At 2 a.m., Ada County Sheriff’s Deputy Garcia rolled Joey Thornton’s (not his real name) fingers through black ink and asked him to stand against a wall so she could take a photo. Arrested for a probation violation, the muscular 27-year old man, 6’4”, was disoriented.
“He asked to see his photo. When he saw it, he said, ‘I look sad.’”
Deputy Garcia’s right index and middle fingers touched her chest.
“He does look sad.”
Nightshift nurse Shauna Rankin had heard about Thornton earlier that evening when a booking area deputy phoned the health services clinic. Thornton had jumped Ninja-style through the frame of a door’s broken window, landing on his feet. Holding cells are 8x10 feet, with windows four feet above the ground in the steel door. No one had seen an inmate jump like that before.
By the time Rankin met him, Thornton stood in another cell shaking his head as though he wanted to ring out a bad thought.
* * *
I travel to learn, especially about cultures and the people in them. This year, I’m exploring unlikely and often unseen destinations within 30 minutes of home. For my first trip, I chose an invisible hospital, the health services unit at the Ada County Sheriff’s Office. I’ve studied the organization in my research on creativity and culture, and heard that people love to work there. But I knew little about the health care providers who treat inmate patients and the deputies who protect them.
So I took a trip to learn about what they do.
* * *
At 2:20 a.m., Thornton entered the booking area's glass-walled exam room, large enough for a desk, three chairs, a blood pressure machine and medicine cabinet. Sometimes a restraining chair sits in against the wall. No privacy curtain. No syringes in view. Rankin sat at the desk with Thornton at the side, and the on-duty deputy stood, creating an equilateral triangle. I was behind Rankin, ducking so Thornton couldn’t see me. Although he’d signed off for me sit in, I worried about being a distraction. And when he tilted his head left to stare at me, even five seconds felt like 30. Rankin tried to keep him on point with her questions, but mostly failed.
During their 20-minute talk, she asked about wounds, communicable diseases, whether he took medications or had ever had a mental evaluation. She also asked, four different ways, if Thornton thought about killing himself. He rambled. He wondered why the Navy held up his recruiting, said he had schizophrenia but didn’t take medicine, and that he could kill himself if he wanted, since he was a black belt in martial arts.
As the conversation progressed, the deputy edged protectively toward Rankin. He spread his legs to seem bigger, until he stood a foot from her and still three feet from Thornton. When I asked about it later, Rankin said she often gets so involved with the patient that she forgets about safety, while the deputy never does.
“That’s why I feel safer working here than in a hospital ER. The deputy is always here.”
Thornton stepped back in the hallway and stood with two deputies. Without warning, he did a rolling pitch onto the floor and bounced back up on both feet. Calmly, the deputies asked him to sit in a wheel chair and took him to a single cell medical unit for the night, where he could practice his martial arts and get back onto his meds.
As Rankin watched him go, she said, “Another one who shouldn’t be in jail, but there’s no where else for him to go.”
* * *
I was encouraged to read the 29 July 2015 Idaho Statesman article about the Boise Police Department’s newly announced mental health coordinator. Penelope Hansen will work with people like Thornton to get help outside of jail and support law enforcement officers get the training they need.
Maybe next time, Joey Thornton will have other options.