Inside the Curry County Jail

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer March 15, 2013 11:53 pm

Curry County Sheriff’s Dispatcher Joan Allen answers calls and communicates with deputies. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Curry County Sheriff’s Dispatcher Joan Allen answers calls and communicates with deputies. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
It’s Monday at the Curry County Courthouse and throngs of people are waiting to see the judges. Some are coming from the jail, escorted by a deputy. Others are coming from home to face charges including alleged assaults, thefts, menacing, domestic violence, DUII and felony drug possession.

As they filter out of the courtrooms, they start filling the lobby of the Sheriff’s Office, waiting to be booked — fingerprinted and certified — and then, usually, released.

Deputy Don Hickcox opens the door from the office booking area, walks down the hall to another door to another room, then through two more doors to the lobby.

“Bryan Scott?”

A man stands up and follows him through the doors: first a card key, then a large brass “folger” key, reminiscent of jail keys of the Wild West. He leaves Scott in the booking area, then radios to downstairs to dispatch to electronically open the door to the booking office. Clank! Three keys; 20 feet.

He fingerprints Scott, searches through the computer for warrants and makes his way through the doors to lead Scott back to the lobby.

Scott, of Tigard, has been charged with five counts of third-degree rape (having sex with a person under 16 years of age) — and without as little as a glance from the booking deputy, is released back onto the streets.

Just another day in the life of a Curry County jail keeper.

There’s no saying who will return for their court dates. But the deputies must continually book and release because they are so short staffed.

The phone rings … and rings.

A woman in a holding cell begins to sing, to shouts of other inmates telling her, in so many words, to keep quiet.

Hickcox sighs and brings in another inmate.

“Hey!” the man calls to Deputy Ryan Burgess, who’s walking down the hall.

“You back?”

“Well, you know,” the man says. “Catch and release; it’s what you do.”

Aging infrastructure

Some in wealthier communities call their jails the Hilton, the Taj Mahal, Club Med.

Curry County Jail is not among those.

Here, in a 50-year-old building that’s literally falling apart, and working with a staff that’s so minimal it’s a stretch to call it skeletal, three deputies are juggling duties, filling in for others and watching each other’s backs.

There’s no room in the jail — a common occurrence — where the cells are undersized, dimly lighted and noisy. Inmates rest on beds made of grated metal with a thin pad and scratchy blanket for bedding. Sometimes, a mattress is pulled into the visitation room so deputies can keep an eye on a dangerous or suicidal inmate.

 It’s cold in the north hallway cells, where walls face the outside — so the only working heat in the building is running in the center hallway, where inmates are sweltering. Space heaters warm one place up; fans cool another down.

Lieutenant David Denny knows it all too well. With 15 years at the sheriff’s department, he’s seen the building through good times and bad — and these days, with the county hanging on by a worn fiscal thread, the weaknesses have become much more apparent.

~~~

Inmates today are quiet, except for the singing woman who occasionally grabs the bars of her cell and rattles them; the building shudders with the echoes. Modern facilities feature solid metal or plexiglass doors.

The phone begins to ring again.

Burgess makes a round, lifting a metal flap on each cell door to ensure all is OK inside. The woman breaks into a loud country-western song, followed by yelling from her neighbors.

“C’mon; let’s go,” Burgess orders an inmate.

“No!”

“You OK, Ryan?” Denney asks from another small room, where two fluorescent bulbs flicker over his jail log book and the computer into which he’s placing names, numbers, addresses, alleged crimes.

“For now,” Burgess mutters. “C’mon; get up. I didn’t think he was going to get up.”

It’s nearing noon, and inmates are milling about their cells. Some have only about 50 square feet in which to pace. A work center inmate — formerly called trustees — works in the kitchen, spooning food onto rubber trays. The only sharp knife is affixed to a center island by a metal cable.

The work center inmate hands each tray to a deputy who in turn, passes it to the people behind bars. Inmate-to-inmate contact is expressly forbidden, to discourage communication and the transfer of contraband.

Inmates hide notes in cracks in the walls. They stash them in pockets of clothing going to the laundry. Things come and go, from notes to drugs.

Last fall, an inmate managed to pry from a wall of the exercise yard wall a sharp, rusted metal bar, 18 inches long and a potential weapon. The rusted bar was a structural part of the building. Last week, an incoming inmate was caught trying to smuggle morphine hidden in a syringe in his body to other inmates.

The thick and thin

There are three deputies on duty today, but there should be at least that many more. That’s due to cutbacks, layoffs and departmental spinoffs the county has undertaken in recent years to address its fiscal shortcomings in light of vanishing timber funds.

Voters will be asked May 21 to approve a five-year tax levy to increase property taxes by $1.84 per $1,000 assessed valuation for those living within city boundaries and $1.97 for those in unincorporated Curry County.

Without it, the jail will close, critical county departments will be further slashed and the possibility looms that the state would come in and take over.

Denney doesn’t know what he’ll do if it the levy doesn’t pass and, as his wife works for the county as well, it would be a double-whammy on his family.

But that’s not on his mind today. He’s got a regular workload to complete: fingerprinting, feeding, checking on people, filling out endless reports, escorting inmates to court, to the hospital, to visit family or an attorney. He must check on inmates every hour — every 15 minutes for those on suicide watch.

A maintenance worker waits by a door, waiting to leave with a rusting boiler he’s replacing. A repairman is there to fix a phone line in dispatch.

In past years, inmates would stuff items in the toilets, which caused flooding in the evidence room below. The main water valve was also in that room, but because of law regarding access to evidence, a sergeant had to be called to shut it off.

The toilets have since been replaced to alleviate that problem, the evidence room relocated, and a grinder is embedded in the basement floor to gnash to pieces anything that might make its way through the pipes. 

