I’ve been hearing positive things about how the Chelan County Regional Justice Center has been operating and was anxious to learn more about it.

I chatted with Chris Sharp, who took over as director of the justice center on April, after 20 years with the agency, most recently as the chief deputy of administration, and also with Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay, whose career in law enforcement has given him insights into what it takes to run an effective jail.

Sharp

Christopher Sharp

Chelan County Regional Justice Center

Kevin Overbay

Kevin Overbay

Chelan County commissioner

One thing that jumped out for me was that Sharp and Overbay both take a refreshingly human approach to operating the jail.

By that I mean, they expressed what I think is an enlightened perspective that inmates are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect while at the same time corrections officers deserve to have the tools they need to maintain their own health and well-being, as well as that of those who are incarcerated in the facility.

I appreciate this enlightened and logical approach. As Sharp and Overbay explained it, creating a constructive working relationship in the jail is far more effective than treating individuals who are incarcerated as less than human. George Floyd was treated as less than human in his interaction with a Minneapolis police officer and it ended his life. That’s the last thing we need in North Central Washington.

“These are still people. They are still human beings,” Overbay said.

Overbay and Sharp believe that a model program can be created here that addresses the needs of those who are in our jail. Sharp is adamant that he wants to be a difference maker in terms of creating a highly effective organization and also in the lives of the inmates.

Effective leadership in the jail requires what he calls a “fine balance” of being there for the inmates and that they matter as human beings while at the same time making sure they know “that you’re going to do the right thing” and hold them accountable.

What will it take to get there? Sharp and Overbay agreed that it will take smart investments to enhance safety, security and well-being, and a consistent training program to give corrections officers the tools to handle the challenges they face, not the least of which is inmate mental health issues.

The transformation of the corrections facility started a few years ago when the commissioners appointed retired State Patrol leader Bill Larsen as interim director. Larsen guided a restructuring of the leadership team.

Larsen discovered that the organization had some strong internal leaders like Sharp and Sean Larsen who could be developed and implemented a training program to improve their skills and knowledge.

Sharp was elevated to the director’s position based on his performance and his leadership background, including a decade in security for the Air Force.

He’s a passionate believer in participatory management that focuses on constant communication with the staff and staying close to the work of the corrections officers. Sharp pulls shifts serving meals and doing other work to see what is happening in the facility.

Outside of the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest single issue for the jail is that perhaps 80 percent of the inmates have mental health and/or addiction issues, Sharp said.

Other challenges included a serious problem keeping drugs out of the jail and the lack of a camera system to monitor cells in case of an emergency or an assault.

Sharp said these recent investments by Chelan County commissioners are having a big impact on the challenges: a closed-circuit television system, the addition of a K-9 unit, the addition of a second mental health professional and the installation of a high-tech scanner to detect drugs in mail.

Installation of a scanner to detect drugs hidden in body cavities will further improve security.

Corrections officers typically don’t get the recognition and respect that, say, other law enforcement folks get, Sharp pointed out. “But it is a noble profession and people need to hear that from their leadership.”

The Chelan County Regional Justice Center opened 36 years ago this August, and much has changed.

Overbay thinks the best solution for the long term might be in the development of a regional diversion facility for those with mental health and/or substance abuse. Based on successful models currently in practice throughout the United States, the facility would accept and provide services to those individuals that entered either under a voluntary commitment or by a court order; ultimately providing the necessary one on one treatment that is currently not available.

Finding ways to encourage individuals to get mental health service or get off drugs would shift them from being a burden to society into contributors. Now that’s an enlightened perspective.

Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at rwoods@wenatcheeworld.com or 509-665-1162.