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Packing Them In At The Jail Crowding And More Violent Inmates Create A Volatile Situation

Tue., May 27, 1997

It’s a Tuesday, and 663 people are stuffed into a jail designed to hold a maximum of 519.

They range from wrinkled grandfathers to pimple-faced teenagers who aren’t old enough to vote. There’s a heroin trafficker from Pakistan. And two Spokane women accused of raping a man with a broomstick.

African Americans, Native Americans and Mexican-Americans are mixed in with men who want a whites-only America.

Sixteen accused murderers wait for their day in court, while dozens of convicted wife-beaters count off the days until they’re free.

Many Spokane County Jail inmates sleep two to a cell, some on mattresses thrown on the floor. The majority of them eat their meals sitting on stainless-steel toilets in their 8-by-11-foot cells. There aren’t enough tables in the day rooms to accommodate them all.

Trying to maintain order is a staff of 132 unarmed corrections employees, split into three shifts. In some wings of the jail, lone officers are locked inside units with 92 inmates.

“The first thing people think when they come in this place is that it’s too nice,” said Sgt. Mike Rohrscheib, referring to the teal paint and fuchsia carpeting in the housing units. “They just don’t understand.”

The number of inmates held at the 11-year-old lockup has swelled steadily over the past three years. In 1994, the jail averaged about 516 inmates per day, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

In 1995, that number grew to 577. The average for last year, which hasn’t been released, is expected to eclipse 600.

Today, one-third of the inmates must share their cells with someone else and spend nearly 20 hours a day locked down.

The increase reflects a state and national trend. The U.S. Justice Department reports that the number of jailed or imprisoned Americans has nearly doubled since 1987.

In Washington state, the average population behind bars in county jails rose 10 percent between 1991 and 1995. King County’s jail count jumped by nearly 25 percent over that period.

But authorities are alarmed by more than just overcrowding. The population inside the Spokane County Jail has become more diverse - and violent.

Most drunken drivers aren’t even booked anymore if they have someone who can pick them up and take them home.

“We used to book in shoplifters,” said Capt. Jim Hill, the jail commander. “We don’t do that anymore.”

Jail population changing

The changing demographics are causing headaches for jail staff and inmates alike, Sheriff John Goldman said.

Take Tuesday, April 1.

According to Sheriff’s Department records, the jail was teeming with a wide array of accused and convicted lawbreakers on April Fool’s Day.

The jail’s nine-member nursing staff had to be prepared to meet the medical needs of the 73-year-old suspected drunken driver on the third floor, and the 15-year-old boy accused of first-degree assault three floors up.

Trying to decide who would sleep where also was a problem. In addition to 585 men, there were 68 women being held, and 10 boys under the age of 18 being prosecuted as adults.

“Women can’t be housed with men. Juveniles must be housed out of sight and sound of any adult inmate,” Hill said. “With our crowding, that’s harder and harder to do.”

“Classifying” prisoners is a constant challenge with the overflow crowds.

Classification officers use a complicated formula to decide where an inmate will eat, shower and sleep. The formula takes into account the prisoner’s criminal history, propensity towards violence and ability to get along with others.

“We have people in this facility who don’t get along with other people,” Hill said. “That’s why they’re in here to begin with. If they don’t get along where they are, we move them somewhere else.”

When the jail is operating at or below its capacity, that works. But lately there have been so few open bunks available that classification people are finding it harder and harder to match inmates.

White separatist and accused domestic terrorist Jay Merrell lives in housing unit 5 East, where several young black men and Mexican nationals also are housed.

To date, Merrell hasn’t had any run-ins with the minorities on his floor, but corrections officers keep a close eye on the situation.

Crowded conditions also have led to unrest among prisoners.

The jail staff hasn’t grown since 1990, while the daily inmate population has increased 16 percent. “We’re taking care of a greater number of inmates with the same people,” Goldman said.

There are no guidelines regulating inmate-to-staff ratios in county jails, said Virginia Hutchinson of the National Institute of Corrections in Longmont, Colo.

“It just depends,” she said. “Who are the inmates? How well trained is the staff? What is expected of the officers? What does the community want?”

But higher populations can reduce corrections officers from people managers to paper shufflers, and that’s not good for people inside or outside the jail, Hutchinson said.

Costs go up. Fights increase. Tension is compounded.

“Locking people down a lot of the time will increase the tension,” Hutchinson said. “You’d hate to the see the community say let’s go back to that lock-‘em-up-andignore-‘em mode. That doesn’t work well.”

Crowding puts inmates, guards at risk

Under ideal conditions, Spokane County Jail inmates sleep one to a cell and are allowed into a common area with other inmates for up to eight hours per day.

