Jail tour prompts awareness for Measure vote on May 16

May 12 - Last Wednesday evening this reporter was in jail.

In fairness, it was by invitation and overall, it was a very positive, inspiring visit. The Lane County Corrections Division is housed in a red brick building right across the street from “Down to Earth” in Eugene. It is surprisingly benign in appearance, only the presence of razor wire and robust fencing indicates its true purpose. Some 15 interested citizens met in the lobby, including a contingent from the Eugene Mission, all who had come to see the operation of our jail for themselves, up close, in person.

After surrendering cell phones and other forbidden items, the tour passed through a metal detector and filed into a conference room for a presentation. Captain Clint Reily, Sgt J. D Olsen, and other jail staff took turns describing what happens within these walls before we actually took the tour. Reily described how after loss of the timber money in 2011, the whole Sheriff’s Department faced huge cutbacks including jail operations. This led to overcrowding and mandated capacity-based release, even of violent offenders. This situation initiated the first public safety levy in 2014.

Captain Reily also described how they used this tough time to “Turn the jail upside down”. That meant that since they were operating on reduced circumstances it was a chance to explore some novel approaches. 

In a departure from the traditional corrections approach of “If you behave you might get some privileges” the jail staff decided to offer some opportunities and see if they would behave differently.  Reily said, “We tried using the golden rule with the incarcerated, treating them like what we would like to see their behavior be like and actually seeing them rise to those expectations.”  Group therapy, teaching de-escalation techniques, and even yoga have yielded encouraging results. “These are skills that they can take back to their unit and into the outside world.”

There are a number of settings in the jail, literally a place for everyone. Those of us on the tour were in a hall where there was audible screaming of someone in deep mental distress. There was a restraint chair along with strict protocols in case someone is agitated to the point of constantly trying to harm themselves.

In contrast there are also dormitory spaces for folks who can get along in compatible groups. And there is everything in between including space for people who prefer or need to be by themselves. 

The Lane County Jail is the largest provider of mental healthcare in the County. The realization came to jail staff that most of the folks they were dealing with had untreated mental health issues, addiction or both. That has led to hiring two “mental health” officers along with another seven counselors who are working full time to try and stabilize prisoners and get them treatment, counseling, and support.  Often it happens that when inmates are released, that they don’t want to leave, stating “I don’t have anywhere to go!”

With only 367 beds available, there is a premium for placement. It is the goal for LCCD to only hold the minimum prisoners. It was revealed that, “Basically the only ones that are in jail are those who are a danger to themselves, or the community and the inmates mandated to be held by the courts.  All others serve their time through the community service office unless they can’t meet their obligations.  A 30-day sentence could crush a person’s life, family, job, so they work with the person around the time they do have available.”

Overall, the jail experience was rewarding in the sense that this is something being done right, and an excellent example of what government should be doing.  To continue the good things happening at the Lane County Jail while keeping yourself and your community safe without increasing your taxes, vote yes on Measure 20-340 and get your ballot in by May 16.

“We have a lot of great, innovative things going on in our jail.” said Lane County Sheriff Cliff Harrold.  “I want our community members to see what their tax dollars support and how vital this facility is to the health and safety of our entire county.”

On behalf of Sheriff Cliff Harrold and all of Lane County, we thank you.