I went to jail last night

Last night our citizens police academy group took a field trip to the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility. It was eye-opening, exciting, depressing, and fascinating all at once. Sheriff Doc Holladay welcomed us into a room with a couple of long tables set up and went over some background information and ground rules while we were served dinner—the exact meal the inmates had been served that evening. The meal came in a hard plastic tray and consisted of a mystery meat patty, some yellowish mashed potatoes swimming in gravy, cooked carrots, a roll, and cornbread. Each meal only costs 89 cents (which made me feel a little better considering most of the food our group was served ended up in the trash can.) The daily meals are very specifically designed to meet certain nutritional criteria—2300 calories for an inmate who is active (has a job of some sort within the facility) or 2100 calories for an inmate who is sedentary.

Sheriff Holladay blessed the food for us (the Lord knows that food needed some blessing), then told us a little about the facility. It’s HUGE. I wish I’d had a tape recorder with me so I could verify all the facts, but I believe he said it’s over 400,000 square feet. It holds 1,200 inmates, and they’re nearly at capacity. They have some juveniles in the 14-17 age range who are being tried as adults. They have seven pregnant inmates currently. The facility is basically a small, concrete town: they have medical services, a library (where inmates often go to read up on the legal system and prepare for their cases), a commissary, a huge kitchen, and laundry facilities with machines that can handle about 600 pounds of laundry at a time. Whew. Imagine doing laundry for 1,200 inmates. In our house, it only feels like I’m doing laundry for that many people because my kids think that if a piece of clothing touches any part of their body for any amount of time, it’s automatically dirty.

Anyway, Sheriff Holladay warned us that we might overhear inmates saying things that aren’t very nice and mentioned that they tend to show off a bit when new people come around. He asked us to please not engage them in conversation and to make sure we still had our phones with us when we left the prisoner units. Wait, what? I didn’t realize we were actually going to be in there with the inmates. The sheriff told us that the inmates weren’t segregated based on crimes, meaning a rapist or murderer might be strolling about in the unit with a person who hasn’t paid their traffic fines. There would be no way for us to know which was which when we were in there with them.

Our tour guide for the evening was Toni Rose, captain of security and housing. She’s been there over 20 years, and while you can tell that she has a sweet side, she also has to be tough as nails to do what she does. When asked if anyone had ever attacked her, she showed us a scar on her hand where she’d been bitten.

The tour started with a trip past the room where deputies control all of the cell locks and video cameras for the facility. Then we toured the kitchen and laundry room where piles and piles of orange and blue jumpsuits were stacked and waiting to be used. One staff member told us that he has to order about 300 new jumpsuits every few weeks.

The first unit we went into was a unit for the boys under 18 who are being tried as adults. They’re kept in a separate unit from the men, and their crimes are pretty serious. We didn’t go very far past the entrance because one boy was taking a shower, and the shower doors are only partial doors. A few of the boys were in the courtyard, which is a big concrete block with a chain link roof and a basketball hoop on one wall. We (and the guards) could watch them through glass. They didn’t really pay much attention to us at all. I was sad to see these kids throwing a basketball around just like it was a normal Tuesday night at the park, but really life is anything but normal for these kids who have already made terrible life decisions due to drugs, gangs, etc. Captain Rose told us that they don’t try to separate gang members from rival gangs—all the Crips and Bloods are mixed together in the units—but they do ask each inmate if he has any personal enemies who are already there, and they make sure to keep them in separate units.  

Next we went into a men’s unit. Policy says there must be one officer on duty for every 80 inmates. I believe this particular unit had about 96 men, so there were two officers over it. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t like those odds if I were one of the officers! We trooped into the unit and had a look around. It looked a lot like the one we had just come out of, but we were able to walk in a little farther and see a little more. Each unit is two floors. The bottom floor is a common area where men can watch TV, play checkers, or go outside to the concrete courtyard. Cells line the walls on the lower and upper floor. Fencing has been installed throughout the stairways and upper railings to keep anyone from trying to commit suicide.

