An inmate’s day at the Benton County jail starts with breakfast around 6 a.m. “We try to sleep into the day as much as we can. Most people just go get their breakfast, put it in their cell, and go back to sleep,” said a Corvallis resident and OSU graduate who wished to remain anonymous. He is finishing a sentence for DUI and other charges. Once he’s released, he’s hoping to move to Portland after his girlfriend graduates. He’s a worker at the jail, which has reduced his 60-day sentence by 21 days.
He says one of the most difficult parts of being at the jail is, “Finding ways to occupy your time and not worrying about how long you have to be here, or what’s coming next. A lot of people come in and don’t know when their next court date is, or when they’re going to be able to talk to their lawyer.” He reports that communication by phone is difficult, because it’s by collect call only.
He hasn’t seen much conflict at the Benton County facility, but it’s not always smooth sailing. “If someone disagrees with you or they’re getting on your nerves, it can be frustrating because you’re stuck in a room the size of this area,” indicating the tiny visiting room with his hands, “with another guy that you might not get along with at all and you’ve got to try your best to keep quiet or stay away from him.”
Sergeant Keith Hunnemuller, a 14-year employee of the jail, opens the door to the tiny kitchen where meals are kept in the freezer and heated in a convection oven by inmate workers. A water main breakage has just shut off the jail’s water, and he jokes with the kitchen worker about it soon being back on.
“Got to make sure you get your hot bath,” he said.
“Like you care,” the inmate responded, with a mix of sarcasm and amusement.
The meals are frozen TV-style dinners; there are seven different types, one for each day of the week. Along with a few vegetables, there’s beef stew, turkey with gravy and potatoes, enchiladas, ravioli, and corn dogs. Hunnemuller held up a meal containing the corn dogs.
Lunch is served at 11:30 a.m., then from noon to 1 p.m. inmates are on lockdown in their cells, and can watch television, socialize, or read. Dinner is served at 5 p.m., and a minimum-security prisoner gets access to the day room from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Lights-off is at midnight, but inmates have personal lights in their cells.
Dillan Prudhomme was admitted about a week ago for failure to appear in court after a DUI and other charges. He said immediately that the hardest thing about being in jail is the lack of contact with people. “My mom’s going through emergency surgery and I can’t contact her at all, and [the guards] don’t give a shit.” There’s a pay phone, but he says a long-distance phone call costs at least $10.
“The food’s not too bad, it’s pretty clean,” Prudhomme continued. “The jail’s pretty clean. Compared to [the jail] where I live in Douglas County, it’s a 10. Lot cleaner, lot friendlier here.”
Deputies, Inmates, and Humans
Captain Diana Rabago started working at the jail about 20 years ago as an on-call staff member. She worked her way up to the rank of captain, and became the jail commander about two years ago.
“It’s exciting, frustrating, fulfilling, all rolled into one. It can be very stressful at times. We have a very good group of people working here, and leadership I can depend on. We do function somewhat as a family because we work in such close proximity. I’m still learning—something new happens every year. It’s definitely a situation where you learn to roll with the punches.”
Prudhomme sees it in less familial terms.
“For the most part they treat you pretty good, other than they get that little bit of control they want. If you ask for something that’s rather important to an inmate, they’ll make you wait a day or two for it, just because they know you want it. Tie it into something legal and they’ll do it. This is a big game to them,” he said.
Not all inmates see it quite so cynically.
“The deputies here are the nicest out of everywhere I’ve been,” said an inmate who wished to remain anonymous. “They treat you like a human. [At a lot of other jails], the deputies treat you like a criminal or like a dog in a cage. I think a lot of people don’t think they’re getting heard because they don’t go about it the way the deputies tell you to. You’re supposed to go through the kiosk in the day room, write it as a note to them and they’re pretty good about answering you back very quick. If you have a serious complaint it will get figured out.”
Rabago spoke to the deputies’ behavior: “It’s kind of the old philosophy that if you give respect you’ll probably get respect in return. That’s how we operate here. We’re not here to judge them, we’re not here to punish them. We’re here to manage the building and keep everyone safe.”
Outsourcing Jail Beds
Individuals who have already been sentenced are generally sent to contract facilities, while the Benton County jail is largely home to people awaiting trial.
“This jail has become pretty much a pre-trial holding facility rather than an actual corrections facility,” said Rabago.
Inmates stay an average of seven days before release or transport to another facility. AA, Narcotics Anonymous, and church services are provided but inmates don’t usually stay long enough to complete programs. In 2013, 1,772 inmate transports were conducted with a total of 16,973 miles traveled.
“It can be hard not knowing if you might be getting transferred at a certain time to a different county. From what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen other people experience, the not knowing is the most difficult,” said the anonymous inmate.
‘The New Asylums’
“We get a lot of inmates in that suffer from mental illness, and that problem seems to be increasing year to year, and that’s statewide, not just with our jail. Mental illness and jails seem to go hand-in-hand these days. The jails have almost become the new asylums for a lot of people,” said Rabago. It’s a sentiment echoed by a 2013 piece in The Wall Street Journal, which studied mental illness rates in prisons across the country. Oregon had a significantly higher rate than all but one of the 21 other states that responded to the survey; 50 percent of inmates in our prisons have mental health problems.
In 2013 the jail spent 39 percent—just over $10,000—of its medication budget on psychotropic medications. A psychiatrist makes twice-monthly visits, and there is a doctor on call. A nurse works three-quarters of the time and manages monthly reporting as well as ordering and dispensing medication.
“The jail is so small that you can hear from one end to the other. Recently one of our deputies went out and purchased a box of foam earplugs, and we issued them to all the inmates back here because we did have a mentally ill inmate in holding who would not stop screaming at night and was literally keeping the entire jail up all night,” Rabago said regarding the mental health issue. “You get some pretty grumpy inmates when they don’t get sleep.”
A Wakeup Call
The eternal challenge of the prison system is finding methods to correct behavior rather than just keeping inmates behind bars.
“I would like this to be a corrections facility and not just a jail,” said Rabago.
The inmate who wished to remain anonymous said his time in jail has changed his perspective.
“You realize how fun reading can be, you realize how much you can get into a book, how much fun playing cards and little things can be, and [I realize] I really don’t need to be out drinking with my buddies. I had a job, I had a big house that I was renting, I had all my bills paid for, I have two dogs. My life was good to go. And I had to put all my stuff in a storage unit, have my grandma take care of my dogs, had to quit my job, and now I’m going to get out of here with no job, and I don’t know where I’m going to live. Having to take a step back from the progress I was making in my personal life was really hard,” he said, continuing, “You’ve got to accept what’s going on and take it from there. It can be good for you, and I feel like it has been good for me… It’s a wakeup call for sure, and it should be. That’s what it’s designed to be.”