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Do they turn the lights off in jail?

This is a common question for many who are curious about what life is like behind bars in jail. The answer depends on the specific jail facility and their policies regarding lights out times and schedules. In most jails, the lights are turned off at night to allow for a set period of darkness so inmates can sleep. However, there are some variations in how this is handled across different institutions.

Typical Lights Out Policies in Jails

In most jail facilities in the United States, the lights are turned off and/or dimmed at a specified time in the evenings and turned back on in the mornings. This allows for a block of time where inmates can sleep without having bright overhead lights on. The specific times may vary, but 10pm to 6am is a common overnight period where the lights are fully off or dimmed to low levels in jail cells and dorm housing units.

Having designated lights out times helps maintain order in the facility and gives structure to the day for inmates. It encourages healthy sleep patterns which can improve inmate behavior. Low or no lighting overnight also reduces energy usage for the facility.

During lights out times, there is still some minimal lighting from night lights or dimmed hallway lighting. This allows for safety and security within housing units. Corrections officers and jail staff typically have flashlights if needed to navigate during lights out periods.

Variations in Lights Out Policies

While most jails follow a standard practice of turning lights fully off overnight, there are some exceptions and variations:

  • In maximum security or administrative segregation units, the lights may be dimmed at night but not fully turned off.
  • In medical units or for inmates requiring more oversight, night lights may be left on or lights may be dimmed rather than fully shut off.
  • During emergencies or lockdowns, the lights may be left on 24/7.
  • Outdoor security lighting remains on all night.
  • Timers or settings may vary slightly – for example lights dimmed from 11pm to 5am vs. a 10pm to 6am overnight period.

Additionally, the facilities have different ways of controlling the lighting:

  • Manually turning lights on/off at designated times.
  • Using automated controls on timers.
  • Controlling brightness levels through dimmer switches.
  • Using occupancy/motion sensors in some areas to automatically adjust lighting.

So while most jails aim to provide 6-8 hours of darkness at night, how precisely this is controlled can vary.

Exceptions When Lights Stay On

There are situations when jail facilities may leave the lights on 24 hours a day and eliminate the overnight lights out period:

  • Medical reasons – Ill or unstable inmates may need additional overnight monitoring with lights on.
  • Monitoring/safety concerns – Lights may stay on for inmates considered at risk for safety, suicide watch, or medical issues.
  • Disciplinary measures – Keeping lights on can be used to punish problem inmates who are acting out or being disruptive.
  • Understaffing – Some jails keep lights on when short staffed for better visibility.
  • Lockdowns/emergency situations – The facility may go on 24-hour lighting during lockdowns, searches, or emergency incidents.

Keeping the lights on constantly can disrupt sleep and aggravate tensions among the inmate population. So it’s generally only done for specific reasons when needed, not as a standard policy.

Impact of Lights Out on Inmates

Having the overnight period of darkness can have positive and negative impacts on inmates:

Potential Benefits of Lights Out

  • Allows for normal circadian rhythms and adequate sleep.
  • Creates sense of routine and structure in the facility.
  • Gives visual break from being in a bright, artificial environment.
  • Can improve inmate moods and behavior with proper rest.
  • Reduces electricity costs for the jail.

Potential Drawbacks of Lights Out

  • Poor visibility at night can impact safety/security in cells.
  • Some inmates may have trouble sleeping in complete darkness.
  • Disrupts schedules for those used to being awake at night.
  • Limits guard’s ability to monitor inmates overnight.

Most correctional experts agree the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for having standard lights out times in jails whenever possible. But it requires striking the right balance with facility logistics and inmate considerations.

Alternatives to Full Lights Out

While most jails have a set overnight period where main lights are out, there are some alternate approaches:

  • Night lights – Small, dim night lights can provide minimal illumination for safety.
  • Low-level dimmed lighting – Keeping dimmer lights on can avoid complete darkness.
  • Zoned lighting – Certain zones/areas could go fully dark while others remain dimly lit overnight.
  • Motion-activated lighting – Smart sensors activate lights when movement is detected.
  • Individual cell controls – Allow inmates to control own light levels with dimmers.

