Jails age — fast.
Jails age — fast. Facilities open 24-hours every day, such as jails, age four times faster than standard buildings, simply because they’re open at all times, explained Cpt. Arlo Blevins of the McPherson County Jail.
“We get a lot of compliments on how clean it is, but we’ve already had a new roof put on, so it’s only a matter of time before something else needs to be replaced,” Blevins said. “We’ve been open every day since 1994, so if you add it up, we’re getting pretty old.”
As facilities age, they’ll need more improvements. However, these improvements are getting safer, both for the inmate and the correctional officer.
Blevins explained that technological updates can make a difference in how inmates are monitored and how correctional officers prevent anything from fights to escapes.
“Technology is the wave of the future, and luckily, it’s getting cheaper,” Blevins said.
For example, a number of jails nationwide have implemented a video visitation service, like Skype, rather than using the traditional phones and pane of glass conversations during visitation. These devices are still expensive now, but they could allow inmates to search for jobs or work on their education with limited online capabilities, as well as speak with loved ones.
“The idea behind that is that you don’t want to move people unless you have to, because that’s a step toward keeping the officers safer,” Blevins explained. “There was an instance where a guy was coming back from speaking with his lawyer, so I was moving him back to the pod, and he must have been frustrated from that conversation because the next thing I knew, he was swinging at me. Had we had the ability to do video visits where they could stay in the pod, we could monitor the calls and make sure nothing improper is going on and keep our officers safe.”
Numerous studies point to the importance of visitation — connectivity to family reduces recidivism rates, facilitates reentry and promotes relationships between parents and children, reports the Vera Institute of Justice.
“When the family comes in, you get to know them a little bit and understand what’s going on. The only issue is when families have to travel a long distance,” said Officer Jamie Hoffman at the McPherson County Jail. “I think some of these guys are impacted when they see their families here. They maybe feel a little embarrassed when their child sees them in jail-issued stripes behind the glass, so I think that has some effect. But it’s hard to get out of that life because these people are your whole life, so once you leave, its not easy to make brand-new friends and start everything over.”
But when it comes to video visitation services, most can be expensive for families using them, or jails will eliminate personal visits altogether, reports the Vera Institute of Justice. Even phone calls can rack up a cost, explained Sgt. Grace Henderson of the McPherson County Jail.
“Unfortunately, it’s not cheap and that’s the way it goes with the phone companies. It’s hard because you want to help them out, but we can’t break policy,” Henderson explained. “When they use the phone, they can pay for their calls through their bank account or they call collect after their one free phone call. One main complaint with that is that someone stole another guy’s phone time, but phone calls aren’t a right, they’re a privilege. You can always write letters. That’s a big means of communications in here when they’re communicating with lawyers — they’re cheaper than calling and waiting on hold since they’re charged for every second.”
With budget cuts across the nation, correctional departments are doing their best to make sure ends keep meeting. Luckily, McPherson County breaks that mold.
“Jails are out of sight, out of mind, so I don’t think they’re quite a priority for everyone,” Blevins explained. “Our county commissioners are very supportive and work with us when we do have a surprise purchase. We’re not in dire straits by any means, but it’s still a challenge.”
Hoffman, who spends much of her time booking new inmates, explained that she hears quite a bit about how McPherson County jail compares to others in the area from repeat offenders.
“From what I hear, we’re doing pretty good. It could be from funding, or just the way it’s run,” Hoffman said. “Some have people stacked up everywhere, or they don’t get a pillow, just a blanket. But if they don’t like something or something’s not right with their cell, they’ll get pretty agitated, because its like their home. It’s the little things that become an issue because that’s all they have. We have TVs, which are great because they take a lot of attention, so if we can occupy their time with something extra like that, then they feel a little more calm because they’re not thinking about those little things.”
One way for jails to make income for improvements? Farming out — shifting inmates from an overcrowded jail to available beds in a nearby facility.
“Our numbers have always been lower, but now we’re doing a bit more farming, which is housing inmates for other facilities and we charge them for the service,” Henderson said. “A couple years back, a tornado hit the Rice County jail, so we housed several of their inmates while they did repairs. It can be a good source of income for us when there are these places that are overcrowded. It helps the other counties and it can help us with a little extra revenue, though we haven’t needed to do that very often.”
On the horizon is a technology leap at McPherson County Jail. Blevins explained that the current control system — panels that control doors, intercom systems, lights, everything — is over 20 years old.
“It’s showing some wear-and-tear, and it’s so old that you can’t find parts anymore,” Blevins said.
The new systems will put touch screens in each major section of the jail, rather than using physical panels with lit up buttons.
“I’m all about tech, but only when its cost effective, so this is the direction we need to go to stay up-to-date,” Blevins explained. “For a jail our size, we’ve been able to do that pretty well as the budget allows.”