That’s the way it was one day recently in housing unit 3 East.

The 46 prisoners mingled freely in the dayroom, playing cards, reading the newspaper and chatting quietly. In a small courtyard attached to the unit, some men played basketball to blow off steam.

An officer did paperwork and doled out Advil.

“This is the way it should be,” said Tom Frantz, a corrections training officer who’s worked at the jail for nine years. “Now, I’ll show you the way it is.”

Two floors up, 5 East looked and sounded like a crowded bus terminal. Half of the 92 inmates were out of their cells while the others remained locked up.

The loose prisoners roamed all over, scrambling for one of the few payphones or a section of the newspaper.

Men gathered around food slots cut in the cell doors to talk to their buddies still locked down. Some played chess through the narrow openings.

They had 2-1/2 hours of relative freedom before they were ordered back inside their cells. Two officers scanned the group warily.

“The problems become condensed,” said Jerry Ring, an 11-year corrections officer. “And it’s going to become more and more difficult. And not one year from now, but two days from now, because we never know what the circumstances are going to be in two days.”

Outmanned officers are forced to use harsher tactics in dealing with the crowds. Lockdowns are the norm in units where inmates are double-bunked.

Prisoners rooming together get out of their cells less than four hours a day. They don’t like that, and neither do the jailers, who say it sours attitudes and leads to problems.

“I know most of us have done crimes, but they shouldn’t treat us like animals,” one prisoner being held on a drug charge said from his cell. “We’ve got to get out of here sometimes, man. You go crazy.”

Another prisoner, James Strasburg, complained that the jail staff recently covered cell windows with a film that prevents inmates from seeing outside.

Jail officials decided to use the film after some inmates made comments to employees about seeing them or their families outside.

“We used to be able to sit here and at least see the sky and contemplate,” Strasburg said. “Now, they’ve taken that away from us, too.”

Frantz said lockdowns are ideally used as a behavior modification tool - unruly inmates were locked up to punish them.

Crowding has turned it into an everyday necessity. There just aren’t enough corrections officers to adequately supervise the population, Frantz said.

Locking the inmates often leads to fights among prisoners and assaults on guards. “It’s stressful on the inmates and stressful on the officers,” Frantz said.

Crowding also can lead to civil rights violations, said David Fahti, a Seattle attorney who specializes in jail and prison issues.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that overcrowding per se is not unconstitutional,” said Fahti. “But the things that go along with overcrowding, like lack of exercise, unsanitary conditions and increased numbers of assaults, can be.”

Spokane County prisoners who constantly start fights are sent to the sixth floor maximum-security wing, where they are locked in a cell 24 hours a day.

Four or five years ago, the 46-cell wing stayed about half full. Today, nearly 40 of the maximum cells are occupied each day, Frantz said.

“When you’re only out of your cell for two hours anyway, getting locked down or sent upstairs is nothing…It’s like, who cares?”

Boredom breeds contempt

Cooped up inmates also tend to get into other trouble. Last summer, Nathaniel J. Brown was serving a 30-month sentence for burglary.

One day, Brown plugged the toilet in his sixth-floor cell and began flushing. The ensuing flood caused nearly $280,000 damage on five floors.

Increasing violence also is complicating the situation. A third of the people incarcerated on April 1 were charged with violent offenses, like murder, assault, rape and armed robbery, according to jail records.

“When I started here, we basically knew who the people with the heavy charges were,” Rohrscheib said. “The biggest difference today is those people are becoming the majority.”

Frantz estimated that half the people doing time are armed with some type of weapon: a razor blade taped to a pencil or a spoon handle sharpened into a shank.

The jail recently heightened security after several shanks were discovered at the same time a rumor of a jailbreak was circulating.

Rohrscheib said the fear of being hurt on the job has increased steadily, along with the crowding and growing number of violent prisoners, since he was hired in 1978. “You definitely feel less at ease now,” he said.

Goldman said the stress has hidden costs.

“It manifests itself in more sick time, more turnover,” he said. “That’s not good for the officer or the operation.”

Then there are the abundantly clear costs: overtime, extra food and supplies.

Jail officials recently told county commissioners they may go more than $1 million over budget this year if arrests don’t decrease dramatically. But with more police than ever on the streets, that’s not likely.

In fact, it will probably get worse as society clamors for more cops, prosecutors and judges to “get tough on crime” but ignores the jails, Frantz said.

“We’re the bastard children of law enforcement. People just don’t know what we do, or how we do it.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color) Graphic: One night at the Spokane County Jail

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