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Crime does not pay
—1935 Radio Program
One of my old FBI associates recently wrote a letter to the editor in which he mentioned structured sentencing. That triggered my mind into the reminiscing and reflection modes. Here are my thoughts.
My jail time
I served about seven months in the Los Angeles County Jail—not as an inmate, but as a deputy sheriff.
In 1963, after 16 weeks of Marine Corps-style stress training to become a crime-crushing law enforcement officer, 85 of us rookies were assigned to work the jail for about four years prior to hitting the street.
We worked eight-hour shifts. That left some time for two or three college courses.
I reported for work in the old downtown jail. The lieutenant handed me my equipment: a flashlight and a big brass “A” key to get me through the honeycomb of doors leading to “The Bath.”
About 200 new inmates arrived at midnight in big prison buses from outlying stations. They were already booked, fingerprinted and photographed when they arrived at the main jail for lodging.
The freight elevator doors opened, and standing before the bath team were 16 smelly guys handcuffed to a long steel chain. Some had been there before and just wanted to get it over with and lie down.
All of their clothes and jewelry were removed and placed in sealed bags.
I had to perform a complete search of their bodies to eliminate any possibility they were in possession of contraband.
Next, they got a shower, were sprayed to kill any lice, got dressed in a jail uniform, blood drawn, medical assessment made and were escorted to their cells. We were careful where we assigned them.
Regardless, there were plenty of bloody fights, suicide attempts/successes, rapes and endless fear-driven complaints. The jail was dangerously overcrowded. The new jail was nearing completion.
Meanwhile, inmates slept on pads placed on the walkway in front of the cells. When the gate lockbox was opened the cockroaches scattered like leaves in the wind. We tried to keep it clean. But we labored against the tide of steaming humanity living without air conditioning.
When I got home, my new bride complained I smelled bad and my personality was changing. I knew why.
I worked the new jail for a couple of months. One night I showed up for work and heard a riot going on a block from the jail. The ground literally shook as hundreds of inmates tore things up.
A new deputy with a sociology degree had taken pity on his assigned 150 inmates and brought them cookies his wife baked. He let them out into the walkway in front of the cells. He soon ran short of cookies and all hell erupted.
Toilets and sinks were ripped from the walls. It spread to adjoining modules. After several hours, they got tired and went to sleep among the wreckage.
It was a real education. I noted the deputies began to look and act like the inmates they guarded. I bailed out and went to work for nearby West Covina Police Department as a patrolman and training officer.
I liked investigating and “hooking and booking.”
Life got a lot better, and I finished my college education working steady eight-hour shifts and carrying a full load at the university. The FBI hired me in 1970.
Popular cop movies depict hero types such as Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan as “Dirty Harry” wrecking a dozen cars on a high-speed chase and committing multiple homicides.
Harry does not seem to be encumbered with the petty tasks of report writing, Internal Affairs investigations or long hours waiting for a court appearance.
Likewise, neither he nor James Bond seemed troubled by occasions wherein an arrested suspect is released before the ink on the report is dry. And they never seemed to tire as the result of long, rotating shifts.
Breaking up an inmate fight and rape prevention do not make exciting movies. Sentencing does not stir up any armchair excitement, either.
Nevertheless, the public is often unhappy with the sentence.
By a 1993 law, North Carolina has structured sentencing. The judge is bound by a complicated schedule of sentencing guidelines. They are based on classifying offenders by the severity of their crime and the extent and gravity of their prior criminal record.
Sentencing policies should be rational, truthful, consistent and in line with resource priorities (room in jails and prisons).
The system is published in “A Citizen’s Guide to Structured Sentencing,” authored by The North Carolina Sentencing And Policy Advisory Commission. It is available on the Internet.
The above guide tells us North Carolina increased its prison capacity from about 24,800 in 1994 to about 38,500 in 2008. Based on current projections, the prison population is expected to exceed 46,800 by 2017.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates one out of 15 persons will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.
Further, in the year 2007 there were 3,138 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States compared to 1,259 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males and 481 prisoners per 100,000 white males.
I recently spoke with Brunswick County Sheriff’s Capt. Phil Perry, who supervises the jail. He provided the following facts:
There are 65 employees operating the Brunswick County Detention Center. Currently, there are 229 inmates with a recent high of 265.
Jailers work 12-hour shifts, four days on and four days off. There are four shifts with 13 jailers on each shift. Two K-9 units are available for contraband issues, and promotion of employee safety.
The jail is in the process of accreditation. That will permit the lodging of federal prisoners after Jan. 1, 2009. Capacity will be expanded to 450 inmates.
New inmates are interviewed by the classification officer to determine special needs and promote peace and order in the facility.
Operating a jail or prison is one of the most onerous tasks in the justice system. Inmates are constantly dreaming up new ways to subvert the system to their advantage.
If not properly administered and funded, violent crimes and civil rights violations occur daily.
The fact the Brunswick County Detention Center is on the verge of accreditation is commendable. Many jails will never be able to consider such a favorable development.
Crime does not pay… it costs us all dearly.
Next time you drive past a jail or prison, the tranquil exterior is misleading. There is plenty of dynamic action going on inside.
Since 1963, John Heidtke has been employed by municipal, county, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies.