Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Truth, Part 2: Jailhouse Blues

Continuing my report on the Leadership Ann Arbor Law Enforcement Day (you might want to read part 1 first).

As I mentioned yesterday, my group toured the Washtenaw County Jail. Our guide, Lt. Gary Greenfield took us all through the complex. Of course, we couldn't actually enter the cell blocks, but we could often see into them from the hallway.

As we toured, Lt. Greenfield told us that the inmates were ostensibly housed in different section under different conditions based on their rating, a score from one to ten, basically from those who were least to most able to get along with others. Due to overcrowding, there weren't very many who scored higher than a six. The score was based on a combination of factors including the crime committed, recent behavior, and extenuating circumstances, including the inmates mental faculties and whether he was going through withdrawal from substance abuse.

Incidentally, the latter was a factor in the only signs of actual violence we witnessed. When someone is first admitted to the facility, the staff processes them through four holding cells. Two of these are reserved for those who are going through withdrawal. While we were there, a young man in his twenties was pacing back and forth in one of those cells. He would periodically slam himself into the plexiglass divider and scream for his drugs. Even being that close to someone so clearly out of control left me a bit unsettled.

Other than that one exception, though, the few inmates we saw were uniformly polite. They would excuse themselves if they had to walk through our group and would respond to any questions the Lieutenant asked them.

This was something that I noticed while there and was underscored by Lt. Greenfield. The officers at the institution go out of their way to interact with the inmates. Apparently this has reduced the incidence of violence. In fact, we stopped by J-Block, which is a dormitory style area housing up to fifty inmates. Looking through the window, we saw that there was only one female guard, Officer Carla Wilson, on duty. When a number of our group expressed concern for her, she came out to tell us about how successful and rewarding her job is, helping these men deal with their problems. She should know -- she's been doing it for 16 years!

Overall, from the people I met, the impression I received from our visit was one of watchful compassion. Despite lack of funding and overcrowded conditions, the goal is to house the inmates without forgetting that they are human.

Officer Wilson put it best when she said, "I'm not just here to watch them. I'm here to ask them how I can help."

More tomorrow.

So, could you handle a job like Officer Wilson's?

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