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Tales From the Local Jail: ‘They Don’t Just Sit Around’
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 04/30/2018

Jail doors It’s interesting what you read in the local newspaper about your local jail. There are stories about escapes, contraband, and unfortunately at times-inmate suicides and sexual misconduct involving staff and inmates.

But-once in a while you read a comment-though well meaning-that is inaccurate. In a way it shows what the good citizens do not know about our local jails. I am not in any way calling our citizens ignorant. They do pay our salary, but at times appear misinformed. All they may know about the jail in their community is based on what they see on the news, or what they see in the movies or on a television show.

Jails are a part of the community, especially in public safety. Every jurisdiction has a local or county police; all have access to a local court. They serve the taxpayer-by enforcing the laws and adjudicating cases of those people who have violated the law. The local jail is no less important.

When a citizen sees a police car, he or she is thankful that a law enforcement professional is watching out for their safety. When they see a courthouse, they may think ‘those wrongdoers will get their just desserts’.

But-when they pass by the local jail, what do they think? Hopefully they think that they are safer due to the professional dedication, training and high standards of the men and women working inside them. They keep us safe, by keeping the bad people-the criminal offenders-locked up.

So-imagine my surprise recently when I read an email to my local newspaper from a citizen. The newspaper has a feature that prints e mails from the local citizenry-some complain, some praise the things and people in the community.

Titled ‘Litter Pickup’, this person (anonymous) wrote that while driving on one of the main roads in a neighboring community, he or she saw inmates picking up trash on the side of the road. The e mail went on to say that the county [apparently where he or she lives-Author’s note] “got a whole jail full of people sitting down there doing nothing. Why don’t they use them to do it instead of paying a contractor with tax dollars to pick up the trash?” It ends with a question-asking the reader if he or she is the only one that this does not make sense to and opines that the powers that be in the county does not see it either.

So-I asked myself if this opinion and view of the ‘jail full of people doing nothing’ is widespread. And-in my life I have heard people saying “get the inmates to pick up the trash-they just sit around all day watching television and playing cards!” I guess that they think that jail officers just sit around all day as well.

As a corrections professional who has worked inside a jail, including supervising an inmate community work program, I can assure mister or missus taxpayer that not all inmates are suitable to be in the community picking up the trash. I do not think that the good citizens want an assaultive inmate, a drug dealing inmate, a sex offender, gang member or a mentally ill inmate out in the community-even under guard.

To me-and I bet many jail officers-this presents an opportunity to ‘shine’ to our taxpayers. Many citizens are not familiar with their local jail-who is locked up, the training of the men and women who serve, and the careful screening that takes place before we just put those ‘sitting around’ inmates out in the community. Let’s look at the facts:
  • If you ask any jail officer what types of offenders are locked up in his or her jail, the most probable answer will be: mentally ill, drug users, sex offenders, hard core repeat offenders and substance abusers. Others include minor offenders-traffic offenses, property crimes, etc. Jails are a potpourri of criminals-a ‘mixed bag’. Due to their behavior, criminal histories and nature of their crimes, not all are suitable to take out into the community to perform work. Jail staff must carefully screen out those who could pose a problem-such as bringing in contraband, resisting authority or escaping. To the folks who say that there is a whole jail full of inmates just sitting around and put them to work; they are the same citizens who would complain that a serial burglar is out on the roads picking up trash. Not all inmates are suitable for community inmate labor programs.
  • Inmates are screened: An inmate inside a jail cannot just say: “Hey! Put me out there because I want to work and repay my debt to society!” There is criteria. A good example can be found at the Washington County, Oregon, Sheriff’s Office. Inmates are carefully screened to work outside the jail. They must have exemplary jail behavioral records, have no violent criminal histories and are nearing the end of their sentences. Other criteria that most, if not all jails look at include being medically able to work, not charged with sex offenses and having no violent offenses. Substance abuse histories are also looked at carefully. Inmates are interviewed carefully by staff to see of both their attitude and behavior are suitable.
  • Inmate community labor programs do save money-the inmates do perform work usually accomplished by paid employees or by a contracted company. For example, the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff recently reported an annual savings of almost $1.5 million to the taxpayers. This was a result of inmates performing work on public roads, playgrounds, parks, bus stops, etc.
  • Jails strive to cultivate a good public image. That is why inmate candidates for community labor are carefully screened. No sheriff or jail superintendent wants incidents of inmates committing crimes in the community or escaping being reported to the news media. The system is not foolproof, but if staff is carefully selected, professional and trained, this risk is minimized.

In closing, the next time you drive by a jail inmate work crew, wearing those orange jumpsuits, being guarded by a jail officer-remember this: A lot of planning and screening went into letting those inmates work in the community. Yes-some inmates are just sitting in the jail-and those are the ones that the taxpayers DO NOT want out in the community. Cut your local jails some slack-they have earned it.

Cut your local jails some slack-they have earned it.

Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/sheriff
The Virginia Gazette, (2018, March 10). Last Word, p. 5D.
Washington County Sheriff, Oregon.

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University.


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