Commissioners review jail

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton grabs a plate of chow at the Island County Jail during the commission
Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton grabs a plate of chow at the Island County Jail during the commission's annual visit to the facility last Monday.
— image credit: Rick Levin

It's not something you see every day -- politicians breaking bread in the hoosegow.

Yet, there it was this week in the Island County Jail. During a brief hour they spent in jail late Monday morning, the Board of County Commissioners supped from the inmates' lunch menu -- meat and gravy, carrots and potatoes, a roll and a cookie served on large plastic trays with 25-cent sporks, all washed down with a glass of watery red punch.

No, they weren't being held on any charges, trumped-up or otherwise; Commissioners Mike Shelton, Mac McDowell and Bill Thorn were just doing their jobs. Every year, to keep themselves informed on the state of law enforcement in their jurisdiction, the board takes a tour of the Island County jail facilities.

Part of this duty included a test run of the lunch menu provided by CFM, the jail's new food service provider. The sheriff's office inked a contract with CFM six months ago to save money. Doing so allowed the office to lay off three county employees.

The consensus on the new food? Not bad. Each commissioner cleaned his plate.

This year, the tour was led by county sheriff Mike Hawley and J.D. Burns, a veteran of Island County law enforcement who took over as chief jail administrator last year. Along with board clerk Elaine Marlowe, the two men led a group through every corner of the county lockup.

The best advice here: Don't get locked up, not unless you like doing without. There are no cigarettes. There's no coffee, because it costs a couple thousand dollars a year. And there's no regular TV, so keeping up with "Survivor" is out.

Basically, it's all no nonsense, because running the jail is expensive. Jail staff process between 2,500 and 3,000 prisoners a year, Hawley said, prisoners who are housed at taxpayer expense to the tune of $66.66 a day.

The average stay of an inmate is 13 days, though this data is skewed a bit by the relatively high number of prisoners who stay less than 72 hours. There are other individuals serving out two-, three- and four-year sentences in the jail.

The number of inmates Monday was 55. There are 59 beds. It takes 18 staffers to run the jail around-the-clock; the county has 19 people on the jail payroll.

According to Hawley, an informal poll among inmates ranked Island County's jail as the toughest place to do time in the state. Such a reputation might be due to the changing nature of crime and law enforcement in the region. Though a predominantly rural area, Island County is confronted with big city problems. Hidden away from public view, the jail houses some definitively rough types.

Gone are the days when the only people tossed in jail around here were the "loveable town drunks," Hawley said. Over the past few years crimes that land people in the jail have been more dangerous. Drunk drivers, illegal drug users and violent offenders are commonplace, to the point where deputies must prioritize who they haul in.

"We used to hold everybody," Hawley said, joking that people were collared for simply spitting on the sidewalk. "Not any more."

He said one of the most difficult aspects of running the jail in a time of overall budget crisis in the county is keeping up with rising health costs. Many of the individuals who cycle through the jail are either mentally ill or drug addicted, while a high number of inmates take medication, in some cases a variety of medications. Top this off with concern about the outbreak of infectious or contagious diseases from tuberculosis, Hepatitis B and H.I.V., and it's easy to understand why many jail workers feel stressed out -- which they are, according to Burns. But that doesn't stop him from doing his job.

"It's challenging, and I like a challenge," Burns said of overseeing the jail's day-to-day operations. He said his job is made far easier by such new technologies as the direct-link video courtroom, which allows judges to book inmates via a video conferencing center in which a lawyer can also be present. This saves the county both time and money in transportation costs between different jurisdictions.

Burns said he hopes someday every county in the state is hooked up to such direct video services.

The tour also included a perusal of the inmates' cells, the blue-painted quiet room where edgy cases are sent to mellow out, the DWI breathalyzer room, the kitchen and laundry, and the outdoor recreation area -- none of which anyone would wish to visit voluntarily.

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