When I left the Ada County jail just before 3 a.m. one night, I was shaking and shaken. Shaking because I’d not eaten, had too little coffee and it was way past my bedtime.
But shaken for reasons good and bad.
Shaken at seeing so many people with mental health illness who had nowhere else to go. Helpless at being unable to change that. Shaken to realize that with almost 15,000 people booked annually into the jail, most of us know someone who’s spent time there. Irritated at the flood of negative stories about law enforcement agencies and wondering why more can’t get it right. And curious at how the jail employees can be so focused for 12-hour shifts in a closed environment and then change cultures and mindsets when they leave for home and the rest of their lives.
For years, I’ve studied and written about the Ada County (Idaho) Sheriff’s Office, including the jail, as an organization that is nationally recognized as being creative and high-performing. It also houses one of the state’s largest hospitals.
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The U.S. Bureau of Justice estimates that 40% of inmates have chronic medical conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure. The Treatment Advocacy Center claims that at least 20% have serious mental illnesses. With an aging population and fewer mental health resources, jails take up the slack. Also, as alternative sentencing options increase for lesser offenders, only the most dangerous remain inside.
It’s a perfect storm: more dangerous inmates with more medical problems. But many of the staff at the jail say their jobs are the best they’ve ever had.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll write about the 88-bed jail hospital, invisible to most of us. To learn about it, I spent 27 hours, including a night at the jail, shadowing three nurses, a social worker and several deputies who protect them and the inmates. Of the 42 patients I observed with the staff, six were suicide risks, several had mental illnesses, one had punched a wall, another had a spider bite, and several had ear, back or stomach pain. For each visit, one deputy—or two with a maximum security inmate—stood by, in “relaxed vigilance,” calm but alert.
As one deputy told me, “lots of people tell the stories of the inmates, but who knows about the people who work inside?” Got me thinking--if they can get it right on the inside, maybe inmates have more chance to get it right on the outside.
When you’re arrested, your life changes in ways you can’t control. Of course you keep your name and birth date. But if you stay overnight, you start a process of loss, of redefining who you are and will be. You give up your clothes, your wallet, and your wedding ring. You lose control over your time and your privacy. You wear a uniform, share a room with strangers, and eat food when someone else tells you to.
At such a vulnerable point in most people’s lives, who takes care of them, mentally and physically? Health care and law enforcement employees of a jail hold a lot of power in that situation. As we’ve seen too frequently, many abuse it. But our county jail employees try hard to get it right. What and how they do it will be the focus of this blog over coming weeks.