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Under new jail polices, a guard must be an officer and a gentleman

Sunday, March 18, 2001

By Joel Rosenblatt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Most of us, it's safe to say, probably wouldn't apply for a job that required working side by side with a convicted killer or rapist. Most of us never knowingly encounter such people, much less confront them.

Eugene Jones, 56, is a former Marine who in six years as a corrections officer at the Allegheny County Jail has seen the rules governing his job changed by court decisions in favor of inmates' rights. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Eugene Jones, however, chooses to surround himself with hardened criminals five days a week. As a corrections officer at the Allegheny County Jail, he earns $40,000 a year to supervise about 50 individuals accused or convicted of committing society's most heinous crimes.

"The nicest guy up there is a child molester," Jones says, referring to the seventh floor, where he works. "If that inmate jumps on you, you're fighting for your life."

It used to be the other way around. In 1996, a 20-year-long case that exposed serious corrections officer abuse of inmates was finally closed. In his written opinion, Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. described the jail's "restraint" chamber:

"In this bleak room the inmates are placed in a hospital gown or naked on a canvas cot with a hole cut in the middle. Their body wastes drop through the hole into a tub on the floor underneath the cot. ... These inmates are shackled by leather restraints to the canvas cots ... for as long as 29 days."

Cohill ordered the release of hundreds of inmates who were living in unclean and overcrowded conditions, a decision that forced the construction of the new Second Avenue jail.

After the case concluded, the Allegheny County Prison Board conducted a national search for a warden who could oversee a modern method of inmate corrections in a new jail.

The committee found Calvin Lightfoot, who has 38 years of experience in corrections.

In addition to a new attitude toward jailing and a brand-new building, Lightfoot also inherited 24 lawsuits involving corrections officer abuse of inmates. One case, brought by inmates in 1994, revealed abuses including the beatings of 25 inmates, some resulting in broken cheekbones and jaws. Allegheny County settled the suit for $350,000. In another case, also in 1994, five black prisoners were forced to clean the jail's dining room on their hands and knees while naked. A jury decided the case in their favor, and the county paid $36,500 in damages to the inmates. All of the cases have been resolved. (The county this month settled a civil suit brought by an inmate who claimed he had been beaten by guards.)

Now, in the "direct supervision" model, officers like Jones work alone or with one other officer in a giant room where inmates roam freely. According to new jail policy, officers must "videotape planned uses of force" and employ the "least amount of force reasonably necessary to achieve the authorized purpose." He must write up each incident of violence and report it to a specially appointed internal investigator. Inmates do the same.

"You've got to stay within the 'use of force,' " the warden tells his officers. "And guess who says that? The federal courts."

The court decisions in favor of inmates' rights have changed the job considerably.

"Before all these rules came down, it was tougher for inmates. Corrections was different," Jones says.

In these post-litigation days, "You learn how to adapt, or you quit."

A new era

Checking for contraband in visiting rooms is routine for Jones and other officers. Recently, he moved a ceiling panel and discovered a package containing whiskey in Tupperware, cigarettes, marijuana and cocaine -- plus a note to the inmate it was intended for. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

A former Marine, Eugene Jones, 56, dresses, stands and walks like a soldier. A small button pinned to the collar of his creased uniform reminds him of his service in the Congo and Turkey as an embassy guard. A native Pittsburgher, he was a member of West Mifflin North High School's first graduating class in 1962. His gray, slicked hair and the circles of soft, slack skin around his gray-blue eyes are textures of a man who has worked hard, not only as a soldier and corrections officer for the past six years, but also as an appliance salesman at Sears & Roebuck for 25 years.

Each workday, Jones arrives at the jail one-half-hour early, in uniform, at 2:30 p.m. for his 3-11 p.m. shift. He deposits his leather jacket in a locker room, where he banters with fellow officers and then heads to an employees' cafeteria for a can of orange juice and some camaraderie before taking an elevator up to the seventh floor.

Notably missing from the jail as Jones winds his way up to Level 7 are the dank corridors, the billy clubs, iron bars, and clanking keys from which the expressions "big house," "clink" or "slammer" were coined. Correctional officers don't carry weapons, and Jones must use an intercom to contact officers in a "central control center" to get access through doorways, which are quietly, electronically, locked and unlocked.

The automated doors and shiny hallways invoke an image more akin to a hospital than a jail. The hygienic effect is, of course, by design. "Normally you can tie violence to a dirty jail," says Lightfoot. A barrel-chested man, with meaty hands and thick fingers, the warden is also a former Marine. A clean jail, he says, "organizes the mind."

The hospital analogy fits for another reason. Lightfoot says 92 percent of inmates at the jail abuse drugs or alcohol or have mental health problems. When cops pick them up off the street, they are no longer locked up in zone houses first. That means if they arrive at the jail drunk or high, they sober up and go through withdrawal under the watch of corrections officers.

