Jail study is a wake-up call for everyone

Published 6:54 am Wednesday, December 5, 2018


Contributing columnist

The Boyle-Mercer County Detention Center Study is finally a reality. The long awaited results have been presented in several meetings. Last week, the public was invited to hear the findings and recommendations. Many people are still sifting through the large document, looking for guidance in our community’s way forward as major decisions are made about the jail.

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The Brandstetter Carroll consultants made it clear that the building does not meet the needs of inmates, staff, or support persons visiting and/or providing services to the inmates. Physical plant issues must be addressed, as the Joint Jail Committee looks at a list of options. Adequate shelter is a basic human need, and what is done about this “shelter” for some of our community residents is the groundwork for other progress. Repeatedly, we have heard from the consultants that the current space does not lend itself to the list of possible positive program changes.

With regard to program changes, Boyle and Mercer County leaders have the opportunity to be part of a national movement of real second chances for people who have made mistakes. Decision makers have a chance to step up for rehabilitation and away from incarceration only. They can build in treatment for mental health problems and substance use disorders, provide adequate physical health care, and give more opportunities for spiritual healing. Education can be better emphasized, and community re-entry planning and case management can be a given for all preparing to leave our local facility after serving time for their offenses. The consultants have provided some excellent examples in the report of what is being done in other communities, and what might be developed in ours.

Brandstetter Carroll also pointed out serious issues in criminal case processing, and a justice system that often appears to harm, rather than help. Changes there can have a major positive effect on jail population numbers, and on the lives of offenders and their families.

There are some important community messages that must not be overlooked, as we discuss issues such as what to do about the building and the programming inside the jail of our future. The first message is about some heroes who have emerged. We must not let plans move forward without recognizing the leadership efforts of some for the greater good.

One of those heroes is retiring jailer Barry Harmon. During his 16 years as jailer, he came to see that mental health problems and addiction contribute in a major way to crime rates, and as he grappled with it, he took it upon himself to educate the community. He saw to it that the successful SAP (Substance Abuse Program) for state inmates in our jail was implemented, and he was one of the first to advocate for the Shepherds House diversion treatment program. His staff — including Harmon’s incoming successor, Brian Wofford — are also to be recognized. The consultants have repeatedly stated that the kindness of jail staff to inmates has been remarkable and commendable. For years, they have made very challenging overcrowded conditions bearable. Kindness matters, and we owe a debt of gratitude to our jail staff for going the extra mile.

Another set of heroes includes those who chose to speak up about the overcrowded jail, ask difficult questions, and request answers. One particular concerned citizen led the charge to point out flaws in our criminal justice system. The Advocate-Messenger’s editorial staff also belongs on this “hero list,” as do members of Boyle and Mercer fiscal courts.

The second set of community messages has to do with the responsibility every one of us has to address and prevent problems more effectively. The report is a wake-up call to each of us who lives in these two counties.

It has been said across this country that most of us failed to heed the warning signs and see this addiction crisis coming. We have also failed to advocate for mental health services, even as mental illness rates have risen. And, often, education has not taken priority in our public spending priorities. In calling for improved community collaboration, the jail study hits us hard in the report: “There is no magic bullet. Addiction has been prevalent in the community for many years in various forms. Work on this issue will have to be ongoing.”

In Beth Macy’s acclaimed 2018 book, “Dopesick,” she recommends a “reinvigorated democracy” as one of the overriding antidotes to the opioid crisis and all of the problems associated with it. Like so many other writers, she stresses community building.

In Boyle and Mercer counties, let’s not lose this opportunity to make some changes in our jail and community. We have great examples that one person or small groups of people can bring attention to problems and make a difference. Democracy does work. Indeed, every voice matters as we move forward into finding and implementing solutions.

Kathy L. Miles is coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy Inc.