Monroe County inmates spend most of their time locked in their cells.
Newly detained people who do not post bail or are released by a judge spend five days in solitary confinement, a COVID-19 precaution that the local jail has not lifted, though some others in the area have.
People housed in minimum and medium security cells spend four out of every 24 hours in the day room outside their two-person cells. There they can make phone calls, socialize, watch TV, access showers and use video conferencing booths to visit with family.
The remaining 20 hours are spent behind solid metal doors with small glass panels, with a cellmate always an arm’s length away. Each cell has a bunk bed, a stainless steel toilet and sink, and a small table. Meals delivered around 5am, noon and 6pm. they are served inside the cells instead of on the tables outside in the common area of the cell. It’s more efficient, said prison warden Sam Crowe.
“It was outdated when they built it”:Why Monroe County is ‘overdue’ a new jail
The cells filled with 32 men charged with varying levels of felonies lead to increased incidents of threats, aggression and fights inside a deteriorating and understaffed jail, Crowe said. Hence the 20-hour lockdowns, which Crowe said comply with state prison regulations regarding inmate care.
Another 50 to 60 inmates who have run into trouble while in prison, along with some who have requested a more isolated existence, spend 23 hours locked up and just one hour each day outside their cells. Time moves forward every day. If someone is allowed out of their cell at 1 a.m. today, it would be 2 a.m. the next day. And these prisoners eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in their cells.
COVID-19 safety concerns aren’t what led to the lockdowns beyond the five-day isolation window, but Crowe said the pandemic played a role.
Late courts, longer jail time, more serious charges
Over the past two years, judges in Monroe County, like those around the country, have released many non-violent inmates from local jails who previously would have been held for bond or probation violations.
The practice helped keep numbers down and prevented the spread of COVID-19. And because the pandemic has slowed the justice system, the jail is housing more people accused of serious and violent crimes whose pending cases remain unsolved.
“We’ve had to reduce the total number of hours outside to accommodate everyone coming out of their cells,” Crowe said. “The dynamic has changed. We used to have 50 to 60 percent that were minimum security. Before the pandemic, we would have had 12 to 15 maximum security inmates, and that has doubled or even tripled, while our minimum security inmates have gone way down. “
Before the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the jail housed an average of 280 people. Even reduced by about 50 now — the jail population was 235 on Aug. 29 — the jail is still overcrowded and struggling with a growing number of people charged with serious crimes.
“So no, we don’t have that many inmates, but the ones here have much higher security needs and we’re not fully staffed yet,” Crowe said. “The way the prison is designed, 32 to a cell, we can’t let them out at the same time. It creates too many problems.”
The story of the prison:Problems with the Monroe County Jail have been chronicled in news articles for decades
Prisoners file a formal complaint
While lockdowns may make prison management easier, inmates who spend most of their time in a cell are not happy. Count Kiel Sheppard and other inmates in the prison’s I-Block, for non-violent offenders, among them. They filed a complaint in June challenging the policy and are still awaiting a response from prison officials.
“They let us out, half of us, in the morning for three hours and then three days later it changes to 7 to 11 at night,” Shepard said during a phone interview from the jail. “They lock us in for food. We eat in there, one at the desk and the other sitting on the floor or with their tray on their lap in bed,” he said.
“There are tables in the cell. But it’s easier for them (prison staff) to feed us in our cells. In other prisons, they all sit and eat together at one table.”
More about the Monroe County Jail:The county’s “largest mental health facility” is the jail. Everyone agrees that there is a better way to provide treatment.
Shepard knows. He has been held in jails in Lawrence, Brown and Monroe counties since November. He has several pending criminal charges, including possession of methamphetamine and resisting arrest. He pleaded guilty Aug. 25 in Lawrence Superior Court to possession of paraphernalia as part of a plea deal that dismissed three other drug charges and gave him 36 days behind bars, which he had already served.
He is currently being held in the Monroe County Jail without bond pending other charges. He has a hearing set for November and hopes he can resolve his cases with the help of his public defender.
He said the five-day lockdown for new prisoners is unfair. “The first five days we’re locked up are the most critical time. You have to try to get bail money together, tell your boss you won’t be at work, get someone to let your dog out. The first five days the pace is set for the rest of the stay. You get 15 minutes out of the cell a day in quarantine.”
The five-day isolation that was implemented in most county jails during the pandemic has been suspended at jails in Lawrence and Brown counties, where people in custody are screened for COVID symptoms and screened for them. Jails in nearby Greene and Owen counties continue to isolate new inmates for five days. Morgan County has a 7-day isolation period for COVID-19 for inmates held at the jail there.
Crowe defended the policy, saying someone exposed to COVID-19 could test negative during the first few days of infection. “We’ve done a great job keeping (COVID) out of jail, and we’re going to continue to try to do that,” Crowe said. “There are still many cases being reported in Monroe County.”
What’s missing: Efforts to reduce reincarnation
Sheppard complained that no AA or NA meetings are offered at the prison, where many inmates suffer from substance abuse problems. During a recent tour of the prison, Crowe confirmed that such space is lacking and needed. He wants programming back.
“There’s nothing like that available to us,” Sheppard said. “Even the church, which they let in, is only a level cellbock every other week.”
He said since there have been no in-person visits since the pandemic began, “People are drifting away and missing the connections they need when they go out again.”
Moving forward:Monroe County will spend $10 million on Fullerton Pike land as a new jail site
Video calls home cost 21 cents a minute, and inmates who don’t have money in their prison commission account can’t pay for them. Mobile blocks have phones that send text messages, but they also cost money.
“A lot of guys are here for drugs and mental health issues, and they’re in messed up relationships, and they don’t have anybody overseas to make those kinds of calls,” Sheppard said.
No one acknowledged the inmates’ complaint, Shepard said. “We have the right to request the hearing and resolution and then appeal. We waited three weeks and submitted a written petition and have not received a response. It was signed by 30 inmates.”
Crowe said he is aware of the complaint, but the grievance process has not been completed and has not reached his office. When asked this week, Crowe said he was sticking with the current prison lockdown policy.
“I think they don’t have much to stand on, as the state standard is one hour a day and we give them (in I-Block) four,” the prison warden said.
If he denies the requests in the complaint, which asks for 8 hours out of jail, the inmates can appeal to the sheriff.
Describing himself as “college educated, experienced in the court system and knowing what my rights are”, Sheppard, 37, said he hoped to see the lockdown eased. He will go to prison in November, maybe longer, so there is time.
Contact HT reporter Laura Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-318-5967.
This article originally appeared in The Herald-Times: Monroe County Jail inmates seek reduction in confinement time