An Inside Job 

The county tries direct supervision of inmates at the jail. Will it fix the problems?

No one wants to be taken to the Shelby County jail. Not just because the noise is incessant, the cells overcrowded, or the smell physically assaulting. No, if you're there, you're in a world of trouble and not just because you've most likely broken the law.

For the past few years, the jail has struggled with the apparent lawlessness of the inmates housed within its walls. It was decertified in 1991. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found that conditions there violated the constitutional rights of the inmates. Currently embroiled in a federal case to clean up violence, the jail also has a growing number of civil rights cases filed against the lawmakers and administrators who run it.

Joseph Liberto filed suit after spending 36 hours in the facility last year; he says he was assaulted and raped with a spoon. Manuel Gonzalez Jr. has filed a lawsuit as well, saying that his jaw was fractured by an inmate when he refused to participate in Thunderdome, the wrestling-style fights gang members stage for entertainment. And the family of Kenny Adams, a 32-year-old retarded man who was mistakenly housed with violent inmates then beaten and sodomized, expects to file suit soon.

But now, as part of the federal court order, jail officials, county consultants, and lawmakers say they have a way to stymie the violence: an inmate management style called direct supervision.

Begun on a limited basis in October, direct supervision puts guards in cell blocks alongside inmates. It might sound experimental or even dangerous, but officials hope direct supervision might be the light at the end of the tunnel for a facility that's been troubled almost from the day it opened.


In any correctional facility there are a number of ways to stop inmate-on-inmate violence: single-cell the inmates, provide better supervision by lowering the population or adding more guards, or have a good classification system to keep violent inmates from being housed with nonviolent offenders.

"Think of a classroom," says Robert Hutton, an attorney for the plaintiffs in one current jail case. "What would happen if the teacher didn't sit in the classroom but closed the door and sat in a chair in the hall? And let's say you took all the bad kids in the school and put them in that one class."

It's probably not a class anyone would sign up to take. But this, says Hutton, is essentially the situation the county had set up in the jail. The Shelby County jail is not an anomaly, however; most American jails built more than 20 years ago utilize a type of inmate management called indirect supervision.

Traditionally, jails and prisons focused on keeping inmates in and everyone else out. That meant fences, bars, and officers stationed in towers with rifles. As time went by, indirect supervision got more high-tech, utilizing electric fences, automatic doors, video cameras, and blocks of monitors. Guards and inmates became separated even more. A guard might come by a cellblock every 30 minutes or so, look through the bars or security glass, count the inmates, and then leave.

"What happened was that the inmates, left to their own devices, set up their own social hierarchies," says Virginia Hutchinson, jails division chief for the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). "They behaved basically how they wanted to."

Under indirect supervision stronger inmates establish dominance and prey on weaker inmates. Inmates also have more time to plan disturbances or vandalize jail property. Hutchinson says that many officers may feel uncomfortable going into the cell block because it is so clearly the inmates' space.

"How well is that going to work?" asks Hutton. "It's not going to. The goal here is to put the teacher back into the classroom."

Direct supervision, which has been used in jails for about 20 years, takes the opposite approach. Inmates are actively and continuously supervised by an officer who is stationed inside the pod with the inmates.

"It was suggested by our consultants from the NIC," says Kathleen Spruill, one of the county's attorneys. "They recommended to the county that we move toward direct supervision in the jail. We already had a plan to move toward direct supervision in the new annex."

Each officer will have a workstation with a computer and a telephone inside the cell block. That way, the officer can easily find information on an inmate, such as when he needs to be in court. But more importantly, the officer will be interacting with the inmates, talking to them, watching them, and better able to stop conflicts, rapes, or Thunderdomes before they happen.

"In indirect supervision, we only know something's wrong when it reaches a crisis, but then someone's hurt or the fire's already started," says Hutchinson.

Most of the recent jail findings stem from a 1995 incident in which inmate Darius Little was gang-raped for nearly an hour. Little didn't get to see an officer until hours after the assault.

His story was not unusual. During hearings held by Judge Jon McCalla that eventually resulted in the county being ruled in contempt of court, it was revealed that jail officers were often not at their posts or, if they were, were often asleep. The court also learned that inmates regularly covered the windows of their cells with paper, blocking the guards' view.

"You don't want anybody to ever have any privacy in jail," says Hutton. "There is no right to privacy in jail. Privacy is when people get raped, stabbed, and beaten."


In October the county began the switch to direct supervision at 201 Poplar on the fifth and sixth floors. Inmates on those floors are classified as less violent and had previously been under a semidirect supervision system.

"It was thought that even in the worst of circumstances, there would still not be any bad incidents even under the worst scenario you could possibly imagine by doing the fifth and sixth floors first," says Charles Fisher, the court-appointed special master to the jail. Fisher's job is to observe the inner workings of the jail and determine if the county is moving forward in accord with the court order. He and his team were there the day of the switch.

