Opinion Columns & Blogs

A deputy’s morning on 5-West, Pierce County Jail

I am a corrections deputy at the Pierce County Jail. In all the hyperbole about the jail’s overtime costs, something is getting missed and devalued — the nature of our jobs.

It is not like the movies; in many ways, it’s much more mundane. Except when it isn’t. Most of the time, most of the inmates act like the big people they look like. When they don’t, we’re dealing with a 2-, 5- or 13-year-old in a very big body throwing a temper tantrum. (The mentally ill are a whole other story.)

What follows is just the start of one day in a “normal” unit.

It’s the women’s unit: general population and Intake. Population is down to only 52. I’ve seen it max out at 105. The add-on today is formal inspection. The captain, lieutenant, sergeant and maintenance supervisor will inspect the unit.

All I have to do is get 52 people up and make them get dressed, clean their rooms and make their beds properly. “You are expected to prepare for formal inspection. You will get up and you will make your bed and be fully dressed and ready when the team gets here.” (I’ve been told I sound like a drill sergeant.)

I also have clinic call, nurse call, medication pass, detox nurse, more people for clinic, mental health professional visits, pre-trial screeners, lawyers seeing clients, me pulling people for multiple courts and me feeding people lunch. That is just the first half of the day.

To give you an idea, here’s how the morning begins:

At 7:10 a.m. — first check — I see a B-Unit inmate with two mattresses. She’s not authorized two mattresses. During unlock, I tell her to prepare for formal inspection and give up the second mattress. Miss Twenty-Something snarls, “I have *** back problems.” (Expletive deleted.)

“That’s between you and the clinic. What you don’t have is an HSR for two mattresses,” I reply, and I repeat my instructions. (HSR means “health status report” — clinic permission.)

Her response is along the lines of “I’m not gonna ****” — not printable in a family newspaper.

“Yes you do, and you will do it now,” I tell her.

“You better be careful, I might just (more unprintable stuff) and go off on you!” she threatens.

I tell her she is welcome to try. Then I lock her in her room, and arrange relocation to “the hole” (max segregation). It’s not even 7:30 yet.

I have to hire a unit worker for A-Unit. A unit worker is an inmate who cleans and otherwise helps out; she earns more time out of her cell, a second change of clothing and extra food when we have it. Some people are disqualified by their behavior or their charges, so it’s time for research.

Great. Computer froze. Not only can I not select a unit worker, I can’t write my report about Miss You-Can’t-Make-Me.

The morning highlights include IT arriving to fix my computer, a nurse arriving to give meds to 22 of the 52 inmates, room checks and a malfunctioning toilet.

Through it all, we field endless questions repeatedly: What’s my account? When is court? Why didn’t I go to court? What’s my bail? Who’s my lawyer? What’s my release date? Can I have the bottom bunk? Can I have the single room? Can I use the razor (or hair clippers, or nail clippers)? Can we change our mop water?

And complaints: I need clean underwear (or pads). I have a problem with my roommate. Someone stole my commissary. Someone stole my phone pin. I was supposed to be released today. My sandals are ripped. My blanket is see-through. I need a special diet.

Sitting down is not an option. The telephone rings off the hook.

And so it goes. I’m only three hours into shift. Thank God I have a partner in 5-West!

It’s a good day: no fights, no shouting matches, tears, tantrums or name-calling; no one kicking doors, no medical emergencies, no one barfing or crapping their pants from withdrawals. Best of all, no fecal art by “Poo-Poo Picassos.” On the bad days we really notice how short-staffed we are.

Tomorrow I’m a Taser escort on the third floor where the mentally ill and behaviorally challenged are housed. Same stuff, just worse.

Deborah Morton of Tacoma works at the Pierce County Jail.