~~~

Upstairs, more inmates are filing in from the courts.

“Open sesame!” yells the singing woman, demanding to use the restroom across the hall. A deputy complies. “Spoon!” she shouts.

“I wish we had a mental health professional here,” Denney said. “They’re going through a rough time, too. They’ve been there, done that.”

Hickcox fingerprints another man: “Thumb? Right here … second digit — oh, amputated. OK. Middle finger?”

Radio traffic crackles. The eerie blue glow from the computer brightens Denney’s face.

Medication is given out four times a day, and almost all the inmates are on one form or another. Piles of blister packs fill the cabinets in the medication room.

“This is where the liability starts,” Denney said. “We’ve got everything from Tylenol to methadone.”

The county must pay for prescription medication; one year, medications for an inmate with HIV cost $5,000 a month. Sheriff John Bishop dreads the day someone needing dialysis is booked into the jail.

Random searches turn up makeshift weapons and rope, drugs, “pruno” — alcohol made from sugar.

One man has submitted a pile of grievances claiming his federal rights are being violated, that medications aren’t being distributed correctly, that a deputy he doesn’t like is monitoring the hallway, it’s too hot, too cold, he wants to see a dentist. Each grievance, even if groundless, must be addressed, as well.

“It’s a way for them to vent,” Denney explained. “But this is jail, people. Don’t like it? Don’t commit the crime. It’s that simple.”

The phone rings again; a man in booking lets loose with a string of profanity about the system, his life, the deputy on the other side of the window.

“Who’s stealing my identity?!” yells the singing woman, rattling the doors.

The heartbeat

Downstairs, where the work center inmates are housed, pipes hang from the ceilings, retrofitted in after repairs or to comply with fire standards. Wires are zip-tied to many; a violation for which the jail is repeatedly written up by the state fire marshal.

There is no fire suppression system in the jail, so deputies are quick to respond when smoke begins to waft from toast the inmates warm on space heaters, or when they try to smoke cigarettes made with thin paper from Bible pages and potato peels. “Cigarettes” are lighted by creating an arc between two electrical appliances.

Fire is one concern; earthquakes and tsunamis are another, as the jail is in the inundation zone.

“We were at the line, then they moved the line up the hill,” Denney said. “It’s one thing to have another property (to relocate). It’s another to build a new Sheriff’s Office, jail — a new facility.”

When an earthquake hits, or even if the building settles as old structures are wont to do, the risk exists that water and communication lines could be cut or electronic doors won’t open.

A lone dispatcher is fielding calls. She’s giving an address to a deputy when the phone rings; she puts that caller on hold. Another deputy calls in requesting information about a driver he’s pulled over.

Above her, four computers display maps, graphs, piles of information. She takes the held call as another radio dispatch comes in. Then a 911 call.

Just another day in the office.

Above and beyond

A person commits the crime of rape in the third degree if the person has sexual intercourse with another person under 16 years of age. But challenges abound — sometimes hourly.

On a graveyard shift, if a dispatcher needs to take a break, she must radio upstairs for backup from one of the two deputies. His departure puts the other deputy at risk.

Last May, an inmate slit his wrists and downed a handful of pills. A deputy had to accompany him to the hospital and, because the man was deemed dangerous, stay with him — for five hours.

A work center inmate returning from court-mandated work outside the jail returned with a blood-alcohol content well above .20 — more than twice the legal limit to drive. He reacted to his relodging by throwing feces at the deputies. It took five officers and the incoming shift crew to subdue him.

Another man paced his narrow cell — stopping once to don the plastic cover of his mattress like a sleeping bag — for seven days.

Sometimes, only a Taser will keep agitated inmates at bay. And deputies are on high alert; when one gets going, the whole jailhouse can get rocking.

“It’s a game of cat and mouse,” Burgess said. “Sometimes they win, sometimes we win. It’s an ongoing battle.”

A door slams, cutting off the woman’s singing like a beheading, the sound it might make if voters — again — don’t approve the tax levy.

“They have no clue,” said Georgeann Green, a part-time retired nurse there, of potential repercussions of a tax failure. “They don’t think it’s coming. It’s coming, and it’s going to cost us more.”

The sun is beginning to set, although it’s impossible to tell in a building with no windows. Denney gets ready to go home, going over shift-change paperwork with an incoming deputy.

The singing lady starts up again.

“We want to keep the community safe,” he said, gesturing toward the outside. “And we have to keep them safe. But I want to go home safe, too. Safe and alive. That’s my goal.”