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Tales From the Local Jail: The Salvage Business
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 08/06/2018

Jail cells I am a ‘programs guy’. But I was also a jail deputy. Maybe there are some in the jail field that think that you cannot be both-one must be one or the other. To them you must think security all of the time, that inmates put themselves in jail by making bad choices, and jail programs and the staff that run them are trying to climb a hopelessly high mountain. Programs people do not appreciate security, etc.

A true corrections professional has a makeup of both security and rehabilitation. It is true that many inmates attend programs….and many get out and return to jail with new charges. Most jail inmates are released to the street, and if we do not try to change them while they are inside, our careers will be like we are stuck in a revolving door.

State prisoners come to the local jail before their cases are adjudicated. According to recent statistics from the United States Justice Department released in May, 2018, approximately 68 percent of state prisoners were arrested within 3 years of release. An estimated 79 percent were locked up again within 6 years of release and 83 percent within 9 years (Alper, Durose and Markham, 2018, 1.)

It is discouraging to see inmates who have attended programs, done well in them, behaved well in the jail and say to staff that they will not be back return in handcuffs. It is easy to write them off. But-corrections at all levels-federal, state and local-are in the people business. We offer criminal offenders the tools to fix their lives. This toolbox-programs-is always open. Some inmates take advantage of these tools, and some do not. With some inmates, change may take some time.

On more than one occasion I have met inmates on the street that attended jail programs and stayed out of trouble once released. They were clean, sober, and had families and good jobs. I do not wear blinders-I realize for every jail inmate who has ‘made it’, there are ones that like being a criminal, are immature and will always come in and out of the jail.

I can also see why jail correctional officers (COs) and deputies get a little ‘jaded’ and discouraged. They get to know the inmates, and many hope that the inmates will succeed. But in reality-many do not.

Hence the title! To be in corrections, you must be a type of people person, hoping that the inmates will turn their lives around and salvage what is left. You keep inmates safe, you are responsible for their safety and welfare, and when they do ‘straighten out’ many of us feel good. So-we keep trying and sometimes change in an inmate takes time. But change is not impossible. Recently I was talking to a good friend of mine, Dr. Kevin Courtright from my alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He told me about the twenty fifth anniversary of the Pennsylvania state prison, Albion SCI. One of its former superintendents, Ed Brennan, said that he was advised early in his career that he was in the ‘salvage business, not the garbage business’. At the State Correctional Institution (SCI), Albion, inmates can learn building and construction skills, data entry, Microsoft programs certification and how to drive a forklift. The institutional climate is positive, with little or no unrest. Only one escape has occurred since 2007, and inmate fights and infractions do happen occasionally among the 2,270 inmates. The warden, Michael Clark, stated:

“The goal for any of us in corrections would be that they [inmates] leave here and don’t return. We know one of the ways to ensure that is that they leave here with some skills that they could get gainful employment.” (Last, 2018)

This can be true for the local jail as well. There will always be crime-and there will always be inmates. That said, jail officers and deputies will always have job security. But-in my view-we have a moral duty to offer the inmates the tools of change. Jail programs offer inmates’ hope and the possibility that their lives will not be placed on society’s garbage heap, but may be salvaged. Some do want to get out and stay out. They are the ones that are at the cellblock door ready to go when you call out the programs list. They are the ones who treat programs staff and volunteers with respect. They are the ones that earn their GED, get clean and sober by attending the jail’s substance abuse programs or change their ways of criminal thinking. They are the ones who are working on their reading homework, while their friends are playing cards. Or-sometimes inmates change through religious programs, finding a higher power to guide them. And yes, I know-some attend programs just to get out of the cellblock or unit. Some manipulate staff or use program sessions to meet up with their friends and pass contraband. But if a jail programs staff works closely with good, professional COs, many of these insincere inmates are weeded out. I am not naïve; there are many inmates that due to their charges, criminal histories, risk of escape, being assaultive, being incompatible and showing negative behavior should never be allowed to attend programs. Programs should be for the inmates who have earned the privilege through respecting staff, respecting other inmates, following the rules and trying to make something of themselves.

In the eight years that I supervised jail programs at the Fairfax County, VA Adult Detention Center, I was and still am, very proud of the work my staff and I did, working with treatment agencies, educational agencies, offender help organizations and religious organizations to bring both hope and a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ to inmates who are sincere about change. Supervising programs requires staff to be balanced-both recognizing the value of programs and the security needs of the facility. While resisting inmate manipulation must be a key component of this training, other areas must include wearing proper identification, jail rules, contraband, emergencies and adhering to jail policies. But-one of the most important aspects of programs training in the jail is the existence of an open two way communications system between volunteers, civilian programs personnel and sworn staff. They have to both respect the others’ jobs and be open minded.

My staff and I worked with the local school board, local churches, the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, the local community services board and several other rehabilitation organizations. One nonprofit agency, Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources has a great motto: Breaking the Cycle of Crime with Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources. (www.oarnova.org). Another is the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. Included in its jail programming are the topics of acceptance as a person, getting along with those around us, forgiveness, how to handle both incarceration and getting out and responsibility and accountability to family, job and authority (www.goodnews.org). I urge any jail CO reading this column to check out both of these organizations.

These and other programs organizations have good people-and through their efforts, that person behind you in line at the grocery store is going to pay his bill, not bother anyone and behave. He may have at one time been in jail-and maybe his life was ‘salvaged’.

Alper, Mariel, Ph.D., Matthew R. Durose and Joshua Markham. (May 2018). Special Report: 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: a 9-Year Follow-Up Period (2005-2014). U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. www.bjs.gov

Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. www.goodnews.org

Last, J. (2018, April 19). A Rare Look Inside the Walls of SCI-Albion. Erie News Now. Retrieved from http://www.erienewsnow.com

OAR Fairfax. www.oarnova.org

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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