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Inside the stone walls


Modern approach to age-old problem of crime, punishment



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January 27, 2010
Editor's note: This is another in a series of columns by Doug Hunter as he rides along with deputies from the St. Clair County Sheriff's Dept. The opinions expressed are the writer's and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

An English poet in 1649 said "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage."

Since I began writing about the crimes faced and endured by the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department and the citizens of our county many have asked me the same question: "What is it like in jail?"

The poet has it right. It is a lot of things. Stone and iron are all that is visible. To most, there is much more.

Jail can be different things to different people. Years ago it was like a university to the criminally inclined. Thoughts, plans, strategies and wisdom about ways to become "successful" were passed between the bars, much like a professor at any accredited university lectures to his students. The only difference was in college the lessons last maybe two to four hours per week. In jail or prison it was 24/7 until release date, a training so intense a prisoner with all the good intentions of going straight goes south when freedom returns. Minor criminals graduate to committing more serious crimes. The methods and intellect make them even harder to apprehend. They become professionals, hybrids that know all aspects of the law and how to avoid the consequences of bad behavior.

The more modern approach is to educate and to segregate the prisoners and interrupt and eradicate the mentoring by the hardened convicts. This is the theory behind the St. Clair County Detention and Intervention Center, which opened in the fall of 2005.

When Sheriff Tim Donnellon appointed me to the Drug Task Force Advisory Committee in August 2009, I vowed to learn as much as possible and write about it. Since that appointment I have spent six nights in jail and countless times witnessed deputies taking individuals to the institution when they're apprehended.

I fully believe the more modern approach to meting out punishment is a move in the right direction, but time is the only jury whose verdict will determine this theory.

The county internment center is broken up seven "Pods" for holding prisoners, each distinct from the others. There's also an assessment area, booking with single cells which is designed for very short term incarceration. If you're arrested for drunk driving and you're combative, belligerent or obnoxious, you're put into a glass enclosed single cell, always visible. If you're like most detainees, you can sit in a chair and watch television until you sober up enough to be released. This freedom is a reward for good behavior. The whole jail system is based on this idea.

Upon entering the internment center you are searched and assessed to determine if you need special care. A nurse on staff determines if you need medical attention, require special care or should be sent to the emergency room. When daily medication is required, the nurse administers the prescription drugs. After you're pronounced fit, you are booked and formally charged for your crime. A mug shot and fingerprints are taken, a prior record pulled from the computer. You're questioned by a corrections deputy to help assessment deputies determine which pod you'll be sent to. These officials are very good at their tasks.

I notice most of the time the encounters are on a first name basis. I ask the deputy if this is a strategy or just a way to be personable.

"No," he says. "Most of these people are habitually in here for the same offense. They're almost like family. Some of these guys, if you don't see them regularly, you worry about them."

Others, he tells me, are mentally challenged and should be in a mental facility. Some, if the weather is bad or they're hungry, commit a simple crime to get arrested.

The deputy tells me of one guy who goes to the same party store and takes a 12-pack of beer and runs out the door to the same tree and sits beneath it. When the police arrive, the officer takes the unopened beer back to the party store and brings the man to jail. He usually gets sentenced to 90 days of incarceration, but shelter, food and health care is what he seeks. These prisoners are sent to Pods A and B. Some of these will move into C Pod, a place for trustees; prisoners who perform work details inside the jail and are eligible for work release. A popular spot is the kitchen and meal delivery to the detainees.

D Pod is the home of aggressive individuals. Those being held for or sentenced for assaults, resisting arrest and domestic violence. These detainees are young, restless and aggressive. They are monitored closely—some will be sent down to A or B where security is more relaxed once they prove to the corrections officers that they can maintain control and get along with others.

Aggression, threats or violence will move these prisoners immediately to F and G pods and possibly the single cells located there.

The female detainees are located in E Pod. This Pod is broken up into four units, each for different classes or types of prisoners. Pods A through E hold 80 persons each and are guarded by one corrections officer. Another deputy floats between the pods for added security. The guard is stationed in a raised central location. A computer that activates only doors is in their respective jurisdiction. Cameras offering a total view of the structure are mounted. These same cameras send a constant streaming view to a central control station located in another area of the jail. This station controls all doors in the entire building. There is no access to anywhere in the jail without that approval. An armed deputy sits in the master control room locked inside, surrounded by viewing screens and controls for every entrance and exit and pod.

A shoulder radio is part of corrections officers' uniforms, their only method of defense other than the cameras that continually monitor their every move.

Pods F and G are maximum security. The most vile here. Two officers are stationed in each with a third roving between them. These units contain high risk, violent individuals and those who must be separated from others.

F Pod is equipped to handle those who are handicapped or are going through drug withdrawal. I have seen some of the prisoners go through this, it is a sad sight to witness their body react to the process.

Child molesters are also located here in single cells, locked separately to protect them from the other prisoners. These are the most despised detainees of all in the jail. Murderers are respected and even looked up to by other inmates but child molesters and rapists are seen as targets. To the criminal mind, attacking them violently is a way to gain respect.

G Pod is the home of the worst of the worst hardened, seasoned criminals. These prisoners will probably never be free to torment or threaten society again.

The night I visit F and G Pod in December, there are three convicted killers awaiting transfer and four alleged killers awaiting trial. These two pods also contain federal prisoners, some awaiting trial and others transfers. They are for the most part high-level drug dealers included in multi-state drug rings or those captured smuggling drugs into the country. Corrections officers estimate that as much as 50% or higher of inmates being held are for crimes related to drug abuse.

What poet Richard Lovelace observed in 1649 was right. The unheralded men and women corrections officers are the prison. The stone signifies their resolve to maintain control and be the cornerstone of the theory of law and order. The iron is their resolution cast in courage to be able to uphold and preserve the standards of society when the odds are overwhelming. They are the unsung heroes that daily protect us.

Doug Hunter is a lifelong Capac resident, a farmer, historian and writer. His great-great grandfather, Noble Hunter, founded the Capac Journal in the late 1800s.
Castle Creek
10 - 18 - 17
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