Surprise, Surprise at the County Jail

Running the Cape’s largest adult correctional facility, currently hovering around 365 inmates and with room for 220 more, I get plenty of questions about life “on the other side of the wall.” That’s one reason we encourage citizens to come in for a tour.  I’ll pass that information along at column’s end, but for now I hope you’ll keep reading.

What I find intriguing is how often those questions are built on misconceptions, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense.  Ask me how to straighten out a golf drive and (regrettably) my head will shake slowly from side to side.  Ask me what it’s like inside the bowels of a battleship or in a Pentagon situation room, and my shoulders will move in that upward, “beats me” trace of body language.

But ask me about running a jail and the ground gets a lot firmer.  Here are some of my favorite questions.  Note how they often telegraph a misconception that lies just below the surface:



Do you have a drunk tank?

No, not per se.  But we do have cells for new arrivals and they are separate and apart from the common cells of our inmate housing units.  It’s a better place for someone whose drunkenness may be bringing out his or her belligerency.  If severe detoxing is also part of what we’re dealing with, we administer appropriate medications as well.  But is it like town drunk Otis in the old Andy Griffith sitcoms, needling Deputy Barney Fife?  No.  We’ve yet to book an inebriate as good humored as Otis.

You don’t hold “the real bad guys” there, right?

Wrong.  Or at least half wrong.  Our sentenced population are here for no more than 2½ years on a single case and no more than 7½ years on the relatively rare occasions when more than one charge or charges are strung together.  Most of the time it’s the 2½ years.  Otherwise, off to a state or federal prison. 

However, and this is a huge caveat, we also have offenders who are awaiting trial, and in this case it can be for anything up to and including murder.  If you’re arrested and charged with a crime in Barnstable County, it’s our responsibility to hold you.  On any given day, we’re liable to be holding one or more alleged murderers, alleged rapists, serious firearm or drug offenders, etc.  Not nice people.

What kind of weapons do the guards use? Guns? Billy clubs?

Actually, we don’t call them guards because that term demeans the numerous demands and challenges of the job.  Not to mention the backgrounds they have and the academy training they get – all before even stepping foot in the jail.   We call them correction officers or deputy sheriffs.  And they have no weapons, other than their wits and a body duress alarm they hit to signal for help.  No guns of any kind, no Tasers, no batons, not even mace or other chemical agents. 

It sounds a bit odd, until you consider what would happen if an inmate or inmates jumped an officer and disarmed him.  Now who’d have the gun?    

Do you have a hole for the guys who act up?

Yes, but as with the term guard, we don’t call it that.  We call it isolation.  It’s the smallest of our of twelve inmate housing units, and the only one with a single bed per cell.  The others are doubled up.  If you’ve been sanctioned and banished to isolation for X amount of days or weeks, you only get out of that assigned cell one hour a day.  And not without shackles and handcuffs. 

Also no books except a Bible, or comparable holy book if you’re a non-Christian.  I know it sounds harsh and it’s meant to be.  First, it’s safer for the officers that way.  Second, we hope doing a stretch under more punitive conditions will make it less likely an inmate will act up again.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

And of course it’s not really a hole.  It’s above ground.

I assume there’s no legal requirement that you keep the jail clean.  I mean, if for some reason you didn’t want to.

Well of course we want to.  And we do.  Few visitors leave here without noticing how much cleaner it was than they’d expected . . . how much brighter . . . even how much quieter and more orderly than they’d thought.

But the question is a good one and there is a broadly established standard here.  Or more precisely, a ruling of law.  It’s a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision – Hudson v.  Palmer – and it mandatesthat all prison administrators provide a safe and sanitary environment.  Not encourages,mandates.

But beyond that, courts don’t meddle much with prisons and jails, right?

Wrong, not that I’d call it meddling.  And while it’s mostly state laws and state court rulings that come into play here, there is at least one other U.S. Supreme Court decision worth noting.  It’sWolff v. McDonnell, handed down in 1984 and granting inmates significant “due process” rights in any internal disciplinary proceedings.  So no warden or sheriff anywhere in the country can toss someone into isolation arbitrarily. 

Wolff v. McDonnell  means inmates cannot be relegated to that status without a hearing.  And when it’s convened, the presiding officer is required to hear the inmate side of the story as well as the institution’s side -- unless the inmate waives that right.  Also, in our facility, isolation time cannot exceed 10 days for a single offense.   And in cases of multiple offenses stemming from the same incident, the penalty cannot exceed 30 days.  In all cases, the jail superintendent has to review each inmate’s status once 30 days have been served.

Sheriff Jim Cummings (R) is the Sheriff of Barnstable County.