Inside A Failing Jail
As too many inmates are crowded into too little space, the problems at the Memphis jail grow.
By Ashley Fantz
NOVEMBER 1, 1999: Overcrowding has plagued the Shelby County, Tenn., Jail for years. But few have told stories about the results of overcrowding such as the jail's unsanitary conditions and slow processing system. A federal court-ordered evaluation of the jail was delivered last month, and the Shelby County Commission has already budgeted almost $200 million for a new intake facility. But those who work there doubt that it will help.
It was a humid Saturday night in the parking lot of Denim & Diamonds. An expansive slab of deserted concrete seemed a fairly discreet place for the 20-year-old and her friend to snag a good buzz before a night of dancing. Like many kids, they rationalized that they could avoid the expense of club liquor by throwing back a drink before going out.
They sat in their car, a tray of vodka-spiked purple Jello on the arm rest between them. Their banter about school, going out, their friends was cut short by the sobering shine of a cop's flashlight.
"I couldn't see his face," Jane says. "Maybe he thought we had drugs or something. He was like, 'What are you doing?' and the next thing I know he's charged me with driving under the influence and we went to jail."
For more than 17 hours, the girls -- neither of whom had been arrested before -- were held in a downtown jail cell at 201 Poplar with about 40 other inmates, some of them charged with prostitution, drug possession, and attempted murder. The young women were given paperwork with a box checked for them indicating they had refused their phone call -- standard operating procedure for an overcrowded jail that doesn't have the time to let everyone make a phone call. When Jane didn't come home that night, her mother -- ironically, an inmate counselor -- figured her daughter spent the night with a friend.
About a week later, another woman about Jane's age was arrested for driving drunk. She too had never been arrested. For more than 20 hours, she squatted on a concrete floor in the jail's basement while cockroaches zig-zagged in between her shoes and underneath other inmates lying nearby. She was menstruating at the time and begged a female guard for a sanitary napkin. The guard refused, so the girl bled all over herself. If the jailers had allowed her a phone call, she says she wouldn't have called her parents. She was too scared and embarrassed. Her family still doesn't know about her arrest. The Flyer agreed not to print her name.
"What you've got is a pressure cooker," says Douglas Morgan, retired director of Tennessee Corrections Institute and a Shelby County jail inspector. "There are people kept in there who've committed minor offenses -- traffic offenses some of them -- for days. Overcrowding causes everything else -- the dirty conditions, the unhappy staff, the frustrated and angry inmates. It could definitely be a volatile situation."
OUTSIDE LOOKING INThree years ago, Darius Little did what few other inmates in the history of the jail have done -- he sued the county and the sheriff's department for not hiring enough guards to protect him from being gang raped. Ultimately, Little's case prompted a federal court to order an expert evaluation of the jail. Morgan, a nationally respected jail critic, was asked to scrutinize the method and frequency of violent acts among inmates. Last month he completed his inspection, which included interviews with inmates and jailers. Morgan's report cited the jail for lack of adequate staff, a poor classifying system, overcrowded cells, and an inefficient computer system for tracking physical or sexual assaults. In a report related to Little's case, three jail experts -- the current director of jail inspection at the Tennessee Corrections Institute, a former Chief of Jails Division of the National Institute of Corrections, and the vice president of a top jail inspection consulting firm -- concluded that hundreds of rapes, stabbings, and beatings among inmates go undocumented every year. Morgan says the jail's problems are the worst he's seen in his 20 years of corrections experience and the worst he's inspected across Tennessee.
"The more people you pack in there, the higher the tensions are going to be and the potential for violence," he says. "You've got a facility built to hold 1,200 people, but there's about three times as many in there. You add to that the very real existence of gangs, and let's just say it's not a place you want to be."
Recently the Shelby County Commission allocated $172.2 million for 256 additional inmate beds and for the construction of a new intake facility. But many, including Morgan and several county commissioners, say that is like putting a Band-Aid over a wound that needs stitches.
The jail's design is so cumbersome, Morgan says, that "adding on isn't going to make a difference. You'd have to change the whole structure of the place for it to be effective and that's impossible."
The Shelby County Jail has 29 cell blocks. Most of the blocks are not supervised by a cell-block officer for three hours per day, either due to overlapping breaks or lack of staffing. There are 23 cells to a cell block. The cells -- each eight feet long and six-and-a-half feet wide -- were originally built to house one inmate. It's typical to see two inmates to a cell, sometimes three or more. On an average weekend the jail's processing area, a hot windowless concrete hall, is often packed with as many as 150 inmates standing shoulder to shoulder. The hours of waiting eat away at what little patience detainees may have had. The drunk ones are sobering up and getting angry. The ones who holler with their chest puffed out, demanding they be processed now, don't wake those who are passed out or huddled up against the concrete walls to sleep. Rows of their legs and shoes move like an centipede down the hallway.
