When I first was elected Sheriff in 1993, I was amazed to learn that under previous administrations inmates were treated free to things that cost you and I (law abiding citizens) good money – things like cable TV, rental movies, unlimited visits to the doctor’s office, and coffee.
Slowly, I put a stop to all of that nonsense. Too many jails in this country are just shy of being like hotels. That isn’t right. It isn’t fair to taxpayers to cough up lots of money so people who are accused of breaking the law can have some pleasantries while incarcerated.
To my way of thinking, an inmate gets a bed, meals, limited TV, no rental movies, no radio and no coffee. What nutritional benefit to coffee is there, anyway? It’s a luxury item especially at today’s prices! Furthermore, I banned inmates from smoking in jails, took away pornographic magazines, asked inmates to pay a co-pay for doctor’s visits they initiate, cut the number of meals down to two a day; ruled that the only mail going in or out of the jail is on postcards so they can’t hide drugs or other contraband in sealed envelopes, took away basketball and issued inmates the old fashioned black and white striped uniforms and of course, pink underwear because they kept stealing the white underwear when they left jail.
I keep saying, “ People shouldn’t live better in jail than they do on the outside.” Here in my jails, they don’t. The jails are austere but humane. Inmates get a little sunlight every day, some TV like the weather channel, Disney, food network and C-span. They get two meals and 2900 calories a day – the food isn’t great, that is true but it’s cheap (13 to 20 cents per meal) because we get a lot of free or near free food from various vendors and we send inmates to agricultural fields to glean produce in order to drive down the cost of food. And I started chain gangs. We have three - a male and a female chain gang (the only one in the country, maybe even the world) which go out daily to perform free labor to the cities around this valley. And we have a juvenile chain gang as part of the jailhouse school curriculum.
I’m always thinking of ways to save taxpayers money. It isn’t easy. Our inmate population has grown from 4800 when I became Sheriff to now 10,000 or so. Everything associated with the care and custody of these inmates has gone up in price too. But we continue to endeavor.
I have come to be known as the “Toughest Sheriff in America” because of these “get tough” policies. But I have a softer side too. So I have also implemented a series of programs aimed at helping inmates improve their life skills.
I believe inmates need to spend their time in jail as constructively as possible. I have many, many programs to help them succeed if and when they leave jail. Drug and alcohol resistance programs, parenting and self esteem classes, I even started the nation’s only jailhouse high school called “Hard Knocks High” for those juveniles remanded to adult custody who did not receive a high school diploma before they landed in jail.
I am proudest perhaps of my ALPHA program. It is a six month long drug/alcohol treatment program. Inmates who complete the classes and graduate have a very low recidivism rate meaning they rarely come back to jail for breaking the law again.
Recently I offered inmates the chance to give back to society by becoming organ donors and many have signed up. A few months ago we even had a talent contest called “Inmate Idle” where Alice Cooper came to Tent City to judge inmates’ singing abilities. It was a fun day for everyone and was a positive influence on all those who participated.
I like to think outside the box when it comes to jail policies and programs. We have to try everything we can to help inmates to be better citizens.
What I am sure of is this: Education and drug and alcohol resistance is key to every inmate’s success story. Sometimes though, no matter what laws are in place or what programs jails offer, there are people who will continue a life of crime. I wish it weren’t true but wishing doesn’t make it so.
For those who keep breaking the law, this Sheriff has room for them. I don’t turn inmates out onto the streets because of overcrowded jails. I came up with a solution for that problem along time ago. It’s called Tent City and it will probably be the thing I’ll best be remembered for…
[Information courtesy www.sheriffjoe.org]