From the start, I’ve never been to jail. Never worked in one and have never been placed in one, knock on wood.
That’s good because, according to a report by our staff writer Tony Buhr, the Chelan County Regional Justice Center is not the kind of place anyone should work or be incarcerated.
Nobody likes to spend money on criminals. It’s why the county jail is in the shape it’s in. Politicians get elected promising to get tough on crime, but that doesn’t extend to housing criminals, or suspected criminals. We want them off the streets and it doesn’t seem to matter much where we put them after that.
In a perfect world, all taxes would be spent on parks and schools and roads and pretty things that make us happy. We know garbage goes to a landfill and that our human waste is treated at a treatment facility, but we really don’t want to know the gory details beyond the fact that it’s … gone.
Jails aren’t on the “happy list” and … as a result … wind up in the condition we find the Chelan County jail.
Tony’s visit — and eight months of research — discovered a host of problems that make the county jail a very horrible place to be under any circumstance. The purpose of Tony’s story was to bring the issue out of hiding and into our homes.
How horrible, you ask? Imagine a place where the inmates are literally “running the asylum,” as they say. There are few cameras, so it’s tough for correctional officers to know what’s happening most of the time. Inmates get assaulted every day and there is very little anyone can do about it because “snitches get stitches” and there is no video evidence of the assault.
I know … who cares that inmates get assaulted? We all should. Many of the inmates in a county jail have not been convicted, which means they are “presumed innocent.” Imagine getting pulled over for “suspected DUI” and spending the night in a jail where nobody can guarantee your safety.
The wheels of justice grind slowly and it’s not uncommon for an inmate to spend a year or more in a county jail awaiting trial.
Over recent years, there have been several county jail studies and recommendations, but very few of them have been funded or implemented. It’s probably why there’s been a revolving door in management.
Jail Director Bill Larson — who was named interim a year ago and is leaving at the end of the year — sent a detailed “business proposal” to county commissioners last October.
That report, according to our story, indicated that assaults among inmates were common and that 60 percent of the inmates suffered some form of mental illness.
In a few-hours tour of the jail, our reporter basically discovered a couple of inmates smoking marijuana in a holding area and listened as another inmate bragged about using the electrical outlet to cook hot dogs. The kitchen suggested banning grapes so inmates would stop making their own wine.
To curb bad behavior — such as rubbing feces on the walls — staff offers double hamburgers. I don’t think the kind of person who would do that would be dissuaded by a double cheeseburger.
The “wish list” includes more cameras, a drug sniffing dog, more staff (and more staff training), a body scanner to detect the presence of drugs in body cavities (cough, cough) and “ports” in cell doors so staff can cuff inmates before opening the door. Employees are entitled to a safe work environment.
The solution will cost money that the county doesn’t really have to spend, as it wrestles with myriad other needs. Again … money to house inmates ranks rather low on the “Top 10” wish list. Most taxpayers have never been to jail and, therefore, are disconnected from the “emotional tug” you need for funding.
Where do you think inmates rank against children, the elderly, animals, roads, parks and recreation? Even “the homeless” get more attention than inmates who may, or may not, have committed a crime.
Public safety always scores high, but …again …that just includes arresting the bad guys and getting them off the streets. The public generally doesn’t care what happens after that, which is why our correctional system isn’t really correcting anything.
So what’s the answer?
Obviously, the county needs to spend some money to at least address the minimum needs. The cost will be incurred one way or another anyway. There are laws that mandate how inmates (and county employees) must be treated and lawsuits are expensive.
There is also the “humane” aspect that guides how we treat every human being.
Ultimately, we must decide how important public safety really is and commit to pay the bill from beginning to end. It does no good to arrest suspected criminals if we have no way to deal with them in a legal, safe and compassionate fashion.
Jeff Ackerman can be reached at 665-1160 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.