Most of the time, jail workers do not fully classify inmates before deciding where they will be housed within the jail. Because the jail has only one computer capable of searching the National Crime Information Center to check every inmate's criminal history, it sometimes happens that a person arrested for making an illegal left turn is housed in a cell with a person charged with murder.
The jail is not designed in a linear-style which would allow guards to view inmates in their cells at all times. Rather, guards sit in plastic chairs facing a long, curving corridor that on both sides has open recreation space. Behind that space and farther away from the guards are the actual cells. To get a clear view of what inmates are doing, guards must go down a catwalk and get close to the cells. They are required to do this only once an hour. The jail is noisy. If an inmate were screaming for help, it's unlikely a guard would hear them.
"Most of the guards are simply afraid to go down there," Morgan says. "And if one is going to do it, then he's going to want another guard standing watch at his post to get his back just in case something happens. There aren't enough guards for that. It's almost a hopeless event working there. I feel bad for the staff."
Adrianne Hebron, an assistant to jail union president Byron T. Williams, says the overcrowding problem has brought guards to their physical and emotional breaking point. She laughs when asked if adding 256 beds and a new intake facility will alleviate overcrowding.
"We are just saturated because we have to deal with offenders from the city and the county. They bring them all to us," she says. "I just know that the minute more space is added, it will be filled and we'll still have a problem. They say the crime rate is down, but I don't see it. All these people shoved in here, lying on the ground waiting for their trial that's going to take forever because the courts are so backlogged. It's a real mess."
A DAY AT THE JAILIt's routine for guards to have feces, urine, sharp objects, and old food thrown at them while inspecting the cells, says a female lieutenant who has worked at the jail for more than a decade. She asked the Flyer not to print her name for fear that speaking out would prompt her superiors to harass or fire her. "You can't understand how bad it is unless you see it," she says. "The staff is so stressed by the filth. It's horrendous. It's a living hell."
The lieutenant, other jail officials, and inmates say the cells' dirt and grime is so thick that it's difficult to see the floor. Each tells stories about both inmates and guards spitting or grinding insects into inmates' food and rats found in snack machines. The toilets often back up and inmates defecate on the floor. Some smear feces on the walls or throw it at guards. The walls reek of urine and inmates' beds are infested with brown recluse spiders, fleas, cockroaches, and mice. The tension among inmates fighting over a cup of clean water, plus gang beatings and killings, can make the cell blocks feel like a shaken soda can ready to explode. Not surprisingly, guard turnover is high and morale is extremely low.
Jail union president Byron T. Williams has worked in the downtown jail for two years. He was elected head of the union in August. Yet he's never met Sheriff A.C. Gilless. Many jailers, including Williams, say they feel that the sheriff's department has ignored their need for better health care insurance -- right now deputy jailers receive less medical coverage than sheriff's deputies. Due to their unsanitary and stressful work environment, jailers frequently develop high blood pressure and respiratory illness.
If the conditions of the downtown jail are so bad and employees are ignored, what keeps people like Williams and the lieutenant from quitting?
"A lot of people have asked me why I stay with a job like that," says the lieutenant. "I like working with the inmates who want someone to talk to them. I like the idea of helping them rehabilitate themselves. It's always fascinated me what makes someone commit a crime. In there I get closer to figuring it out sometimes. But it didn't use to be like it is now."
For many jailers, continuing to work in the jail is a symbolic gesture that they still believe in the criminal justice system. Quitting is an admittance of defeat not for them individually, but a defeat of order and peace. They still hold onto the notion that their jobs are nobler than what people on the outside might consider.
"There are guards who are doing some of the horrible things to inmates. But, I think they've just lost it. They are wanting to blame and punish them for what's wrong in the jail," she says, noting that the jail is a holding facility for people still considered innocent before they go to trial. It is not a prison for already-convicted criminals.
"They are human beings. They should not have to live that way," she says. "And inmates are aware of their rights. If you deny them, they will lash out."
"WHO'S GOING TO LISTEN TO MY STORY?"Inmate Martin Funkhauser is a tall man with straight blond hair and big droopy eyes. When he's asked what landed him in jail again, Funkhauser first says he's got a problem with success. Then he says he was arrested for a probation violation related to a crack-cocaine charge. Classified as a non-violent offender, Funkhauser was held in the basement of 201 Poplar for more than a day without food or clean water while jail officials processed the stream of more than 110 inmates flooding the jail at the time of his arrest. He spent about a month there before he was sent to an adult offenders' center in Shelby Farms -- considered a much cleaner and efficiently run facility. During his stay at the downtown jail, he was given stale bologna sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One day, he was given a piece of liver about the size of a computer mouse as his meal for the day.
