were served at Leavenworth.

    A military prison is nothing like where you worked, but I still found it unnerving to arrive at work and request, “Crack One,” to have a guard electronically open one gate, and then when that one was closed and I was inside, to order, “Crack Three,” to have the door opened that led to the admin area and my office. I always worried my guards would not open the doors for me when I wanted to leave.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brian, I was caught in the sallyport between gates on more than one occasion… The modern prisons do make it easier calling for an officer to “Crack A Section” or “Yard Door.” In older facilities like Folsom, an officer has to individually key open the cell door lock, go back to the front of the tier, or yell to their partner, “Back Bar!” and a steel bar at the top of the cell door retracts letting 15, or all 30 cell doors open at once. Fun times…


  3. James,
    You are an incredible resource for those of us who will, hopefully, never spend time behind bars. It is hard to write about a place you will never be inside of much less experience it’s day to day cycle. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us and for serving in this challenging career field. Thanks for expanding my knowledge base.

    Liked by 1 person

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