The men in this unit seemed far more interested in our group’s presence. The ones inside looked up from their TV and games and seemed genuinely curious. Several who were in the courtyard wandered over to the glass and began peering through it and pointing at us. I glanced over, and a couple of them waved at me. I felt really uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to seem like a snob or like we were a group of tourists coming to look at them like animals in a zoo. So I gave them a quick wave back. That was probably a mistake. For the next ten minutes, they seemed to be playing a game of trying to see who could get me to wave at them. One of the ladies in the group turned to me with a frown and said, “I think they’re waving at you.” I purposefully kept my eyes averted and told her I was going to pretend to be in deep conversation with her until we left.

Strangely enough, I really didn’t feel frightened of the men. The women were another story. When we went into one of the women’s units, they were being pretty rowdy. A couple of them were having a very vocal argument about something, so we hung back for a few minutes waiting for things to settle down. Rather than being curious about our presence, the women seemed annoyed that we were there. They were lined up with cups of water, ready to get their daily dose of medications from the nurse. Apparently nearly every inmate is on medication of some sort. Captain Rose told us that the women weren’t allowed to have makeup, but we noticed a few that seemed to have on lipstick or eyeshadow. Captain Rose told us that they buy skittles or M&Ms from the commissary and use the color from the candies as makeup. She also told us that she very much prefers working with the men than with the women. “The women are so whiny,” she said.

The next unit we ventured into was the scariest by far—the isolation unit. This unit is used not because of the severity of the crime that got the person put into jail in the first place, but is based on their behavior once they get here. Inmates can be sent to the isolation unit anywhere from five days to 180 days if they’re really causing problems (attacking officers, for example.) The inmates in the isolation unit are locked in their cells 23 hours a day. Each door has a slot where their food is delivered. They heard us come in, and a few peered at us through the tiny window in their door. Then the yelling started. And the banging. It sounded like wild animals, and one inmate getting riled up caused all of the others to get riled up. It felt like a very dark and depressing place, and I was thankful to leave.

We also took a tour through Intake, which is an offender’s first stop when they arrive. This is the place where the officers do their paperwork to admit someone, and it’s where the inmates are fingerprinted, searched, photographed, and placed in a holding cell while they wait to see if they’ll make bail or change into a uniform for a longer stay. Several people were being processed when we got there. One girl (and I say girl because she looked like she couldn’t have been over 18), was wearing a green tunic rather than the standard orange or blue jumpsuit. Captain Rose explained that she was a suicide risk. Each person gets asked a series of questions, and depending on how they answer, they can be flagged as a suicide risk. In those cases, they’re dressed in a green tunic and sent to a cell with only a blanket, no bed. This particular girl looked so sad to me. I wondered what her story was and what had led her to this place and to whatever poor choices she had made.

One guy was handcuffed to a little nook in the wall while he waited. Captain Rose explained that he might be there for a couple of hours. He shouted back, “Five hours so far!” But if he was looking for sympathy from our group, he wasn’t going to get it. Hopefully the experience will be unpleasant enough that it will keep him from wanting to come back. The reality though is that 50% of the inmates will be back within three years—that’s what Sheriff Holladay told us.

Like I said, it was fascinating, but also pretty heartbreaking. Sheriff Holladay admitted that while they provide many programs to allow inmates to improve themselves (such as classes on conflict resolution, parenting,  finances, etc), there isn’t a lot of rehabilitation going on. Captain Rose said when she first started working there, her heart would break for the women who were sobbing things like, “I miss my baby!” Once she saw those same women come through for the second, third, or fourth time, she had to acknowledge to herself that if these women really missed their babies that much, they wouldn’t keep doing the things they’re doing. So what makes a person return to a life of crime over and over again? I have no idea. But I do know what can keep them from returning to a life of crime over and over again: nothing but a powerful, life-changing encounter with the God of the universe, who can take their cold, hardened hearts and make them new. I’m saying a prayer for all 1,100+ inmates of the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility, that the truth would set them free.

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