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Hats off to county corrections
By Brian Dawe
Published: 10/06/2008

Lightbulbs Last year, I was asked to testify as an expert witness on corrections at a contract arbitration in New York. I’ve done this so many times in the past, so I felt a few hours reviewing some new statistics would be all I needed to refresh my memory.

When I began to prepare my presentation I was stunned at the differences between the inmates I encountered as a state correctional officer and those of my brothers and sisters working in a county system. The first thing that jumped out was the disparity between the number of assaults on staff in these facilities compared to state and federal prisons.

The number of assaults on staff in our nation’s county jails was nearly double that in our state prisons and almost triple the assault rate in federal facilities. County jails have an assault rate on staff of 2.7 per 100 inmates. In state facilities it’s 1.4 per 100 and 0.9 in the federal system.

When I looked at the Average Daily Population (ADP) totals for the past ten years I found that although the number of inmates in state custody had increased by 30.45% from 1995 – 2006, the increase in our county jails was a whopping 51.07% during that same period. The assault rates began to make more sense.

There were other indicators that alarmed me such as suicide rates. Inmates commit suicide in state custody at a rate of 14 per 100,000. In the county systems that number was an astronomical 47 per 100,000 - a rate more than three times higher.

Another major concern involved mental health issues - 56% of state inmates were found to have some form of mental disorder, while 64% of county inmates suffered from these maladies. Among state inmates, 15% were deemed to have psychotic disorders, while 24% of county inmates suffered from this dangerous condition - one out of every four inmates.

Also, I found that the AIDS/HIV rate among county inmates was three times higher than their state counterparts; 1.8% of the population compared to 0.5%. I attempted to look at the effect terrorism and tighter immigration enforcement is having on the system, but statistically it’s just too early to tell, although we do know that the overdue crackdown on illegal immigration is having a substantial impact on daily population levels.

We in corrections realize that 1/3 of all violent incidents in our nation’s prisons and jails are gang related, so I looked to see what if any discrepancies occurred in this area. No longer surprised, I found that 15.6% of county inmates were identified as gang members compared to 13.4% of state and 11.7% of federal inmates.

Armed with this information I had gained a newfound respect for my brothers and sisters in the county system. There is a misconception among the public when you discuss county, state and federal inmates. The public and much of the media and our politicians often look upon a county jail and say, “it’s only a jail, the real bad guys are in the state prison or federal pen.” How wrong they are.

According to Christopher Mumola, policy analyst for the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Almost every state prisoner has been through a period of jail confinement.”

The public, the media and our elected officials need to be made cognizant of this fact and the figures laid out above. Our county jails are most often the first stop for many inmates who will find themselves incarcerated for a majority of their lives.

In the state and federal system many of the inmates have been in the system before. Their learning curve on how to survive behind the walls is much further along than their county counterparts who, in many instances, are getting their first taste of confinement. That adds to an already very dangerous situation for the staff and the inmates.

In prison, an inmate often has between 24 and 72 hours to establish themselves as either predator or prey, (we don’t like it either, but that’s the way it is.) What they do, whom they chose to associate with, and how they interact with other inmates and staff in those first 100 hours or so can make a major difference in how their incarceration turns out and, in turn, affects how safe the environment is.

With 25 years in the business I have always had the greatest respect for anyone willing to put on that badge, put their lives on the line in the name of public safety, and work behind the walls. Whether it’s juvenile, local, county, state or federal, it’s a dangerous and difficult job.

But for today, my hat goes off to the men and women who work in our county systems. They do an amazing job.

The next time you drive by a county lock-up, don’t think for a minute that they are less violent, with less dangerous inmates – they aren’t. The men and women who work behind those walls deserve of the highest praise.

Brian Dawe is co-founder of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. He also is a founding member of Corrections USA and served as their Executive Director until August, 2006. He has been in corrections for more than 24 years, and served as a Massachusetts CO from 1982 to 1998. Dawe co-founded the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union where he served on the statewide Executive Board for nine years, and served as Grievance Coordinator, Executive Secretary and Vice President. He can be reached at ACOIN1@aol.com.

Other articles by Dawe:

Consistency for life


  1. Sohailkhatri on 02/05/2020:

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  2. Ifiksit on 10/30/2008:

    Thanks for the article it was refreshing reading that there are people that understand we do have high risk jobs. I can speak for most of my co-workers that at times feel that the public and sometimes even other Law enforcement personal do not appreciate the dedication we give to our agencies as well as the community. And as you stated in your article I can't even count how many times I have heard "it's only jail"...... I have had the opportunity to work in a large Correctional Facility and a small County Jail and I’ve got to say I believe the County Jail held more threat to the Jailer than the Correctional facility. I was now dealing with all kinds of intoxicated offenders, psychotic offenders and worse yet offenders that were on some kind of drug that we have no idea how it will affect the situation. Thanks again.

  3. Bruder31 on 10/12/2008:

    Thank you so much for this article. Corrections officers in county jails are often doubly condescended; by the public and their general lack of knowledge or indifference toward them, and by peers in law enforcement including corrections officers in the prison system. The reality is that all prison inmates begin their tour as a county inmate, and many county facilities lack the resources that a state or federal system has. Mentally ill inmates and especially violent individuals create a burden to county systems where it is difficult to segregate them. It is impossible to man a CERT team when there is only a minimum of officers to supervise the inmates on a daily basis and there is no window for such specialized training. Your research and statistics will be valuable in training and in building morale among officers in my department.

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