What do you know about the Ada County jail hospital? With nearly 15,000 people going through the jail system a year, many need health care. So who works there? I recently shadowed nurses, deputies and a social worker for 27 hours, over a few days and a night, and am writing about the experience.
Fourteen year veteran jail deputy Mel Yamada-Anderson explodes expectations about corrections officers. She has a college degree in philosophy, was one of Idaho’s first applicants for a same-sex marriage license, and says working in the jail is “like being in sales.”
“I’m selling you on ideas that I want you to do. I’ll show you how it will benefit you. I don’t tell you, I ask you and show you.”
Asking, not telling an inmate to do something, stems from recognizing the loss inmates face.
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“Jail is the ultimate equalizer. Everything is stripped away from you. No makeup. No jewelry. The same uniform. The only thing that separates people is the quality of their tattoos and the quality of their teeth.”
Deputy Yamada-Anderson also admits that shifting cultures—inside and outside of the jail—can be tough.
“We have different currency, a different language, and different laws inside the jail.” Making that transition as well as dealing with anti-social people in the jail can wear employees down. She’s thought about leaving, at least twice, but stays because of what happens almost monthly on the outside.
“A former inmate will stop me on the street to tell me she’s doing well. Makes me feel good. We help people in a strange way.”
* * *
Social worker Shanna Pickren, with Annie-style curly blond hair, will see about 20 patients today, a fraction of the list of 35-40 who need a social worker visit. She does her own triage, seeing the most serious patients.
Adam Darrow (not his real name) moved a week before from maximum security to a single cell in the mental health observation unit. Until last night, he pounded for hours on the cell window, yelling and throwing himself against the walls. Darrow’s pale face, long thin black hair and half-opened eyes make him look tired. The on-duty deputy worries about violence so Pickren stays outside of Darrow’s cell. She squats to talk through the open-flap steel “wiki port,” normally used to pass food trays or clothing. She introduces me, asks if I may listen in, and Darrow signs the consent form with what looks like the inside of a Bic pen.
She asks how he’s doing.
“I own a gold mine in Alaska. In max (security), they stole five of my businesses, four of my patents, and five DoD [Department of Defense] inventions. Very important. If they get in the wrong hands … bad.”
“Are you calmer now?”
“Calmer because I’m defeated. It’s over.”
He plays with the pen as he talks.
“Mr. Darrow, do you think about killing yourself?”
“No, I’m just down. With a high IQ and brainstorming all the time, it runs you ragged. I was an Army colonel and undercover federal marshal since 1994. I had to be a beast in max (security) to straighten those guys out.”
I leaned over to the deputy to mention that Darrow still has the pen.
“It’s soft, don’t worry. Can’t do anything bad.”
Pickren stands, looks at the deputy and shakes her head.
“Not doing well.”
So why work here?
“We start moving toward discharge the first time we see them. But it can take a while. And we may be the only help some inmates get when they are so vulnerable.”
Pickren’s next stop--two sex offenders.