Editor’s Note: This article describes the necessary and thankless role corrections officers play in keeping the public safe. It contains information from Vera Institute of Justice, Pew Charitable Trust projects, Bureau of Labor Statistics and local professionals.
Action-packed episodes of "Cops," "Alaska State Troopers" and even Bond’s 007 flicks, end with the bad guy in handcuffs.
The police cruiser rides off into the sunset, someone calls a lawyer, and a resident becomes an inmate.
While police officers are well known for negative situations in the news, correctional officers are hardly known at all.
“We’re kind of the janitors of the crowd, the forgotten group,” said Capt. Arlo Blevins, administrator of the McPherson County Jail. “Things are changing nation-wide, not always for the best, and we’re hoping to put a different face on that.”
Since 1970, the number of people in jail has escalated more than four-fold, from 157,000 to 690,000 people in 2014, reports the Vera Institute of Justice. For the McPherson County Jail, Blevins monitors a population of around 50 inmates at the Law Enforcement Center, along with 16 other employees including sergeants, corporals, line officers and one transport officer. Note that none of these job titles include “jailer,” “turn-key” or “warden.”
“I’d technically be the warden, but things have changed. We don’t use those old terms anymore, so ‘correctional officer’ is the politically correct term,” Blevins said. “The old jailer use to be the one guy who has the key, kind of like Andy Griffith letting Otis out, but it’s so much more into writing reports and keyboard skills and statutes now.”
With growing numbers, the job description has changed. There’s more statutes to memorize, reports to write and surveillance technology to learn. Blevins explained the jail administrators like him do a lot less hands-on conflict management and a lot more paperwork.
“This job isn’t just fighting or when not to fight. A lot of the time there’s not much going on,” Blevins said. “It’s similar to road patrol where 95 percent of it is routine, but that little 5 percent is pretty exciting. Every one of my officers has to do paperwork, keeping logs of every time someone moves, since that type of thing comes up in court. It’s not all just physical control — just being a presence if something happens. So there’s plenty of paperwork or there’s always something to clean.”
One of the newest duties of a corrections officer? Mental health assistance.
“State hospitals are losing money, so where do the mentally unstable end up at? In here. That’s not something we’re trained in, so we’re doing new training with psychologists in dealing with suicidal [inmates], multiple personalities, depression. It’s taxing,” Blevins said. “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen with that. We know how to handle people messed up on drugs or [who are] violent, but this goes deeper. It takes more training and resources. It’s not in my job description, but you want to do your best with it.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of correctional officer jobs in the U.S. will grow about 4 percent over the next ten years. However, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project reports that jail populations will grow over 5 percent in the next four years, some jumping 15 percent.
Oddly enough, most of this growth is happening in mid-sized and small counties like McPherson. Jail populations in mid-sized counties have increased 4.1 times since 1970 and 6.9 times in small counties, while large counties only grew about 2.8 times, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Luckily, the jail has plenty of good help. Most county jails act as a stepping stone for individuals starting careers as police officers.
“You learn what you’re made of. Even in McPherson, we can house 60-plus people here easily, so by working here you learn if you can handle it by yourself if someone spits at you, calling your mom names,” Blevins said.
Blevins learned what he’s made of 20 years ago when he started on at the jail. He planned to continue his career as a patrol officer, but he decided to stay, like many of his current employees.
“You have to be 18 to work here and 21 to be on the road, so we’ll have some guys out here who come in to work and then head out to the road. It's not where the flunkies go and it’s not for everybody, but it makes you a better officer and you find your weak spots so you can improve them. Here, you learn how to deal with people who don’t like you, mostly because of the uniform — it’s never personal, but they only see the emblem. We all seek to keep order, and there’s differences in how we do that.”
The only major difference is that correctional officers are enclosed alongside the inmates.
“We have more rights to do searches than road officers because we’re locked up in here with them. If you hit one of us, its a felony; one of them [road officers], it's a misdemeanor,” Blevins said. “All the way up to the appellate court, they’ve supported us in keeping order in here.”
In a world of police brutality and cop-hating, other officers of the law find themselves lumped into stereotypes, just for wearing their uniforms.
Today’s jails have no bars, no metal skeleton keys, no creaky doors or rats, but they’re still just as full with inmates and those who manage them.
Most have recording cameras, high-tech locking mechanisms and polished floors, but few residents will ever see the inside.
“We’re not just the jailers. That use to mean that we just sit and watch someone in a cage, but its much more technical now,” Blevins said. “We go through training, and act professionally, just like any other job. You might see the jail, but you don’t know what’s going on here since we’re quiet.”
Sometimes a quiet jail isn’t a bad thing.
Next week, the Sentinel will look into when the jail isn’t so quiet and what technology Blevins and his staff use to keep McPherson County safe.