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Overcrowding stresses inmates and jail staff

February 19th, 2007 11:18 pm by REX BARBER

JOHNSON CITY - Who deals with the problems in a crowded jail?

That duty, of course, falls to jail administrators.

Jailers at the Washington County Detention Center are no strangers to problems, responsible for housing 80 to 100 more inmates than their facility has beds.

That causes stress for the jail staff, Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal said.

"You know, it makes it hard for those guys to keep up with," Graybeal said of his jail administrators coping with a crowded jail. "So anytime you have more people, any problem you have gets bigger."

Because of the nature of a jail, the problems facing administrators include fights, attempts to smuggle drugs, anger issues, prisoner separation and just about anything else.

Washington County Sheriff's Office Maj. Brenda Downs said the only women's pod at the jail is in desperate need of expansion.

"This pod in particular is only supposed to house 40, and right now it's double that," Downs said, speaking of the one female dormitory-style detention pod at the WCDC.

In the minimum-security pods, inmates who do not have one of the bunks are usually arranged on the floor, lying on plastic beds that look like small boats, which is what jail staff refer to them as.

The female pod was originally designed to accommodate minimum-security prisoners on the upper level and maximum-security prisoners on the lower level. Now, though, it houses all of the female inmates.

Things can get hectic in the pods, as one guard attested.

Aimee Reid has been a guard at the jail for a little more than a year and is immersed in the atmosphere in the pods she watches.

"It's pretty stressful at times," she said while on duty watching the women's pod.

"A lot of times you get this many people in one area and they don't get along."

She said the high tension leads to fights on occasion. The problem is there is really no place to separate the prisoners anymore.

"A lot of the time it's more mouth than anything," she said of the prisoners' behavior. "You eventually run out of places to put them that they can all get along."

Providing enough food is one way the jail can pacify rowdy inmates.

The state mandates that two hot meals have to be served each day. Breakfast and dinner cover that, but the jail also offers lunch. Usually, just a simple peanut butter sandwich.

Mike Ford is in charge of the jail's kitchen. Both he and Downs said something as simple as lunch can help alleviate tensions and improve attitudes among inmates.

"If they're not hungry, they're not thinking of other things," Downs said.

Ford said planning to feed roughly 450 inmates requires careful planning. He is responsible for serving about half a million healthy meals each year.

Lunch and supper can change by 20 or 30 mouths.

"Figure a 5 percent overflow, because somebody could come in or somebody could be let out," Ford said of the quantity of food.

Despite all those numbers, Ford said he probably does not have more than two gallons of leftovers after each meal.

He was trained in the Army to feed large numbers. His nearly 40 years in the food service business make him a valuable asset to the jail, Downs said.

It takes employees with experience but also patience to run the jail.

Employees in the jail's booking center know all too well just how busy the jail can get, especially on weekends.

WCSO Sgt. Jason Lowe will have been at the jail six years in March, and said he can remember when the Johnson City Police Department housed its own prisoners.

"It's extremely hectic," Lowe said. "It's an explosion of people at times. At times down here I've seen 60 to 80 people in this room. It's quite a task. You have to be calm and collected."

Lowe said everyone in booking must be alert and always on task if they are to figure out how to process prisoners in a timely fashion and separate them appropriately.

"It's hard to do our job the way the public expects," he said.

The ratio of inmates to guards is uneven. There are roughly 82 inmates to every guard.

Downs said on Monday mornings she can tell what kind of weekend the jail has had by the expressions on the jail staffers' faces.

"I don't even need to check the list (of the number of prisoners ). I know it's been crowded," she said after seeing the disheveled looks on officers heading home after a 12-hour shift.

Clayton Haynie mans the main control room at the jail. His post is in a guard tower that overlooks the maximum-security pod.

Haynie has been at the detention center for about eight years and has trained a majority of the newer guards.

He copes with the job and its stresses "pretty good," saying he's thankful for time away from the jail.

"We have our days off," he said. "You can rebound and come back."

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