It's another way the job has changed, and Jones' nostalgia for the 19th-century "clink" on Fifth Avenue and Ross Street is evident when he reflexively shakes each door to make sure it's locked. It's as if he doesn't trust the electronic infrastructure of the new jail or the generation of inmates contained in it. "It's a different breed of criminal today," he says. "The young people that come in here don't care that they killed someone. They care that they got caught."

Shakedown

 
 
A decline in use of force

If a corrections officer misjudges a confrontation or fails to uncover a hidden weapon, it can mean the difference between life or death for him, a fellow guard or an inmate. But Calvin Lightfoot, warden at the Allegheny County Jail, says that sort of incident is increasingly less likely to occur.

Between 1997 and 2000, use of force at the jail -- meaning all incidents of violence, including inmates on inmates -- dropped 20 percent, from 165 incidents to 132, Lightfoot said. When the figures are adjusted for the increased jail population over that time, use of force actually dropped about 33 percent.

When the new jail opened in 1995, it housed fewer than 1,300 inmates. That number has increased gradually over time, and now there are consistently more than 2,000 prisoners in the jail every day. At present, the jail employs 421 full-time and nearly 40 part-time officers.

As the inmate population increases, the warden leans on officers to negotiate the friction with inmates and to prevent the jail from becoming the fertile ground for violence and litigation it once was.

Court rulings and new policies about use of force have changed the roles of corrections officers such as Eugene Jones.

Today, inmates "push things that, a number of years ago, they wouldn't have," he says, while officers worry that using force could cost them their jobs.

Lightfoot says that concern is overblown. "We have never gone after officers for defending themselves -- we have gone after them for going beyond [a reasonable] use of force."

-- Joel Rosenblatt


Jere Krakoff, lawyer for the inmates who brought the initial case decided by Judge Cohill, recounted details of how the case was won in the Post-Gazette Sunday Magazine on Aug. 30, 1998. The story is available at the PG Web site: www.post-gazette.com, or http://www.post-gazette.com/
magazine/19980830jail1.asp
.

   
 

Jones' first duty at 3 p.m. is to "shake down," or inspect, six visiting rooms abutting the pod that houses 50 to 60 inmates. It is here --underneath chairs, in vents and narrow holes in the wall -- that he is most likely to find contraband. Recently, he found a football-sized package wrapped in tape and tucked up and inside one of the ceiling panels. Inside the package was whiskey in Tupperware, meat in Ziplock bags, cigarettes, marijuana and drinking straws packed with cocaine.

Inmates who clean the rooms might grab the gifts. Officers joke about the fact that the visitor who left this particular package included a note with the inmate's name on it.

"It was made for a party, a New Year's picnic they were planning," Jones says with a smile. It wasn't as funny for the intended recipient, who was sent to solitary confinement, a place officers and inmates call the "Hole," on the eighth floor, the top of the jail.

There, inmates are locked up 23 hours a day and served meals through a slot in their cell door. Correctional officers who deliver meals in the Hole have encountered inmates who spit at them or who throw their urine, feces or ejaculation through the slot.

Last year, an inmate who had verbally sparred with Jones was sent to the Hole for threatening to rape Jones' daughter, wife and mother when he got out.

"Well, you're out of luck with my mother," Jones responded, "because she's dead."

Jones says he could not work in the Hole. "I have too much respect for people," he says. "When you spit on a person, when you throw piss or feces on a person -- people don't do that. Animals do that. You've got to be an animal to spit on people. That's why they're in the Hole."

During another encounter with an inmate two years ago, Jones' ring finger was snapped at a right angle, breaking it at the joint. He keeps an X-ray of the finger in his locker as a reminder of what can go wrong.

Last month, Jones discovered a sharpened, 18-inch steel rod stowed inside the pod's laundry dryer. In ducts in the ceiling, officers recently found a rope made of braided garbage bags. What officers fear most is an inmate getting through the ducts to the visitor's rooms and walking out of the jail -- or worse, holding an officer hostage with a weapon to make an escape.

Last year, a visitor left behind something Jones had never seen before: a pile of feces on the floor. A week later, she returned for another visit.

"She shouldn't have been let back in here," says Jones, who knows who it is because of where the visitor had been seated. "Those people across the aisle," meaning the administration, "will never be able to explain to me how she should be allowed back in the jail."

Lightfoot says nothing can be done without a witness. "He's disgusted with the person. I'm disgusted with the person," says Lightfoot. "But that's something we just can't prove -- we wouldn't be justified arresting her."

A day at the pod

At 3:30 p.m., Jones enters the pod. The first person he sees is a strapping, blond-haired and baby-faced man sitting at his desk. It's his 32-year-old colleague, Steve Truhan. From a corner, the two men watch inmates wander in and out of their 56 cell doors in the expansive, two-level pod.

