Promotions | Best of the Coast | Find a paper | About | Advertise with us | Contact
COVER STORY | Vol. 8, No. 7, February 21, 2008
(Judging The Jails)

E-mail this to a friend

Judging The Jails

by Jennifer Waters

Experts: Local Jails Lack Progressive Programs, Standards

The inmate's request isn't for better food, smokes or luxuries.

"I wish we had NA (Narcotics Anonymous)," says Leonard Ballard, a methamphetamine addict in the Santa Rosa County Jail.

Wearing a forest green-colored jail uniform with bright orange slip-on shoes, Ballard talks about his efforts to better himself, such as attending GED classes twice a week.

But the high school equivalency diploma won't be of much use to the 44-year-old from Jay if he is not clean.

The Santa Rosa County Jail offers a largely faith-based chemical dependency class for one hour every two weeks.

But there are no Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which are prevalent outside the jails' walls and considered by many to be the cornerstones of recovery.

AA and NA are offered at the Escambia County Jail.

Most inmates are incarcerated because of alcohol- or drug-related charges, and the majority of them will be released back into the community, officials say.

But programs offered in Florida's county jails vary as widely as their administrators and are no longer accountable to the Florida Department of Corrections. Now, jails statewide adhere to the Florida Model Jail Standards, which are evaluated by county sheriff's offices and are not enforceable, a national expert points out.

"To have your crew go to a neighboring county and inspect its jail and give it the A-OK and document it, I don't think means boo. I really don't," says Ken Kerle, American Jail Association's managing editor of American Jails magazine.

The Washington, D.C.-based expert has worked in numerous capacities in corrections, including as a jail auditor. Criminal justice students at the University of West Florida use Kerle's book "Exploring Jail Operations" as their textbook.

Kerle, who has studied jails for 35 years, has been in Pensacola for the past two weekends to help teach about 40 students in a "Special Topics: Jails" course at UWF.

As part of the class, the students, Kerle and John Smykla, professor and chair of the Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Department, have toured the county jails in Santa Rosa, Escambia and Mobile.

Kerle visited his 813th jail during a recent visit.

Regarding Florida's regulation of the detention centers, Kerle says the key question for the Florida Sheriff's Association officials is: "Tell me what county so far has failed to pass the Model Jail Standards? My guess is, they all passed," Kerle says.

The Florida Sheriff's Association on Feb. 18 asked the Independent News to contact Lt. Gary Harbin of the Marion County (Fla.) Sheriff's Department for information about the Model Jail Standards.

An administrative assistant with the association said the agency's director of corrections, Ned Hafner, was on vacation until Feb. 21.

"There are no provisions for enforcing (the Florida Model Jail Standards)," Harbin says. The standards are not part of a pass or fail system, Harbin adds.

Instead, discrepancies are noted and followed up on, and final reports are submitted to county commissions.

But if a Sheriff's Office doesn't pass a jail, Kerle says, "payback time" is going to come when another department goes into that agency's jail.

Florida is among about a dozen states that do not have state inspections, Kerle reports.

"Literally, when you don't have inspection standards, you're on your own," Kerle says. "You have to depend on your own policies and procedures to save the day, including with litigation. If you have state standards, you're pretty much protected."

The three paragraphs about jail programs in the 72-page Florida Model Jail Standards, state, in part: "The Officer-in-Charge or designee shall make all reasonable efforts to make use of programs available through local community resources."

"And that's a very low standard," Smykla says.

Ballard's red face exudes shame as he talks about being booked into the Santa Rosa County Jail for the third time on Jan. 8 because of "dirty urine," a "VOP," or violation of probation.

The inmate also appears humiliated as he speaks of his 14-year-old son, his previous job in construction, and the drug addiction he developed after he says he first used meth about three years ago.

Ballard says he is one of few meth addicts who was functional and went to his job in construction every day. "I didn't go out stealing and robbing," he says.

Ballard's arrests have been for possession of a controlled substance, driving while license suspended, carrying a concealed weapon or electric device, simple battery, and other charges, according to Santa Rosa County Clerk of Court records.

Ballard says he quit school after the 10th grade. But prior to that, he played baseball for Chumuckla High School with Capt. Paul Campbell, the detention administrator at the Santa Rosa County Jail, where Ballard now resides.

Campbell says at first he didn't recognize Ballard, who was two years behind him in school. "I was kind of surprised at his appearance," Campbell says. "It's just the lifestyle."

