Texas jail administrator describes challenges, rewards of a career in corrections
"It's a people job. If you enjoy people, those inmates are people all day long. If you treat them fairly and with respect, you get respect"
By Kim Smith
ODESSA, Texas — Earlier this month, the Ector County Sheriff's Office arrested a man on an arson charge. They didn't have to take him to jail, though. He was already there.
"He was just mad so he set stuff on fire. It was a good fire, too. It was like a campfire," said Ector County Jail Administrator James McKinney.
According to jail records, Fernando DeLaFuente created a torch using toilet paper and an electrical outlet and set mattress stuffing, books and trash ablaze. He told detention officers he was "irritated with his diet tray."
Luckily, neither DeLaFuente nor anyone else was injured, but he is hardly alone in creating headaches for understaffed jail personnel, McKinney said.
Boredom causes jail inmates to find many creative ways to entertain themselves, but jail officials said technology is helping jailers get the upper hand.
McKinney, who was promoted to jail administrator in August, has worked in the jail for more than two decades. He's the man responsible for keeping his detention staff and the jail's 700-800 inmates safe.
"I'm going on 26 years doing this and I'm still amazed at some of the stuff they do," McKinney said.
The number of inmates being disciplined varies from week to week, he said.
"You may have three or four in a week or you may not have any that week," McKinney said.
At the jail inmates are divided up based on gender and the severity and the type of crime they're accused of committing. Co-defendants are also separated from each other. Detention staff also take into consideration past behaviors and mental illnesses when they are determining where inmates are placed.
Typically, women and people accused of less severe crimes cause fewer problems than those facing lengthy prison sentences and/or those who have been incarcerated before, McKinney said.
Shirley Hardee, a sheriff's office spokeswoman who spent five years working in the jail, said repeat offenders often pass down what they've learned to newer inmates.
They are constantly coming up with creative ideas to entertain themselves, including using orange peels, apples and other food to make "hooch," she said.
"If they had that much energy toward a job out in the real world it would be amazing," Hardee said.
There are 24-person "tanks" and eight-person tanks and each tank has a day room where inmates can mingle, watch TV and use a kiosk to send emails to loved ones.
One of the inmates' favorite pastimes is using a tank's one electrical outlet to start fires to smoke things, McKinney said.
"You can tell when football season starts because the fire setting stops. Once they've destroyed the TV or flip the breaker we won't turn it on for awhile," McKinney said.
They'll get requests from inmates asking for another inmate to be removed because he tripped the breaker and they want the TV back on, McKinney said. The inmates also run the risk of blowing the breaker to the tank next door and angering all of those inmates, too.
Inmates are known to smoke dried out green beans, coffee grounds and crushed pills they've managed to hide, McKinney said.
Last month, prosecutors seeking a life sentence for armed robber Isaac Jackson put multiple jailers on the witness stand to talk about Jackson starting a fire in his tank to smoke illicit substances.
"I said that's great. I told my wife that's good. That way the inmates read it (in the newspaper) and they'll know 'Hey, if I do something they're going to use it at my trial,'" McKinney said. "A lot of them think they're not going to get into trouble for it."
The truth is an inmate's disciplinary record follows him wherever he goes, Hardee said.
If inmates are able to get paper clips, they'll stick them in the socket to heat up plastic cups filled with various concoctions, McKinney said.
"They'll get together and like have a party. They'll get their commissary and put soups and everything else together and just make a hodgepodge, you know, tortillas and Cheetos and just put it all into like a soup," Hardee said.
Kiosks and tablets
Not too long ago, detention officers were having a lot of problems with inmates smoking mail that had been dipped in illicit substances, but Ector County has found a way to curb that issue.
Nearly all mail has been sent to Florida for the last few years and scanned into machines for inmates to read on kiosks or tablets in the jail, McKinney said.
As of last year family members and friends hoping to slip drug-laden documents can't disguise them as legal documents anymore either, McKinney said. Legal mail is opened in front of the inmates, scanned into a machine to be read on kiosks or tablets and then shredded.
Books and magazines are no longer accepted unless they come directly from Amazon or warehouses for Barnes and Noble, he said.
"When we first started we didn't have cameras, we didn't have any of this technology," McKinney said.
"It's amazing. You can see what they're doing. It's just amazing technology compared to when we started," Hardee agreed.
Not only are the kiosks used when it comes to mail and email, they're also used for inmate grievances, McKinney said.
"If an inmate was wanting to complain about his food he used to do a paper grievance, but now they do the grievances over the tablets or the kiosk and we can pull it all up," McKinney said. "Everybody can see it and we can answer it...and it's time stamped when you answered. It keeps track of it for you."
Having only one TV per tank doesn't actually cause as many problems as one would think, McKinney said.
"Every once awhile, somebody will get mad because 'Hey, we've been listening to Spanish music all day' or 'We've been watching this all day' because you do get guys who don't speak English and you've got guys who want to watch TV, too."
Usually, however, the different groups will come to an arrangement, McKinney said.
McKinney said each tank follows its own rules and most people follow them because they don't want to upset the other seven or 23 inmates sharing the tank.
"They're pretty respectful and for the most part because they're gonna have to live with those people," Hardee said, noting they are particularly conscientious when it comes to sharing the bathroom.
McKinney and Hardee said it's a shame the county has a problem finding people to work within the jail because most inmates are not problem inmates and even when inmates do get upset, most just want to be heard.
"It's a people job. If you enjoy people, those inmates are people all day long. If you treat them fairly and with respect, you get respect," Hardee said.
"I call them 'ma'am' and 'sir' even if they're an inmate," McKinney said. "They'll tell you, 'You respect me. I'm gonna respect you.'"
Hardee joined the ECSO in 1993 and has never regretted it.
"It's a wonderful, wonderful career if you're a people person. You have respect for people and they have respect for you," Hardee said. "You're gonna get in fights, there's people that you cannot be nice too, there's people that you can't get past, but that's in the world as well."
Another benefit of working at the jail?
"You're inside when it's cold. You're inside when it's hot," McKinney said.
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