"You think, 'Who's going to care, who's going to listen to my story?" Funkhauser says.
He's sitting in a windowless interview room at one of the boxy brick buildings dotting the bucolic farmland surrounding the County Corrections Center. He'll finish his sentence there. Funkhauser doesn't want to talk about his wife and children who have already left him. His sister, Cynthia Storck, and his mother are the only people who have given Funkhauser money to buy better food and a few pair of socks and underwear from the jail commissary. Without their help, he would look like most of the other inmates housed at the downtown jail -- barely dressed and dirty.
"When my mother and I went to visit him," Storck says, "it was as if I couldn't have imagined a worse nightmare. We tried to talk to him through a filthy glass wall covered in mesh. I was afraid to put my mouth and ear up to the phone. We were treated like we had done something wrong by the guards. It really amazes me that the jail treats these men like dogs and doesn't expect them to bite back."
BASIC TRAININGIt's 8:30 a.m. at the Shelby County Corrections Training Academy.
"Who does the Fourth Amendment apply to?" asks Neil Shea, Shelby County Sheriff Department academy trainer.
One hand in the back of the classroom goes up. He thinks he knows who is guaranteed privacy and protection against illegal search and seizure.
"Every citizen of the United States of America," he says proudly.
"Are you sure?" Shea presses.
For the next 15 minutes, Shea questions his class of rookie deputies on who has the right to privacy. Do children? Do illegal immigrants? Do prisoners?
"I think prisoners do, sir," the student answers. "But in cells, they can expect a limited amount of privacy and fewer freedoms."
Shea nods his head and explains that everyone, in jail or not, is entitled to privacy rights, but inmates can expect fewer rights to privacy while incarcerated.
"You make no exceptions otherwise for who has Fourth Amendment protection or that will get you in trouble, that will get you a lawsuit," he tells his class. "You will bring your prejudices and your misconceptions about different races, types of people, nationalities, whatever, to this job. You are the same person before you put on that uniform as you are after."
Shea moved to Memphis in 1990 -- the same year 22 inmates started a riot at the downtown jail because they felt their complaints about unsanitary conditions were ignored. He spent a year and a half working for the county's internal affairs bureau and quickly became a favorite of Sheriff Gilless. Not long after joining the sheriff's department, Gilless asked Shea to revamp the rookie training program and four years ago he became the academy's director. For part of Gilless' first term, rookies -- many of whom either work full-time in the jail or at least deal with inmates while making arrests -- were required to have only one week of academic training. Physical tests were also part of the one-week preparation, but it was far from challenging, says Shea. Now rookies must complete a 10-week course of regimented academics and physical training.
Shea thinks conditions at the jail have improved since the riot.
"I remember driving up on that and it was quite a sight," he says. "I saw mattresses on fire being thrown off the roof. When it was over, I went in there to look at the damage. Man, it's amazing the kind of destruction violent, angry people can do to steel and cement with just their hands."
Shea agrees with Morgan's report which stated that Gilless and the county were making "good faith" efforts to curb jail overcrowding. The academy trainer says the argument that there are people in the jail who should not be there is ludicrous. And blaming the sheriff's department for overcrowding due to unnecessary arrests ignores the fact that one in five of every jail inmate is arrested for drugs or an offense committed to acquire money for drugs. In other words, the drug problem in Memphis is much worse than it was 15 years ago, hence more criminals to lock up.
"If there are more people in the jail than there should be, then we have to start changing laws," Shea says. "What are we going to do? We can't just let people out the back door. There is certainly a problem with processing and space."
Shea hopes the academy's training program will help improve guard attitude and aptitude. The curriculum is one of the few in the country that teaches deputies how to deal with prison gangs and educates them on the psychological profiles of various kinds of offenders. Deputies are shown how to provide limited emotional counseling to inmates. "Verbal judo," or talking down an inmate before applying force, is a popular course section.
"We know that things can escalate when you use force," Shea says. "And that's a last resort. But there has to be a definite distinction of who has the authority. A guard can't give too much. Training can only give a person certain tools; it's the experience that they have which shapes how effective they will be."
Improving the cadre of rookies filtering by the hundreds out of the academy to become jailers and street officers is made "in inches," Shea says. He would like more than 10 weeks to train rookies. On average, his classes teeter on 50 people for each session.
"I can't possibly know whether each individual is ready emotionally for the job," he says. "You just have to hope that they are helping and that the conditions, as they are now, don't get to them."
LOST WITHOUT SPACEFor 10 months, Sonny Newton, inmate #153-122 didn't exist.