"I got there about 5:30 a.m.," he says. "The shift came on at 6 and there was no fanfare, no trumpets, or anything like that."

There was some uncertainty among the staff about how everything would work. The inmates had been given the rules and regulations the day before but the officers didn't receive them until half an hour prior to their first shift.

"They were handed these and told, 'Here are the policies. Go ahead and follow them,'" says Fisher. "There was no explanation."

Direct supervision's management philosophy relies heavily on the officer being a professional instead of just someone who locks down the pod. They need to be able to interact with the inmates as well as detect a crisis. And they must be able to communicate and enforce the rules continuously and equably.

Officials worry that leaving the rules open to interpretation could set the officers up for problems with inmates. If an officer on another shift enforces the rules differently, it could affect control of the pod, and that could put jailers in danger.

"If the inmates want to take over a jail, any jail, they can," says Hutton. "If you're in there and it's 26 to one, it's not going to matter whether you're a woman or the strongest of men."

Monitors observed other problems in the switch. In their report they cited inadequate seating (which could potentially cause a "turf war") in the dayrooms, technical problems with the personal panic alarms, and the fact that the direct-response team, specially trained to come to an officer's assistance should there be a disturbance, was off-site the day of the switch training.

"The glitches pointed out in the monitors' report were really minor," says Spruill.

But the lower floors will be the real test. The first phase of switching the lower floors was slated for December 6th, but the move was delayed when a laundry fire damaged telephone cables on the fourth floor. Now the switch is slated to happen over the next few weeks.

What concerned the monitors, however, is that the small problems that occurred on floors five or six could turn into large problems on the lower floors, where inmates are more violent and the design of the floor is much less conducive to direct supervision.


An example of a correctional facility specially designed for direct supervision of inmates — the 132,500-square-foot Middlesex County jail in New Jersey.
By almost all accounts, the Shelby County jail is terribly designed, especially for direct supervision and especially on the lower floors.

Doug Morgan was the special master of the jail until he retired earlier this year because of health reasons. Although he's no longer involved in the case, he says he's not sure direct supervision is the answer to the jail's problems.

"That jail is not designed for direct supervision. It's like putting square blocks in round holes," he says.

The layout of the Shelby County jail is linear, with the cells in a row. Most direct-supervision jails have a podular design, where two floors of cells are clustered around a day room.

Morgan thinks both systems are viable, adding there's nothing wrong with indirect supervision if you don't put two inmates into each cell. He says a better solution would be cutting the inmate population down to capacity, either by farming them out to other facilities or building more space so inmates could be single-celled.

Single-celling is perhaps the best way to stop inmate-on-inmate violence in a linear jail; it becomes less important to see the inmates because movement is limited. The key is putting only one person in each cell.

"If you put everybody in their own little single cell, they can't get to anybody else and that stops the problem," says Hutton. "You can't rape somebody if you can't get to them."

Unfortunately, the higher the population of the facility, the higher the cost to single-cell the inmates.

"If you have a population of 2,500, you have to build 2,500 single cells with 2,500 toilets and 2,500 fancy doors that automatically open and close and all the reinforcements," says Hutton. "It can get very expensive."

But the NIC's Hutchinson says that it's hard to tell whether direct or indirect supervision is the more expensive system. Direct-supervision jails don't have to have a one-per-inmate mentality or install indestructible toilets, sinks, and showers. Those facilities also have lower costs for repairing and replacing broken items because inmates have less time to vandalize. On the other hand, direct supervision requires a higher level of inmate services, such as appetizing food and prompt medical attention. Without those services, a group of inmates can cause trouble, as in 1991 when 100 inmates rioted over the poor quality of their breakfast.

A good portion of the county's jail costs have gone to renovate and repair the existing space. As of the end of November, the county had spent over $500,000 for cell-block modifications, acoustic tiles and ceiling, and three conduit systems, all needed for direct supervision. Some of the work would have been necessary, court order or not.

"You can do direct supervision in that setting, but you have to work around those physical obstacles," Hutchinson says. "It's entirely possible, but you have to work at it."

Unfortunately, the physical space isn't the only thing that could keep direct supervision from working. The county has spent $150,000 on new computers and $170,000 for a new classification system, but no matter how much money they spend on equipment, the jail's personnel are key to making direct supervision work.


"When the staff first goes in, there's usually a lot of apprehension. It's a complete turnaround," says Hutchinson. "First you're telling them their safety is dependent on being away from the inmates; then you're telling them their safety is dependent on being with them all day."

An important key to making direct supervision work is that all the parties involved from the jail administrators down to the officer in the pod must understand the system.

