News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

In the jailhouse now

It seems a safe assumption that nobody wants to be in jail, even for an hour. That’s also true for the Deschutes County jail notwithstanding its modern, campus-like appearance. Jail is not prison, but for the AIC (Adults In Custody) the loss of freedom is at once sobering and lonely, and given to despair.

But it’s not hopeless. At least that’s what Captain Michael Shults wants those housed in the jail he runs to believe. Shults, a 34-year law enforcement and corrections veteran, was recruited to the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office in December of 2017 after serving 30 years in the Multnomah County (Portland) Sheriff’s Office.

Shults and his management team sat for a lengthy interview with The Nugget that included a detailed tour of the medium security facility. No area was off limits, enabling us to see up close and personally what it’s like to be lodged in the jail built in 1994. In 2014 the jail was expanded by 144 beds with a total today of 452 adult (18 and older) men and women.

There are two entrances to the jail, and they could not be more disparate. Visitors enter from the parking lot with no restrictions. Likewise, they walk right up to the front door and let themselves in. No getting buzzed in by a faceless camera, no metal detector or scowling guard.

It’s as if you are walking

into a library or medical office. Carpeted, upholstered furnishings, warm lighting. You are immediately greeted by one of two smiling civilians upon whom Shults heaps praise.

“These are as important as anybody who works here,” Shults said. “Imagine what it’s like to come visit a loved one, never thinking in their entire life they’d be here.”

This is part of the hope package. Family members have to believe, too, that their relative can recover from the ordeal, “that it is a stop on the way, not the end of the line,” Shults adds.

No matter how it’s packaged, it’s distressing to enter the other door, the back door. That’s where reality bites.

It’s hard, concrete, and steel-hard. The booking, finger printing, mug shot, body scan is more or less as you see on TV or in the movies. The process is the same for all, from the repeat DUI offender to the habitual shoplifter, to the car thief, to the person who broke into your home or worse. Everybody is equal in the jail. And that includes men and women who make up a disheartening share of the census.

In Sisters, we greet our deputies on their bikes, on the street, in the parks, giving little thought that from time to time they are transporting an arrestee to the jail. Deputies have immense latitude, according to Shults, with numerous options, resorting to arrest, cuffing, and a ride to the jail only when all else fails.

No matter how minor the offense, when the decision is made to arrest and transport, it’s going to be in cuffs and it only gets harder to absorb as one loses their freedom, however temporarily.

A good percentage of arrestees will be released within hours or days. But they are now forever in the “system.” By law one cannot be in jail for more than 364 days. Longer, it’s prison. Shults has seen AICs housed for several years, serving consecutive 364-day sentences.

Gone are the terms inmate or prisoner, words that stigmatize, and perpetuate behavior. It’s one of many small but potentially important touches, The Nugget observed.

“It’s all the little things we try to do to provide hope. We don’t want this to be a kennel,” Shults explained.

It might be something as small as a new paint color on the wall to soften the mood.

The strategy is a classic reward approach, believing that behavior can be modified by positive reinforcement. You earn your way out of Shults’ jail. It seemed counterintuitive to hear the managers talk about how they want their AICs out of the jail, not in it.

There are numerous programs to help an AIC get back on the street with new life skills that offer hope they won’t return. There’s the obvious — AA and NA. Anger management is usually mandated, but in some cases the team gets voluntary enrollment. And parenting classes. The jail has an active chaplaincy team, who are front line in the hope department.

There’s even yoga. Men often find it soothing, a way to reduce violent tendencies. Shults is willing to try most anything if he believes it’s for the benefit of those in his custody.

“When you get here,” Shults schools, “you think your world has ended. Our main job is to help you understand that it hasn’t.”


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