Voters will decide April 4 whether to authorize the construction and operation of a new Dent County Jail with two, half-cent sales taxes. The jail has been a big topic in local law enforcement and a flashpoint in county politics for several years. To better understand the true situation in the jail, The Salem News staff writer Andrew Sheeley spent 24 hours incarcerated in the sheriff’s office, from Thursday morning to Friday morning. Sheeley ate what the inmates ate, slept where they slept and documented what was witnessed.
Thursday began with 54 inmates stuffed into the Dent County Jail, a facility equipped to hold 21. The jail’s four regular cells were dangerously overcrowded, so two female inmates were being housed in the emergency isolation cell and two more were locked into the office’s interview room.
Sheriff Bob Wells and most of the deputies spent the morning in the saddle. They were in Bunker executing a search warrant in connection to methamphetamine.
The jail and its 54 inmates were left in the care of reserve deputy and jailer Drew Smith. Smith was filling in for jail administrator Chris McElvy, who was out sick. Smith was also sick Thursday, just like most of the jail’s inmates.
“I would say I’m sick 75 percent of the time I’m working here,” Smith says. “I started working last April, and it’s fair to say I’ve had some kind of a respiratory illness for about seven or eight months of that time. They say when you first start working at the sheriff’s office you have to build up immunity. It’s because of the mold.”
Mold is not an invisible threat at the sheriff’s office but an overt hazard. It covers nearly the entirety of the cells’ east-facing walls and can be seen leaching into the deputies’ work areas from the ceiling. The shades of mold include black, blue, yellow, brown and rusty red. Their product is a musty, humid waft you can feel coat your lungs as you breathe.
“This is how much Benadryl we go through in a week,” Smith says, holding up three large bottles of pills. “In addition to whatever their doctors prescribe them, we can give inmates over-the-counter medicine like Dayquil/Nyquil, Ibuprofen, Tums and Tylenol. They are all constantly sick, so they’ll take whatever they can get their hands on.”
Smith’s job Thursday was rolling with one punch after another while trying to maintain a schedule to serve more than a double-capacity crowd.
“Chris and I are the only full-time jailers, but only one of us is on duty at a time,” Smith says. “Based on the number of inmates we are actually housing there should really be two jailers working at once. That means most of the time I’m just trying to wing it with whatever happens.”
The first task for Smith is getting each inmate’s medication and medicine measured and labeled. However, as he’s doing that there’s trouble in the women’s cell because one of the new entries is going through withdrawals and has diarrhea in her pants. Meanwhile, another inmate has posted bond and needs to be prepared for release. Since Smith is busy, that means deputy Austin Shelton has to be pulled off patrol duty to complete the task. But while all of this is going on, the two females locked in the interview room have to be continually escorted to the bathroom because it has no toilet. Smith knows because both women pound on the walls and yell whenever they need attention.
“This is what happens when our counts get up this high. You just can’t deal with it all at once,” Smith says.
Due to the extra tasks, the regular lunch meal of peanut butter and jelly and ramen noodles was served an hour late. As a result, profanities fill the air, and the inmates run at the heavy metal cell doors to fly kick them, making a loud, gunfire-like bang.
“I’ve had that happen when my head has been right next to a door. My ears rang for hours,” Smith says between coughs.
Immediately after Smith serves lunch, he pivots to remove the two female inmates from the interview room. Deputy Canyon Goodbar needed the space to talk to a victim with a young child. So the two females were shackled to the bench of the office’s booking area. The booking area is really just a cramped hallway that inconveniently sits as a bottleneck into the sheriff’s office entrance. After the victim and child arrive, they have to walk through a crowd, past the shackled inmates, all while the jail inmates’ curses and screams can be heard.
“I know it really makes it hard for the deputies to do their job when they don’t even have the room to talk to people,” Smith says. “What makes that particularly worse is when kids are involved.”
Just then a fight breaks out in Cell Four, which houses the jail’s violent male offenders. Smith has been busy collecting disposable razors from inmates, but one is missing from Cell Four. After it’s found, Smith discovers the razor has been broken in two, and one of the blades is missing. Those in the cell think their fellow inmate, Ralph McDowell, is at fault.
“Get him out of this cell before we kill him!” the inmates shout. “Someone is about to get beat!”
Smith pulls McDowell out before a punch is thrown and questions him. McDowell denies he broke open the razor. He also has a black eye and says he’s been violently bullied for days by the other inmates.
Smith needs to remove McDowell from the cell, but there’s no place to put him. So McDowell, too, is shackled in the booking area, and the two females are taken back to the interview room following deputy Goodbar’s appointment.
Just as McDowell is locked down, however, sheriff Wells and the deputies arrive back from Bunker, with Robin Brawley and Jason Remster in handcuffs, bringing the inmate count up to 55. As a result of the raid, the two were allegedly found to be in possession of methamphetamine and were being put into the jail on a 24-hour hold pending formal charges from Dent County Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Curley.
Brawley and Remster are then shackled in the booking area, and the office’s hallway fills with a gaggle of commotion.
Wells and the deputies debrief after their mission, but while they’re trying to communicate the women’s cell starts singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at full volume - so everyone has to yell.
