Mother Jones

LEFT IN THE DARK

Nighttime is the worst possible time to release inmates. So why do so many jails do it?

THE LAST BUS of the day pulls away from the parking lot outside the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, at 8:43 p.m. Twenty minutes later, a young woman pulls up the hood of her dark jacket, pushes open the jail lobby’s heavy door, and steps out into the night, looking for a cigarette.

Leah, as I’ll call her, is not the only just-released inmate trying to score a smoke. “Who’s got a fucking cigarette?” yells a man bursting through the door behind her. Near the bus stop, Leah finds a butt burned almost all the way to the filter. Clutching it, she approaches me for a lighter. I don’t have one; I offer her my cellphone instead. Leah, whose voice is shaking, wants to call her mom. She’s planning to take the train home. It’s a 35-minute trek, in the dark, to the station.

When her call goes to voicemail, Leah becomes distraught.

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