Data on prison populations is prevalent, but statistics on alcoholism and drug addiction among jail inmates, for instance, are virtually non-existent because of the system of regulation.

"That kind of admissions data should be taken to the County Commission," Smykla says.

Kerle believes a lot of local officials "still see jails as an albatross around their necks because it's where you have all the criminals and social misfits."

Kerle estimates 75 percent of inmates have alcohol and drug problems, are functionally illiterate, and do not have vocational skills. "If you want to make a difference," he says, "You've got to get to these people. You've got to get them into programs."

Local jail officials do not necessarily agree.

"A prison can be more focused on rehabilitation. A county jail, for all intents and purposes, is like a warehouse section," says Escambia County Jail Director Barbara Wertz.

"We try to provide what we can for the limited time that (the inmates) are here," Campbell says. "A very small percentage (of them) are charged with felonies and go to prison."

Hence, the inmates return to their communities, still addicted to alcohol or drugs, still uneducated and without job skills, still social misfits.

Smykla says officials with progressive jails across the nation look for ways to teach job skills and provide other services to inmates who are incarcerated for short periods of time, even two to three days.

"There's a big difference between what we see locally and what we see in jails across the country," Smykla says.

Like Ballard, Santa Rosa County Jail inmate LaTesha Varney has been behind bars several times for crimes related to her drug addiction.

Dressed in the exact same jail garb as Ballard, the 39-year-old Varney, a crack addict from Polk County, participates in a church's faith-based chemical dependency program at the jail.

The female inmate, who has three kids, says she wishes the facility offered parenting classes and more drug programs. "It would help a lot of women," Varney says.

The inmate says there are about 30 people in her bi-weekly Alcohol Chemical Treatment Series class, which is provided by First Apostolic Church in Pensacola.

Varney's arrests have been for possession or use of drug paraphernalia, grand theft auto, simple battery and other charges, according to Santa Rosa County Clerk of Court records.

Varney, who quit school after the 11th grade, has mental health problems that include bipolar disorder, manic depression and schizophrenia.

The lack of services for the mentally ill, like Varney, is a major issue nationwide.

"Today, unfortunately," Kerle says, "because of public ignorance again: Jails are now the No. 1 repository for the mentally ill in the United States."

The jails in Escambia and Santa Rosa employ mental health professionals.

Kerle says he recently met a representative from the mental health unit at the Escambia County Jail.

The jail's mental health staffers "have been beaten and stabbed," Kerle says. "But they were still empathetic to (the inmates') problems. I was very impressed."

The Santa Rosa County Jail, which houses around 600 inmates, has two classrooms for its bi-weekly anger management class, which is given by Baptist Healthcare's Lakeview Center, and GED courses, which are taught by two instructors with the Santa Rosa County School District.

"There's a lot more applicants than I have spaces for," says GED teacher Jason Harris, who teaches three classes with 10 inmates in each.

Harris, who has been at the jail since October, teaches inmates whose ages range from 18 to 55.

"They might be book smart, but they might not be decision-making smart," Harris says. "They're not all hardened criminals. They're so proud when they graduate. It's a great feeling."

Inmates like Ballard, who may be released before completing the GED course, are allowed to continue their studies at the Santa Rosa Adult School after they are released.

"We try to do what we can to keep them from coming back, because recidivism is a big problem," says Campbell, who is a jail inspector for other detention centers.

Santa Rosa Deputy Rhonda Lamon, who has been in her programs liaison position since May, says she thought the ACTS class was Alcoholics Anonymous until someone from Lakeview Center told her otherwise.

It is unclear why AA or NA meetings are not held at the Santa Rosa County Jail.

"Honestly, I don't know why it's not," Lamon says. "We want to look at our schedule and try to get more drug and alcohol classes. It just takes a lot of finagling, but we're going to look at doing something."

AA members say they have made contact with both county jails.

A local member who goes by "Roy" says his understanding is that "something happened years ago, and AA is not welcome in the (Santa Rosa) county jail. We packed our bags and went to the (Santa Rosa) state prison, where we are welcomed with open arms."

Campbell points to the time element involved in AA's 12 steps. "We just don't have them long enough to really get them into that," he says.

A local NA member who goes by "Mike" says his organization does not hold meetings in the Santa Rosa Jail for a number of reasons. Mike says security regulations were heightened after 9/11, making it more difficult for outsiders to get into the jail.

