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What is a Drunk Tank?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A drunk tank is a facility used to detain people who have been arrested for public intoxication. In urban areas, it may be a series of large jail cells in which multiple prisoners are deposited overnight to sleep off their intoxication, and in smaller communities, regular jail cells may do double-duty as the drunk tank as needed. Generally, people are released from the cells the next morning, after they have sobered up.

Public intoxication can be a problem for a variety of reasons, and different law enforcement agencies have different ways of dealing it. Generally, arrest is used when police officers are concerned that someone may be injured as a result of intoxication, or when a drunk might injure someone else. Drunks are also simply regarded as a public nuisance in some regions, as they are considered unpleasant or unsightly to encounter. In addition to spending the night in the drunk tank, the prisoner may also be expected to pay a fine or to do community service.

Picking drunks up and temporarily detaining them can be preferable to leaving them in the streets, where they could get into trouble, but the drunk tank isn't without problems. If a mixed group of prisoners is detained together, people may argue or fight, and the prison must also provide basic amenities for detainees, like blankets and toilets. If someone is injured or becomes sick in these cells, this also becomes the responsibility of the police, and it can generate administrative problems.

Drunk tanks aren't just for drunks. Some agencies use them to detain people who are high on drugs, again on the argument that the prisoner may pose a danger to him or herself or others. If people are detained as a result of consuming illegal drugs, they may face criminal charges, depending on the laws of the region.

As an alternative to the drunk tank, some law enforcement agencies prefer to transport people to their own homes if they are intoxicated in public. This removes drunks from the public, where they might be a danger, but doesn't penalize them by forcing them to spend the night in jail. It can also provide an opportunity to talk with housemates, parents, or partners about the situation.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Mar 05, 2014

Trouble? What trouble could possibly result from taking a bunch of people who are so drunk they couldn't hit the ground with their hats and putting them in a cell together? Drunks and confinement make for a terrible combination, particularly on weekends on or certain holidays in areas where intoxication appears to be the preferred past time.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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