Smith can’t book the two new inmates because he’s again busy with one of the women in the interview room who needs to go to the bathroom. On the way there she starts aggressively lobbying Smith to remove her cellmate because she says she won’t stop manically laughing and keeps repeating, “I wouldn’t kill my child” and “I just want to get raped.”
Brawley and Remster are also trying to talk to one another to get their story straight, but the deputies have to keep telling them to be quiet.
As if that’s not enough, Salem Memorial District Hospital’s phone line is down, so all calls to the hospital are being forwarded to the sheriff’s office. Every other minute the phone rings and rings and rings.
The female inmate from the interview room is told to make do with her cellmate.
Smith stuffs McDowell into Cell Three, manages to get the missing razor blade and then safely disposes of it.
Shelton and deputy Danny Stephens book Remster and Brawley. But the other 53 inmates aren’t happy about being even more crowded. So there’s more yelling, more screams and everyone nervously jumps with each inmate fly kick to the door.
“I try to treat everyone in here with respect, because I know they’re not convicted yet,” Smith says. “But when they start kicking the doors, it takes all my restraint to not go in there and just lock them all down for the night.”
The chaos reigns for more than an hour while everyone keeps coughing and sneezing.
Smith soldiers on. Now Shelton and Stephens have to stand guard with him each time a cell door is opened because a crowd of up to 14 is waiting on the other side.
“This isn’t right what you’re doing! We can’t fit any more!” the inmates shout as Brawley and Remster are put in their cells. “We can’t breathe in here!”
The tension now filling the jail can be felt vibrating through its concrete walls.
With the situation deteriorating, Wells makes the call to send 10 inmates for housing in the Texas County Jail. Texas County’s facility is large enough to take inmates from overcrowded neighboring jails at a cost of $40 per inmate per day, plus travel expenses. It will cost local taxpayers at least $400 daily for Thursday’s 10 inmates, and they’ll likely be in Texas County for at least 10 days.
“Texas County has been very good to us, so we make sure that we send them inmates who don’t have behavioral or medical issues,” Smith says. “The trouble is, that means we are stuck with all of the sickest and most likely to fight.”
Stephens helps pick the lucky 10, and once pulled out of the Dent County Jail they dance and celebrate like they’d just won a car on the Price is Right. Smith, Shelton and deputy Derrick Marfitt have to work late making the two-hour trip to the Texas County Jail and back.
For Smith, it ends up being over a 12-hour day.
“Today wasn’t too awful,” he says before departing. “There were no big fights, no one flooded their cells or tried to kill themselves. We’re pretty full, but this was actually a pretty good day, given the circumstances.”
By the time things quiet down the evening shift has arrived just in time for dinner: mac and cheese with bunless hotdogs. With the removal of the 10 inmates, the jail’s isolation cell is now open for The Salem News to spend the night incarcerated. It’s the same cell in which Jason Hall committed suicide by hanging two years ago.
Once in the cell, the first thing to go are your sinuses. The walls and trim are coated in mold. The ventilation system functions, but only makes the problem worse. The vent's face is caked in mold so dense, dust-like spores can be seen blowing into the room under the ever-present florescent glow.
Your eyes then develop an itch and glaze over. Then, after both nostrils become inflamed, you’re forced to start taking deep, heavy breaths through your mouth. After a few minutes you develop a hacking cough that gets more aggravated with each spore-pronged breath. Meanwhile, the inmates in the adjoining cell confirm things are just as bad for them by talking through the vents.
“This is the worst jail I’ve ever been in, hands down,” says Rusty, an inmate in Cell Four. “When you’re in here you’ve got nothing to do but get angry. And you can’t even get a little fresh air each day to calm down.”
Only books are available to occupy one’s mind. There are no television, radio or cell phones. Inmates without a bunk have to sleep on the cold, damp floor with only a plastic mat and blanket as soft as a corn stalk for comfort. From this vantage your bones creak from the pressure of the floor due to the thinness of the mat. You can fold your mat in half to increase the cushioning, but that exposes your legs to the frigid concrete. So you endlessly toss and turn, passing the strain from one hip point to another.
More disturbing is the noise. Men shout at the women all night from down the hallway. Lustful shouts of love and aggressive exclamations of hate fill the night’s darkness for hours.
“Sure we made mistakes, but we’re all still human,” Rusty says. “I’m 42 and this is the third time I’ve gotten sick to the point of puking in two months. All I’m guilty of is getting high. And all I want to do is see my daughter again. But in this place, I’m telling you, I could die tomorrow and it’s so cold in here they’d never find out until it warms up and I start stinking.”
The politics of building a new Dent County Jail can be espoused morally or financially, and incarceration within its walls can be described in physical, emotional or even spiritual terms. The conditions therein can further be viewed from the vantage points of impacting the inmates, their families and the men and women wearing the badge of Dent County, who struggle every day doing their best with what they’re provided.
Beyond these variables, the one true constant is that in the United States you’re innocent until proven guilty.
The incarceration experience chafes and can’t truly be communicated with a mere assemblage of words. It can only be lived and witnessed. The sheriff’s office will soon hold open houses and tours for the public Tuesday evenings until the election. In consideration of future decisions, the banal can simply read this article and move on, but those wanting to make an informed decision April 4 can go see the jail themselves and decide whether they want the name Dent County branded with its conditions.
For more information on attending a tour or open house at the Dent County Jail, call the sheriff’s office at 729-3241.