"Plus, a lot of us who have one year of clean time or more have got our lives going on." And jail officials in general "pretty much say no" to the NA members with six months or less clean time who are encouraged to perform service work, such as inside the jails, Mike says. "It's hard for society to believe that we change."

Ballard and Varney say they would like to see more of their fellow inmates turn out for the programs, such as the chemical dependency class, that are offered at the jail.

"Some of them aren't sick and tired of being sick and tired," Mike of NA says. "They enjoy that lifestyle."

In 2007, Escambia County's main jail and central booking and detention facility housed about 1,886 inmates every month. The average length of stay was 65 days.

At the main jail, AA and NA meetings are each conducted for an hour every week. The meetings are combined to make an eight-week alcohol and drug addiction class for inmates, says Escambia program coordinator Johnny Graham. About eight to 12 people can attend the meetings at one time, and Graham keeps a waiting list that can range from 10 to 30 inmates.

Graham says he is talking with the United Way about a new financial literacy class at the jail.

The jail's housing unit for inmates who are allowed to participate in the classes, however, presents challenges. A couple of picnic style tables are positioned at the front of two pods with inmates but no guards.

A corrections officer monitors the unit's four pods from a separate enclosed booth in the middle of a circular hallway.

Graham says he has trouble "finding instructors who are willing to come into the facility and the pod."

Escambia's central booking and detention facility, in contrast, has individual classrooms attached to the pods.

"So the instructors aren't quite as hesitant to go into that facility," Graham says. "Here, it's a different situation."

Graham says, in the past, life skills and parenting classes were offered at the main jail, where the classroom was converted into a training facility.

Escorting inmates to the classroom had posed security concerns and manpower issues, Graham says.

"Remember, 75 to 80 percent of your jail budget is staffing costs," Kerle points out.

According to the Florida Model Jail Standards: "At least one employee in each detention system shall act as liaison between each facility within the system and the community agencies that offer needed programs and services."

Escambia's Central Booking and Detention also has a staff person who handles programs.

The local group Pathways for Change also offers its faith-based substance abuse program and services to inmates housed in the work release building. Some of its participants are court-ordered.

Both county jails also have computer labs and faith-based services provided by Interfaith Jail Ministries.

Pensacola Junior College conducts GED classes at the Escambia County Jail.

"Ninety-nine percent of this is people coming in on a volunteer basis," Wertz, Escambia Jail's director, says.

"Jails have to go out and ask for help," UWF criminal justice chair Smykla argues. "The university is a rich resource," with student internships and volunteers.

Smykla and Kerle contend the detention centers are seen as strictly a sheriff's problem, but the public is also to blame.

"It's not a jailer's problem. It's a community issue," Smykla says. "It's an attitude problem that the community brings to the table-out of sight, out of mind. Citizens would rather see people tossed away. Throw away the key."

Changes must be made among lawmakers and the public, Kerle maintains.

 "You've got to have jails' inspection standards, and you've got to educate the public, and we still haven't done that to the degree that we should," Kerle says.

Varney says when she is released from jail, she will return to a mental health facility where she is from, Polk County, to get her medications.

Varney also plans to "get my license back and get on the right track." With the license, she can potentially go back to work as a truck driver.

The female inmate will also need to pay off child support payments and a $2,000 fine. "I can go to day labor and do that," she says.

Ballard will also need to get his driver's license back, likely pay fines, and, of course, like Varney, stay clean.

NA's Mike says the "real meat" of what the group offers to other local detention centers is literature that informs inmates where to find meetings once they are released.

"That's where recovery starts," Mike says. "You've got to want to change."

The corrections buzzword these days, officials say, is "re-entry"-going home.

"Re-entry people say the jail is only the beginning," Kerle says.

Ancillary agencies in communities must ensure that inmates continue to participate in jail programs once they are released, Kerle says.

"If they don't, well, you see the results. (The inmates) get rearrested and thrown back in jail."

Ballard isn't sure when he will be released from the Santa Rosa County Jail this time.

"If I get out," Ballard says, "I'm gonna hopefully be with my family and do what I can to stay clean."

Countless inmates over the years, even second- and third-generation family members, have told Campbell: "You'll never see me again," and then they are back in the jail six months or so later.

But Santa Rosa's jail director still likes to believe people, and perhaps his old baseball teammate, will seek help, receive it and avoid being placed behind bars again.

Sometimes, it is enough to lose your freedom to put you back on the right track, Campbell says.

"I'm hoping with Ballard it does."