THIS IS A MAMAS JOB
"This is a mamas job, no doubt about it." Says Maj. Keith Daws who runs the Leon County Detention Center. I've heard corrections officers describe their jobs in many ways, but never as a 'mamas job'.
Dawes deals with a lot of mamas, as head of a facility that houses almost 1000 people, He tells a story about a very old woman who phoned him about her "baby." After a few minutes, Daws asked : "Mam, how old is your baby?"
"52." She answered.
Most of the mamas Dawes deals with think their "baby" has, and can, do no wrong, and probably is not getting enough to eat.
"But, I don't argue with the mamas." Says Daws.
What Daws does do, is use the influence of the mamas to help him control some of his most problematic inmates. He lets the mama dress down her "baby." And it's usually more effective than any discipline the prison can dole out.
"You see what you're doing to your mamma?" He asked one especially violent inmate after his mama finished dressing him down. "You're killing her." He hasn't had a problem from the inmate since.
When Daws is not talking to Mamas, he's walking the floors of the Detention Facility, talking to inmates and staff. Being known, and maintaining communication, helps avoid trouble.
One of the things that contributes to the volatile nature of almost all correctional facilities is overcrowding and a low staff-to-inmate ratio. It's like the saying in the movie "Field of Dreams": "If you build it, they will come." If you build a jail or a prison, you can bet money it will be filled within a short time.
When the high-tech Leon County jail opened in 1993, consultants recommended a minimum of 400 staff. The County Commission couldn't come up with funds. A compromise was worked out. The jail would open with 274 officers, but all the pods (or living areas) would not be utilized. Within a year, the jail still had 274 officers and all the pods were in use.
Five years later, 274 officers still cope with a facility that is, according to national standards, at maximum capacity and houses every type of inmate from juveniles to the mentally ill.
Understaffing causes problems. Jail personnel can only manage to keep up with day-to-day operations of what Dawes calls a "small city." There are few programs beyond GED classes, because programs require staff. The programs that do exist (Narcotics Anonymous and Acholics Anonymous, for example) are staffed by volunteers. And, most of the chaplins who visit the prison are volunteers.
So, what we have at the Leon County Detention Facility is a high-tech, futuristic jail, with a low-tech, traditional administration.
In most jails, prisoners are locked down much of the time in the standard rows of cells. In the Leon County jail, I watched one officer working in a "pod" where some seventy men slept, spent time and ate. They were milling around him, asking questions, complaining, and trying to get an extra tray of food. That officer was going to be in that pod, managing 70 inmates roaming around the pod for 12 hours. It's not a job I'd want.
The public may not like the image of jail inmates sitting in front of televisions, but with the kind of under-staffing officers are dealing with at the Leon County jail, we ought to be glad that's all they're doing. Riots and escapes cost a lot more money than televisions.
When Daws and I got back to his office, after a tour of the jail, there were five or six messages from mamas. "I have mama bite marks on me sometimes." Dawes comments.