Yesterday the news had two jail stories:
- One is the death of a newly sentenced felon facing 80 years in jail who died in what has been described as a "common area" and, though still under investigation by the Sheriff, is already being widely reported as "suicide". So I have questions:
- If someone has been recently sentenced to such a severe sentence with the attendant public shame, would they not as a matter of course be considered at risk for suicide and more heavily monitored?
- Considering the nature of his sentence and the history of the most dangerous incarcerated individuals to placating their own guilt by doing violence to someone they deem "worse" and the fact that suicides in a "common area" are not common because of the less private nature of the space, does this not ask for a robust consideration of other possible causes?
- 200 federal agents descended on this facility this past summer to arrest one inmate and two staff members now charged with trafficking in drugs and other contraband, so if this is a drug induced suicide, will any complicit staff or incarcerated individuals be held accountable?
- Also this day the story broke about a young, robust, male correctional officer who was severely beaten by three to four incarcerated men in administrative segregation. For the uninitiated, "Ad Seg" is used to isolate incarcerated people who are considered either very dangerous (folks with a history of violence, known gang leaders, murderers, a history of violent or unpredictable behaviors, OR those who are considered very vulnerable (who have been the target of credible threats of violence or been victims of violence within the jail previously, the seriously mentally ill, former members of the legal system such as correctional officers, police, judges, attorneys, and "the famous" charged with such heinous crimes that no bail is offered, and those who are presumed to be targets among folks who are in the general jail or prison population), Because of this volatile mix Ad Seg procedures, rules and safety precautions are generally the most stringent in any jail or prison. For instance there are normally at least two COs staffing the area and generally only one incarcerated person is out of their cell at any time*. Yet in the video released today the CO is alone and faced with the choice of "holding his ground" on an upper walkway where, if he was trapped there, was likely to be pitched off to the floor below with force, or to go down the steps and accept that he will be severely beaten by four roaming inmates until his co-workers can show up and get the situation under control. I wonder when he called for help if he realized that it would take more than two minutes for help to arrive; even just watching the video it seems a very long two minutes. No information was provided about the condition of the young man who was beaten. PTSD seems a given and serous physical injury probable.
No, today is not a good day for our local County Executive and County Commissioners. The have spent many months aware of the problems and responding with two separate audits, much posturing and no leadership as the elected county official with the "ultimate" responsibility for the jail was quoted this summer as saying “things happen in a jail” and publicly contradicting the County Prosecutor, County Sheriff and the Presiding Judge of our Circuit Court (all accountable to the voters in this county) about the seriousness of the situation.
So, fellow taxpayers, exactly how bad do things need to get before we are flooding the mail rooms, jamming the switchboards, sending countless emails and standing for justice. Surely the most "law-&-order-means-more-punishment" oriented citizens do not believe that this situation has ANY redeeming parts. A jail where lawlessness prevails is an embarrassment to honest people everywhere. A jail where the most vulnerable of the incarcerated and those who have been asked by us, the public, to be employed there are persistently and frequently subjected to violence, rape, intimidation, filth, lawlessness, and a range of disgusting and dangerous conditions demands each of us be more than appalled.** We must ACT.
Yet there is no public or political or faith-based group calling for County government, Law Enforcement, Prosecuting and Judicial stakeholders leadership to form and support a task force of their folks along with organizations who have been studying and are knowledgeable about responsible changes that are needed. There improvements already initiated in jurisdictions across the country that are proving fiscally prudent, effective in improving public safety, capable of sustaining a tolerable working environment, and meeting their responsibilities to limit punishment to that meted out by the courts. State laws need to be updated so our court system is empowered to make changes reforming those things that are NOT working here in ways that have already been demonstrated to be successful working elsewhere. Where is the sense of urgency to keep our correctional officers safe, to keep those who are incarcerated safe (by far the majority of which are incarcerated more for being poor than being dangerous), for standing for basic human dignity in ways that improve public safety rather than being the essence of unjust, unsafe and unlawful.
There is no evidence that any management personnel have been held accountable for failures in their areas of responsibility. We have not been given assurances that possible complicity by management in criminal behavior by staff is being investigated locally either by the Sheriff or by the County officials with personnel oversight responsibility.
With all the myriad of problems from criminal charges to civil lawsuits, to fiduciary irresponsibility by public officials, to what may be the most hostile working conditions outside of a war zone, I begin to believe that ONLY returning to Federal Oversight*** (neither a cost effective not particularly efficient option) may be the only hope for the poor, the disenfranchised and those employed at the Jackson County Jail.
The longer we are complaisant, the more our public elected officials fail to meet the most minimal of human needs by the staff, the burgeoning incarcerated population and their families. Not one of us is safer because this is being allowed to await federal or state judicial intervention.
When the righteous cry out, the Lord listens;
he delivers them from all their troubles.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
he saves those whose spirits are crushed. Psalm 34: 17-18
* People incarcerated in Ag Seg generally only get one hour a day out of their cells for exercise although even this can be withheld for the most violent/unpredictable or due to staffing shortage, a chronic problem in jails and prisons across the country and a major, long-term problem at our local jail.
** the Jail's website touts the nearly $3 million dollars spent this summer to repair 488 doors. Surly the lack of doors capable of keeping the person INSIDE the cell safe from violent offenders is a basic responsibility of any jail or prison and a basic need to keep correctional officers safe. Might such a cell being available to the CO who was assaulted so heinously have provided time to get help to him before he was beaten so severely?
*** For roughly two decades, starting in the 1980s, the jail was operated under the direct supervision of the federal court. That oversight ended only after officials added beds to ease overcrowding concerns.