If you’ve never been inside the Lee County Jail, but just looked at the complex from the road, you’d probably conclude it looks pretty good.
The inmates have access to a library, educational classes, alcohol/drug dependency classes, and a courtyard for recreational time.
There’s a medical unit comprised of physicians and nurses. The physician provides medical assistance, dispenses inmate medication and makes medical decisions regarding inmate care.
There’s a jail ministry, constructed to assist inmates with spiritual needs.
You would appreciate these things but the majority of inmates do not. They think about getting out. They plan. They scheme. They don’t care if they have to hurt someone to carry out that plan. They have little compassion for those who care for them, instead draw pictures of guards, with their heads cut off; clog up toilets with anything they can stick in it; have real fights and stage fights between each other and also fake medical emergencies.
Why would they do all that?
They are watched from a tower with two guards in it, a 360º bubble — the guards have a job, trying to see through blind spots and putting up with lude gestures and slurs thrown their way.
“The control pod, where the detention officers work, is in the center of the seven housing units. They are responsible for watching all inmates (238 today), they’ve taken on the responsibility of monitoring, locking and unlocking all doors and the heating and air conditioning,” said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson. “That tower is the smallest room back there. They are locked down and confined in a smaller room then any inmate is.”
The bubble, in reality, becomes entertainment for the inmates watching when a guard leaves the tower, when doors open, when they close, how long does it take a deputy to respond to trouble.
“It (the position of the tower) allows the inmates to watch the employee and see when they are vulnerable. It also gives a direct line of sight for males to watch female inmates and there’s no real privacy because of the design of the building,” Johnson said. “When we do shakedowns, we’ve literally found drawings of that pod tower and the officers sitting or standing in a certain position. They look very similar to who is actually working. That’s how much these inmates are able to study, watch and monitor these employees.”
The two guards have to leave their bubble at sometime, to use the restroom.
There used to be a rest room under the tower. That’s right, underground — yet another design flaw. It’s been closed off for 13 years so guards have to use another.
So where is the next toilet? They have to go through six locked doors.
“Many times when the inmates stopped up the plumbing it would go to the lowest portion of the building which is inside that watchtower where those officers are working,” Johnson said. “It (the underground toilet) would fill up. We’ve seen it up to three feet deep. The officers have had to literally wear gas masks because of the fumes that were coming from there.”
If a fight breaks out in a pod, either real or fake, officers have to come through those same six locked doors. The cardinal rule is for the guards in the tower to stay put even if all hell is breaking out in a pod. A violent male pod will have at least 24 inmates.
Officers have to go through those six doors, assess what’s really happening and then go into that pod and do their best to control a situation the design of the building makes near impossible.
“If you have an assault on an inmate, where one inmate assaults another and that happens quite often — there’s no way to separate them from the other inmates. You just take the two who got into it and you separate them, but then you’ve got to put those two in a room, where they could assault someone else,” Johnson said. “If the problem is on the second floor, you’re trying to restrain the inmate, gain control and get that person off the second floor, down to ground level and, of course, no one is supposed to get hurt.
“We had one inmate throw another inmate over the railing and it was a fatality.”
The last consultant said it would cost nearly $80 million for the construction of a comprehensive law enforcement complex — which would include a jail, administration and court facilities.
The same consultant said this current jail does not meet modern-day standards and the facility was poorly designed from the start.
It’s hard to keep good employees to work in these conditions, control their stress and not let them lose their faith in mankind.
“So many think about a jail facility, and not wanting to spend that on inmates and I get that,” Johnson said. “But that has very little to do with the inmates. It has to do with the working conditions everyone has been placed in.”