No stranger to the jail, Newton was arrested in 1998 for the third time for a parole violation related to two previous aggravated burglary convictions. Newton knew the drill downtown. It would take the usual 24 hours or more to be processed -- probably longer because he had a rather lengthy rap sheet. But the inmate's days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months.
Once or twice every week, Newton called his family from jail and asked them to contact the criminal court clerk's office to get copies of his paperwork and information about when he would be sentenced. His family says they were told that there was no record of Newton's latest arrest or paperwork tracking him through the jail system. To the clerk's office, Newton was not an inmate.
Public defender Allan Newport represented Newton in 1995 on one of the burglary charges. Newport says "losing" or misplacing paperwork within the overcrowded, chaotic jail system is not unusual.
"It's not as outrageous as you may think," he says. "I wouldn't say, though, that it happens all the time. The situation in Shelby County is that if you can't afford private counsel and the state represents you -- you're given a public defender -- between the time that you're indicted and the time you go to trial you are technically not represented by anyone. You are sort of in this never-never land. It's especially bad for people who can't afford representation and are in jail."
Because he was arrested on a parole violation, Newton was not entitled to public counsel. He didn't know that and spent months trying to contact a public defender he never really had. Newton was finally able to reach his parole officer Jennifer Poe, who is no longer working for the Shelby County parole office but as a public school teacher. She was instrumental in having Newton transported from the jail to the County Corrections Center to serve the remainder of his sentence.
Another consequence of overcrowding is an immense amount of paperwork, says Newport. The timeline between the arrest and a preliminary hearing can drag on for weeks. And because the jail is a holding facility not meant for long-term confinement, inmates end up occupying their time fighting and growing more frustrated.
Nashville and Chattanooga's county jails are far more expeditious in issuing indictments and pushing inmates through the system. Nashville assistant district attorney general Michaela Mathews says that in almost every case, inmates go to preliminary trial within 10 days of their arrest and are indicted approximately 65 to 70 days later. The same applies to the Hamilton County Jail in Chattanooga.
"We've never had problems docketing cases and we have a bit of an overcrowding problem here," Mathews says. "Overcrowding, I suspect, is a problem for a lot of jails across the country. But you have to find some way to deal with it."
The Hamilton County Jail has a maximum capacity of 489 inmates and is currently housing 572. Although its capacity is much smaller than the Memphis jail, it is dealing with the same problems of overcrowding and understaffing. Their guards work six days a week, usually more than eight hours each day.
Wildes says that although the Chattanooga jail is overcrowded, it's the most efficiently run facility he's worked at in more than 20 years as a jailer. He credits that to the jail chief, a former Marine intent on running a clean jail.
"I'd say it's the exception," he says. "We do laundry once a week for the inmates. Tennessee law requires that they get two meals a day, but we give them three -- cheeseburgers, fries, soups, sandwiches."
If morale is up at the Hamilton County Jail, it's probably not because the guards are getting paid what they deserve. Jailers recently received a raise. They used to make $16,000 a year and now make $21,000. Guards at the Shelby County Jail make more -- about $27,000. But that salary is low considering Tennessee jailers are supposed to be paid according to the percentage of inmates for which they're responsible.
"I don't think people realize how hard it is to work in a jail," Wildes says. "Everybody -- inmates and guards -- has to feel like they are being protected."
PLAYING CATCH-UP"Nobody's going to be sleeping in those new beds tomorrow."
Simply put, county commissioner Cleo Kirk says the additional 256 beds and intake facility is a project that could take two years to finish. By that time, the jail's problems will likely worsen.
Kirk voted for the improvement plan, but has spent the past three years trying to find an alternative solution. Because more than half of the inmates in the jail are arrested for a drug-related offenses, Kirk advocates investing county funds in a community drug treatment center, a 24-hour drug court, and, eventually, a new facility built to guard and inmate safety specifications.
"This problem has been going on for years, but now we felt like we had to do something quick because a federal court told us what our problems were," he says.
Kirk blames the jail's overcrowding problem on the city police and sheriff department's zero-tolerance-for-crime mantra. Although that seems like a good philosophy, says Kirk, it can also backfire.
"I agree that people who commit crimes should be punished, but putting some of them in jail for days -- the ones in for minor violations -- contributes to the overcrowding," he says. "Putting more officers on the street who will make more arrests will later deter others from committing crimes, but right now it just means more inmates."
Both Kirk and commissioner Tommy Hart concede that the severity of the crime should determine whether someone goes to jail, not simply that someone has broken the law.
"You've got a lot of youngsters in the jail who shouldn't be there, whether they were arrested for drinking or petty theft," Kirk says. "There needs to be more consideration and not an automatic reaction to people who get themselves in trouble. We may have become a little zealous in arresting everyone."
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