Historically, the county's deputy jailers have often gotten the short end of the stick: less pay, longer hours, and poor working conditions. During the first stage of litigation, the jail spent $3.5 million and added 100 officers. Since then, 200 more have been hired. In January the first stage of pay parity begins. Deputy jailers who have a year's experience in the system will receive comparable salaries to deputy sheriffs with similar experience.

Even so, AFSCME president Byron Williams says that morale is at an all-time low among the jail officers.

"The concerns of the people inside the jail are not being taken seriously," he says. "An inmate who comes back from court with life doesn't care if he stabs or rapes an officer. They aren't listening to our concerns."

In 1996 jailer Deadrick Taylor was fatally shot in his driveway by a gang hit ordered by an inmate. The incident still preys heavily on jailers' minds.

Having worked in a direct-supervision facility, Williams says that there is a certain mindset required; inmates and officers need to know who's in charge of the pod. But Williams says that the union has never been invited to any of the meetings on the jail's problems.

"The deputy jailers are human beings and they deserve respect. They are the strength of the Sheriff's Department," says Williams. "Direct supervision and low officer morale don't go hand in hand."

The move to pay parity is supposed to help officers' morale, as was an across-the-board $600 payment. But something as simple as cleaning up the staff cafeteria, says Fisher, can make a huge difference.

"The problems in the jail in the past have been [from the] top down," says Fisher. "The people at the top, for whatever reason, did not seem to respect and value the jail and the people who worked there."

As much depends on the deputy jailers, much also depends on the administration, whose track record is questionable.

Chief Deputy Don Wright is running for sheriff next year. He says the department is already addressing the issues within the jail but acknowledges it wasn't completely voluntary.

"On the law-enforcement side, we have quality leadership who have made their way up through the ranks. On the other side," he says, "it's not politically popular to fund jails, so it's been historically neglected. It took the federal court stepping in to make it a priority."

Chief jailer Marron Hopkins declined to be interviewed for this article, as did Sheriff A.C. Gilless. However, a mistake such as having the direct-response team absent from the jail on a day where the odds for an inmate disturbance were seemingly higher leads to questions about the administration's priorities. Williams suggests the department simply wants to comply with the court order and get the federal court off the jail.

Many of the candidates for sheriff Bobby Taylor, Randy Wade, Mike Jewell, and Wright already work in the Sheriff's Department. Mark Luttrell, the county's division of corrections director, does not.

"Jails don't have to be dirty, loud, or out of control," says Luttrell. "When I go there, I see a jail that is out of control."


"The way it is right now," says Chuck Fisher, "the inmates pretty much run the pods. They tear up county property. They abuse other inmates, which can cost the county thousands, if not millions, in lawsuits. And their disrespect for authority is only reinforced in the current system."

In the case that led to the current court order, Darius Little was awarded $10,000. Liberto's case, in which the rape was never substantiated by an internal jail investigation, asks for $75,000. Gonzales' suit asks for $3 million.

In a statement after his assault, Darius Little wrote: "Now I sleep in terror, haveing [sic] back flashes, night meres, inmates constantly brinning up the subject, bothering me, I have councling trying to cope with my situation at hand."

Joseph Liberto wants to move on with his life but says he can't. He says he can't do a lot of things these days, including sleeping or lifting anything heavier than 20 pounds. He does go to doctors. A urologist. A psychologist. A spinal surgeon.

Kenny Adams' family had to watch him reenact his assault. From the point where someone hit him and held him down to when they touched his penis and inserted a blunt object into his rectum.

"If you're doing [direct supervision] right, if the staff is well-trained and the inmates are correctly classified and the administration believes in it, I'm having trouble thinking of any drawbacks," says Hutchinson.

But how and when will we know that direct supervision is working? So far, everyone seems pleased with what's happened on the fifth and sixth floors. County attorney Spruill says she was amazed at how calm it is; Fisher says he's optimistic about the system but the jury is still out.

"[Jail officials] said the officers' absentee rate has gone way, way down," says Fisher. "It may be in response to pay parity, but that number has been horrendous before. Now it's a much more manageable figure."

But accurate comparative data on violence in the jail before and after the switch might be difficult to obtain, Fisher says.

"The monitors have a strong suspicion that not all the incidents of violence were being reported before, either by the officers or even by the inmates to the officers, so any compilation of statistics is meaningless," says Fisher. "If something goes wrong in direct supervision and an officer doesn't see it, they have to be blind."

This is the crux: The officers should see and prevent behavior such as Thunderdome or a man getting sodomized with a spoon. They should realize an obviously retarded man has been misclassified and put in with violent offenders and correct the situation.

"There have been places where direct supervision has been a disaster," says Fisher. "And it will be a disaster [here] unless everybody understands their role in the jail. This is our best chance for success."

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