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Jail conditions hazardous for employees

Staff writer

Marion County jailers and dispatchers take a risk every hour, walking down a corridor of cells to perform a mandatory inmate check.

The corridor is narrow enough that an inmate could reach out and grab anyone walking by, but they are more likely to spit or throw bodily fluids, Sheriff Rob Craft said Friday. Employees occasionally receive verbal abuse, too.

It doesn’t happen often, but even once is too often.

“I don’t think anyone would want their daughter or wife subjected to that,” Craft said.

Dispatchers perform the checks at night, when a jailer isn’t on duty. If anything happens requiring more attention than inmate checks, dispatch calls for law enforcement officers.

In the mid-1980s inmates held a dispatcher captive after breaking out of their cells, Craft said. The dispatcher wasn’t hurt, but the situation easily could have been worse.

“There is no way you can walk down that aisle without them being able to touch you,” Emergency Management and Communications Director Michele Abbott said.

Inmates sometimes do things just to make dispatchers uncomfortable, like grabbing a dispatcher’s arm when they are handing out meals.

“They just sit back there and think about what they can do,” she said.

Dispatchers cannot take pepper spray with them to do jail checks, because they can’t risk an inmate taking it. Cameras in the jail help them know what inmates are doing before a check, but they still have to see them face-to-face.

The staircase to the jail on the second floor is another hazard for law enforcement. Inmates are booked in the basement of the building and have to be taken two floors higher to cells. If an inmate struggles with a jailer on the stairs, it becomes a risk for the jailer. Fortunately, such struggles haven’t resulted in anything worse than bumps and bruises, Craft said.

The county built the jail in 1932, and it met standards of the time.

“It served its purpose well,” Craft said.

But times changed, and more violent inmates are now kept in the jail than in years past. Those inmates are dangers to county employees, as well as inmates who only made a mistake, Craft said.

Jailers are required to separate violent inmates and those with psychiatric illness from other inmates. When the jail population peaks that becomes difficult. Sometimes it isn’t possible.

Furthermore, male and female inmates aren’t supposed to be able to see or hear one another, and female inmates have to be separated as carefully as males.

Ambulance crew access to the jail is another problem, Craft said. Landings on the staircase to the jail are not big enough to turn a stretcher on. A narrow turn at an entrance to the cell area requires standing a stretcher on end to get it through a doorway, even if a patient is on the stretcher.

Something has to be done about the jail, law enforcement officials said.

“For personal safety, it is extremely important,” Craft said.

Marion County Law Enforcement and Public Safety Center Committee toured the jail April 23. After the tour, committee members unanimously agreed remodeling the jail isn’t an acceptable solution.

In addition to considering a new jail, the committee is seeking information about the cost of transporting inmates to other jails.

“I don’t expect a plush office or a plush jail,” Craft said. “But I do want it to be safe and humane.”

Last modified Sept. 17, 2009

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