by Timya Owen
On a recent cold and very gray November morning, I chose to spend the day inside…way inside…touring the Dakota County Jail with fellow members of Twin Cities Sisters in Crime.
(Lesson one…there is no huge, looming signage on the building identifying it as a JAIL nor is it surrounded by tall, barbed wire topped fences and guard towers. In fact, it’s across the street from Walmart. No joke!)
The Dakota County Jail is a new generation ‘Direct Supervision’ jail. This means Correctional Deputies have control of inmates 24 hours a day in each of 6 housing units. This direct monitoring ‘creates an environment of close supervision that allows direct interaction between inmates and deputies.’
Our tour guide was Emily Clary, Inmate Services Outreach Coordinator with the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office. You might recall that Emily spoke at our November TCSinC meeting sharing information about the Dakota County Jail and highlighting the many inmate programs the jail programs team has developed and coordinates. Emily was recently recognized for her work with two awards – the 2014 Minnesota Sheriff’s Association Programmer of the Year and the Minnesota Community Correction Association’s 2014 Robert H. Robinson Service Award. Congrats, Emily!
We met in the lobby and began our tour in the intake area. Sergeant Scott Fuchs joined us there and patiently answered a multitude of questions as he walked us through the steps new inmates take when they are processed. We watched Correctional Deputies as they made their rounds and heard that there are fewer meth arrests these days. I’m an optimist so I choose to take that as good news. On the other hand, mental illness and suicide attempts are all too common.
(Lesson two…padded cells are not padded.)
An array of colorful handcuffs hung from a metal bench in one of the intake areas. My first thought was that the colors were used to classify various inmate offenses. Nope. In reality, colored cuffs are more easily identified which discourages other agencies from ‘borrowing’ them. Apparently no self-respecting officer wants to slap pink handcuffs on a perp.
We saw several murals designed and completed by inmates including this one in the gymnasium.
Another large mural decorates the hallway leading to the Inmates Motivated to Change Unit (IMC). It was designed and painted by members of the unit. I was struck by the image of the late Nelson Mandela and the message that some prisons are made by man and others we make ourselves.
We spent quite a bit of time in the IMC unit with Correctional Deputies Phil Simpson and Joe Engesser. The IMC unit had the feel of a small college dormitory. Each of the small rooms house two inmates in this two level unit which wraps around a central area filled with benches, a rack of library books, vending machines, and a large TV. The Gopher game was on…they were losing. (The maximum security unit was much more austere.)
(Lesson three…no bars on the doors, walls or windows but ‘sally port doors’ secure each and every area.)
Deputy Simpson showed us the evaluation forms used to determine which unit inmates will be assigned to based on threat level and past history. He also outlined a day inside…very structured with specific times for meals and attending various programs (AA, GED, Bible Study, Anger Management, etc), scheduled lockdowns, etc. He also answered a barrage of questions ranging from why are the toilets so low to caloric intake of meals served. The toilet question was a first for him. Can you guess why they are so low?
(Lesson four…mixing ramen noodles with crushed Doritos makes for a mighty tasty meal.)
By the way, Deputy Engresser (who is also a professional cartoonist) has graciously agreed to speak at an upcoming TCSinC meeting on the role of humor in corrections. You can catch his work and wit at http://jailerjoe.com/
One stop on our tour was a room filled with various colored tubs and racks of hanging bags (similar to garment bags). Inmate possessions are kept in this area. There were also racks of donated clothing to be given to inmates upon their release or those in work release programs needing appropriate clothing. Someone admitted in June and released in November would be provided with the appropriate outerwear if requested. Charging stations for cell phones are also provided.
It was sad to see the tubs marked 90 days and 30 days. These are filled with the possessions of inmates who have been transferred to prison. They are asked to have family or friends pick up their possessions within 90 days. If no one arrives, the possessions are moved into tubs marked 30 days and the inmate is given an additional 30 days. After that, the belongings are disposed of (any appropriate clothing is salvaged, cleaned and donated to inmates being released). There were a lot of 30 day tubs. Some of these guys have burned a lot of bridges and have no one.
More than once during our tour, I was struck by the attitude of the staff at the Dakota County Jail. There is enormous compassion for these inmates and a respect for boundaries. More than once we heard ‘everybody is somebody’s kid.’ It really busted through the bad cop stereotypes enforced on TV and in movies.
There is obvious dedication to providing these guys the help and direction they need on the inside in order succeed on the outside.
(Lesson five…Recidivism. The tendency to lapse into a previous pattern of behavior, especially a pattern of criminal habits.)