These methods allow for flexibility in lighting while still promoting the benefits of lights out periods. The specific approach may vary based on the jail’s capacity and technical capabilities.

Lighting Considerations for Jail Design

When constructing new jails or renovating facilities, certain lighting design factors can support lights out policies:

  • Installing occupancy sensors, dimmers switches, and smart lighting controls.
  • Wiring for zone control to allow turning off banks of lights.
  • Back-up battery packs for emergency lighting if needed.
  • Extra security lighting around perimeter.
  • Tinting windows to control daytime glare.
  • Using energy efficient LED bulbs with warmer color temperatures (3000K-4000K).

Good lighting design allows flexibility for brighter daytime illumination and dimmer overnight lighting in jails.

The Bottom Line

In summary, most jail facilities do turn the lights fully off or down to very low levels overnight through a set lights out policy. This fixtures 6-8 hours of darkness to allow inmates to sleep. Exceptions may occur for safety, medical, or disciplinary reasons when lights need to be left on or dimmed rather than turned fully off. Having a period of darkness helps maintain order in facilities and health for inmates. But there is some necessary flexibility based on specific circumstances in the jail. With well-planned lighting design and controls, jails can effectively manage illumination while supporting both inmate rhythms and operational needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do inmates have to sleep when the lights go off?

No, inmates are not forced to sleep when the lights go out in jail. The lights out period just establishes set times for darker overnight hours to facilitate normal sleep rhythms. However, inmates can still stay awake during these times if they prefer, within reason. Corrections officers may intervene if inmates are making excessive noise or disturbance during lights out. But inmates generally have freedom to sleep or stay awake based on personal preference.

Can inmates read or write when the lights go off?

Usually not, since the main overhead lights are turned off or dimmed to very low levels during lights out times in jail. If inmates want to read or write during the overnight hours, they would likely need a small book light or night light. Most jails do not allow for bright individual lighting to be on when main lights are out. Minimal lighting helps enforce that it’s time for quiet and rest. But some facilities may allow very low level personal book lights.

Are jail cells completely blacked out when lights go off?

Rarely. While the overhead lighting is turned off, most jail cells and dorms are not in complete darkness during lights out. A low level of ambient light is typically present from:

  • Night lights or dimmed lights in hallways or common areas.
  • Outdoor security lighting shining through windows.
  • Control room monitor banks and equipment.
  • Under-the-door lighting from adjacent rooms.

So while jail rooms are significantly darker at night, some minimal light sources typically prevent them from being completely blacked out when lights are out. Officers may use flashlights as needed.

Can inmates request to keep a light on at night?

In some cases, yes. Many jails will accommodate requests for night lights for inmates who may feel uneasy in complete darkness or need some lighting for security. A doctor’s note may also allow for medical exceptions to standard lights out policies if needed for health reasons. However, there is no guaranteed right to have a light on; it depends on the specific jail’s policies and evaluation of the request. Prior problem behaviors could mean lights out exceptions are denied.

Do maximum security cells stay lit 24/7?

Not always, but maximum security cells may maintain some low level of lighting even during overnight hours. For high risk inmates, the lights are often dimmed rather than being fully turned off to allow for better monitoring. Complete darkness is seen as more of a safety/security issue in max security units. But constant bright lighting is still not typical. Lower level lighting balances visibility needs while allowing for some darkness.


Having designated lights out times in jails provides structure and much needed periods of rest for inmates. But the specifics on lighting policies and practices can vary between different facilities and housing units. Exceptions are made when needed for safety, health, or security reasons. With smart lighting design, jails can accommodate both daytime illumination needs and overnight darkness. But in general, the lights are turned down to allow inmates several hours of lower lighting for sleep during the night. So while exact experiences may differ, most jails do have standard lights out times even if cells are rarely in complete darkness.