Behind the bars

MALONE – It’s Friday morning, and the Franklin County Jail is beginning to stir.

The correction officers sit through roll call at 7:15 a.m. and listen as Sgt. Sean Fleury fills them in on which inmates have been released and who was brought in. Today they learn that a woman who was pulled over for driving erratically the previous night is now at the jail. Her passenger was bleeding profusely, possibly because she stabbed him.

The officers don’t flinch when they learn this because all manner of suspect is brought through the doors of the jail.

“The first guy coming through the door could be drunk; the second guy could have hacked his old lady to death,” Undersheriff Patrick White said. “We never know what we’re going to get here.”

The dynamic of the population fluctuates wildly because the jail serves as a way station for people on trial. Anyone sentenced to a year or less in the county does time there, but if a more serious crime takes two years to go through court, the accused remains in the jail’s custody until a verdict is handed down.

“That means some dangerous people might end up here for a long time,” Fleury said. Innocent people might also be here a long time, potentially.

After roll call, the first duty of the day is breakfast. Connie McDonald and another correction officer monitor a prisoner as he unloads the food cart and passes trays, sometimes through open doors, sometimes through narrow slots in locked doors, to the inmates in the jail’s L-wing. He is one of eight “trustees” at the jail, meaning his good behavior and low-risk status allow him to help with duties like preparing meals, cleaning floors and, today, handing out breakfast.

“You have to keep an eye on them when you hand out the meals,” McDonald said. “If they can, they’ll try to take more.”

As its name implies, L-wing is a long, L-shaped hallway lined with steel doors and windows that reveal rows of cells. There is a common area in each of the eight cell blocks that contains a shower, television and shiny, stainless steel tables. The atmosphere is cold and the walls are painted in neutral hues – the only vibrant color is the hazard-orange uniforms worn by the prisoners.

Men and women are placed in different cell blocks, and there is a block for minors and another for problem inmates who are locked in their cells 23 hours a day.

One officer sits at a desk in the corner of the “L” to keep an eye on the inmates who live there. Every half-hour, that officer must enter each cell block to make sure nothing is wrong. The officer then “punches in” by pressing a silver baton into a steel disk on the wall to confirm nothing is amiss in the block.

In the jail’s dorm wing, one officer sits at a desk facing four windows positioned in a semi-circular shape. Behind each window is a dorm which consists of cells and a common area. Today, correction officer Martin Wright mans that post.

There are up to 15 prisoners in each dorm, and they are animated. Some glance across the way at other inmates; others play card games or watch television. Each dorm is like a pot of simmering water, with the prisoners milling around inside like excited air bubbles. There is a feeling of pent-up energy in there, and a feeling that the energy could cause the situation to boil over at any time. And sometimes it does.

Wright explained that some prisoners knew each other on the outside, and those relationships can hold unsatisfied grudges.

“We had one inmate in here who had molested another inmate’s children on the outside,” Wright said. “We have to quickly address those issues and try to keep them apart.”

Part of a correction officer’s job is to prevent violence. Sideways glances are noted, and threats between inmates are not taken likely. The officers must protect the inmates, but they must also protect themselves.

“If there’s a fight going on, we’ll make an attempt to get the ones who aren’t fighting locked in their cells before we go in there,” Wright said. “We don’t want anyone dying, but if we don’t have many officers here, we’re pretty limited.”

The sobering reality is that observation at the jail works two ways. The officers must remain alert because the inmates are watching them, too.

“They have a lot of time to watch us,” Wright said as he quickly scanned the dorms with his eyes. “If we have 20-something court runs on a given day, a lot of the inmates key in on that. It’s the perfect time to go after someone.”

Mondays and Tuesdays are spent transporting prisoners to the 15 courts scattered throughout the county. The officers must also transport arrestees from Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake to the jail. One look at the jail’s booking ledger confirms this; on most days, the pages are filled with the documented comings and goings of officers. Court dates, psych evaluations and medical appointments top the list. Those on duty are quick to point out that every officer on the road is one fewer officer to respond if a situation occurs.

Officers forced to enter a fray can use chemical agents to regain control, but the numbers are rarely in their favor. To compound the issue, several of the shifts in the jail are fixed posts, meaning the officer there can’t leave the area.

“We have a total of 19 officers here,” White said. “We are understaffed.”

Staffing at the jail is a numbers juggling act. The minimum amount of officers per shift during a 24-hour cycle is 10 during the day, nine in the afternoon and seven at night.

Between Aug. 4 and 18 the Sheriff’s Department paid 710 hours of overtime to meet those staffing needs, White said. The department also handled 655 visitors to the jail and traveled 3,425 miles while making 53 inmate-related trips during that same time frame. After days off, sick days and state-mandated training workshops are factored into the scheduling, White said every shift starts “even with the board or less.

“We’ve also had an officer on comp for one year and seven months, and another on disability since February,” White said. “Those are open items we can’t fill.”

Lack of space can also put a dent in the department’s budget. The jail was built to hold 85 inmates, but these days it can hold 126. An already near-capacity jail can fill up quickly after a big drug bust like the one that swept through Franklin County earlier this month, with 36 arrests. If the jail is forced to send prisoners to another county jail, it costs $100 a day per inmate.

With limited resources, the staff at the Franklin County jail does everything it can to maintain safety and control at the facility. For the adult inmates, it’s all about keeping them under control. For the minors, there is a way out.

Marcia Raville, program coordinator for the Incarcerated Youth Program, and David McQuinn, Incarcerated Youth teacher, spends time working with the young prisoners every week. Last year, five students there earned their General Education Diplomas; in 2011 eight earned their GEDs. The two teachers also work on life skills, like how to be successful at a job interview and how to behave in the workplace.

“A lot of this job is an emotional commitment,” McQuinn said. “You have to address the emotional needs before learning can take place.”

Oftentimes, those emotional needs aren’t met anywhere else. McQuinn noted that most inmates form bonds with one another while they are locked up, and reject more positive influences as a result.

“The rate of recidivism is high, and that’s not a reflection on the administration who runs this jail,” McQuinn said. “Rate of recidivism is a reflection of the system that’s out there. The kids don’t have advocates out there in their personal lives.”

McQuinn said the state Department of Education could take an active role in decreasing the amount of young people incarcerated by encouraging trade-based skills instead of implementing one-size-fits-all standards.

“One problem is that students must wait until eighth grade to pursue vocational training,” McQuinn said. “If you’re going to put that carrot on a stick, shorten the stick. Algebra and calculus isn’t for everyone. We should focus on students’ strengths instead of their weaknesses.”

Inmate Anthony Ropas, who is 17, confirmed McQuinn’s statement about the importance of young people having advocates in their personal lives.

“I’ve been in jail before,” Ropas said. “It don’t bother me. I got no one on the outside.”

Ropas’ latest stint is his seventh time behind bars. This time, it’s for possession of a stolen credit card. Although he said he doesn’t care, his attitude shifts when he talks about the Incarcerated Youth Program. Suddenly, he’s like any other 17-year-old dreaming of a successful future. He’d like to become a lawyer one day, but he acknowledges that first he has to stop getting arrested.

“I’ve always been locked up for dumb stuff,” Ropas said as he looked down at the floor. “Man, I met a guy who’s 50 years old, and he’s here. I don’t want that to be me. Hopefully this is my last time.”

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or