Corrections officers at the jail at the Highland County Justice Center say they’ve seen everything from drugs hidden in dentures to inmates smoking discarded tobacco straight from the trash – but they’ve also watched detainees fashion flowers and other artwork from dried-out toilet paper, and have even experienced a type of bond with those incarcerated there – all part of everyday life at what many inmates have dubbed “the Highland County Hilton.”
Cpl. Sandra Frost of the Highland County Sheriff’s Office has worked in corrections for about 14 years, long enough, she said, to know many of the people who come through. And she loves her job.
“I love it,” she said, “I really do.”
Frost walked The Times-Gazette through the booking process at the jail on Tuesday, explaining incarceration procedures, describing daily life as an inmate, and reflecting on some of her experiences as a corrections officer.
When a prisoner is brought in, Frost said, the first order of business is a full-body search to find any hazardous or illicit materials. Next, the prisoner is put in a holding cell – often referred to as “the tank” – until the arresting officer files charges, according to Frost. Frost said if the detainee is intoxicated or high, corrections officers wait for them to “come down” and become more coherent.
After that, corrections officers gather the detainee’s personal information for booking, take fingerprints, and, if the prisoner committed a felony, take a DNA sample by swabbing their mouth, Frost said. After having a mugshot taken, the prisoner is taken to the showers, cleaned up and issued a fresh set of jail clothes – red for felonies, blue for misdemeanors, according to Frost. Orange clothes, Frost said, are reserved for inmates who do maintenance around the jail.
The prisoner is then given a “welcome kit” with a tooth brush, tooth paste, a bar of soap, deodorant and a comb, as well as a foam mat to sleep on, fresh sheets and a blanket, Frost said.
Once the detainee is processed, they’re given a phone call, then taken to their quarters.
The Highland County jail has 10 “pods” with different living situations, some containing one-person cells, and others simply a large room with bunks along the walls, and men and women are separated.
Inmates are sent to different pods based on space and the inmates’ needs. For example, Frost said, Pod D, a seven-bed pod, is set apart for inmates at risk of attacking or being attacked by other inmates. According to Frost, once word gets out that an inmate is incarcerated for harming a child, sexually or otherwise, other inmates will organize to “take care of them” – and that has nothing to do with hospitality, Frost said.
Pod E is used as a chapel, counseling center and community room for the inmates, and also as a holding area for when corrections officers conduct random searches, often referred to as “shakedowns.”
The jail was built to hold 72 inmates, and in recent years, overcrowding has been a problem, Frost said. Early Tuesday morning, there were 77 incarcerated there – although two more were booked before noon the same day, according to Frost.
Frost said there was a period last year when the jail’s population hovered in the 80s and 90s, with a record high of 94 last summer, according to sheriff Donnie Barrera.
“They keep coming,” Frost said.
Frost noted that since grand jury indictments were handed down on Tuesday morning, Tuesday night would be especially busy for the corrections crew.
“It’s not going to stop,” she said.
Frost added that the jail sees more activity around Thanksgiving and Christmas with spikes in domestic violence and theft. Other than that, she said, there doesn’t seem to be a visible pattern in crime rates.
“Every day is something different,” she said.
Frost and deputy Chet Gibson, another corrections officer, said they’ve seen all sorts of surprises over the years.
Frost said some criminals will swallow drugs or conceal them using “other methods” – with one man even hiding drugs inside his dentures for later use.
Gibson said some inmates have dried orange peels, lit them on fire and smoked them like cigarettes, and others have retrieved used chewing tobacco from the trash, then smoked it or chewed it later on.
“They’ve got 24 hours, seven days a week to think of ways to make our lives more difficult,” Frost said.
Razor blades from shavers often cause trouble, Gibson said, recalling an instance when an inmate went so far as to swallow one for a trip to the hospital in hopes of escape.
“They fake heart attacks, they fake seizures,” he said. “Anything to get out of here.”
One of the challenges faced by corrections officers is knowing when someone is faking and when they’re not.
“You have to know your inmates,” Gibson said, “but if you don’t follow protocol, it could end your career.”
On a different note, Gibson remembered one inmate fashioning a model boat out of dried-out toilet paper, while Frost said some inmates have made flowers and other pieces of art from the same material.
Frost said she’s been surprised in the past at the connection that can develop between inmates and corrections officers, often resulting in a great deal of trust on the part of the inmate.
“They’ll talk to you about their problems, they’ll talk to you about anything,” she said. “You’re a babysitter, you’re a mom, a dad, you’re a teacher, a minister… all of the above.”
For the 18 corrections officers at the Highland County jail, playing all those roles is just another day in a life behind bars.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.