It is the freedom of inmate movement under "direct supervision" that is most striking (and alarming) to a first-time visitor of the jail. Inmates casually drop by, asking Jones questions about mail or to get order forms for the commissary. Except for six periodic lockups for head counts, inmates roam freely like this from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.

To the uninitiated, entering the pod feels like being dropped into a tank full of sharks. Even Jones' easygoing manner is partly a facade.

"The better officers don't show their fear," he says. "I'm old-school; you're not going to intimidate me. I could be scared to death, but they'll never know it. I'll never give them the satisfaction."

Most inmates watch cable on one of two TVs. Cliques dominate a bank of six phones; cords from the handsets are just long enough to enable them to talk for hours while lying on the carpeted floor. When they're done, they pass the phone to a friend. Others play cards or board games on one of 14 tables bolted to the floor. They shower in one of seven secluded shower stalls or do their laundry (for free) in a huge washer and dryer.

When it's warm outside, inmates play basketball in a caged-in, cement basketball court with a single hoop, the only place where they can breathe fresh air from outdoors. On Mondays and Wednesdays, Jones takes them to the law library for an hour; on Tuesdays and Fridays they visit the gym.

Some inmates Jones knows by name because they turn up repeatedly on new charges. But even with those he doesn't know well, "you get a rapport going, you try to have what resembles a relationship," he says. "It helps tremendously to keep the pod mellower."

Unless an inmate has a history of threatening officers or has been convicted or accused of murder, he prefers not to know their charges. "It makes me feel better if I don't know. I'm not his judge, I'm not his jury. Whether you like a person or don't like a person, you treat them equal -- that's our job."

At 4 p.m., dinner trays are sent up from the kitchen. Jones makes sure every inmate is provided for because "you get a guy who doesn't get his food, it could be a bad situation." Inmates must be seated and are called in sections to get their food.

Lightfoot likens the environment to education. "The officer is like a schoolteacher behind his desk," he says. "It's officer-inmate friendly."

The "students" in this scenario are more quiet when a stranger is around. On this day, a neatly dressed newspaper reporter is visiting for the first time. He sits cross-legged, taking notes.

"Who's that, an investigator from the DA's office?" one inmate asks another.

"No, man. That's Mister Rogers," he replies, busting up in laughter.

The journalist records the comment in his notebook.

"Put in there [inmates] don't like the food," a prisoner tells him.

"Yeah," chimes another. "Tell them to take them cages off the door."

"And send some female guards up here," jokes another. More laughter.

Jones smiles at the exchange. When inmates ask him in earnest why the journalist is there, he tells the truth.

But his manner can shift quickly. Scanning the pod for irregularities, he notices an inmate wearing a white, thermal undershirt without the top half of his red jail uniform.

"Get your top on!" Jones barks.

The inmate either doesn't hear or pretends not to.

"Get your top on!" Jones repeats.

Jones says he doesn't recognize the inmate, says he must be new, and so hasn't learned his pod rules yet. The inmate lazily pulls the uniform over his head.

Another inmate sits on a table to watch television -- another violation.

"Get off the table!" Jones yells.

This time the inmate clearly hears the orders but ignores him.

"Get off the table!"

Other inmates familiar with Jones rush to their friend to explain the rule: If he doesn't obey by the third request, he may be locked up in his cell for 48 hours.

Eugene Jones removes the handcuffs from a prisoner who is returning to the seventh-floor pod watched over by Jones and one other officer. The pod houses up to 60 men. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Jones knows the soft spots, where trouble is likely to turn up. He knows that for new inmates, the first few days at the jail are the hardest. He closely watches inmates who get bad news from loved ones, attorneys or friends over the phone.

The best deterrent to violence is hope. Inmates hoping they'll beat the charges against them or get reduced sentences for good behavior are less likely to confront him.

Though it's just Jones and Truhan looking after as many as 60 men, if an inmate confronts them (or another inmate), help is only as far as an electronic pin in Jones' desk drawer.

If Jones or Truhan pulls the pin, every available officer -- an occurrence Jones calls "the blue wave" -- comes filing into the pod to put down the conflict swiftly. There is also the leverage of the Hole. Any violent inmate will likely end up in solitary confinement.

Sometimes, though, hope is gone. Level 7 houses inmates from state or federal penitentiaries who have been sentenced to long or life prison terms. They are in Pittsburgh to face local charges.

At 6 p.m., Jones watches over the pod while Truhan goes to eat. Sitting alone, he reflects on inmates without hope. "What's [that inmate] got to lose if he tries to punch my teeth out?" Even inmates awaiting trial or facing shorter terms could get restless. "If they want to take us over, we're history. Each day you come in here, they could take this pod over. God forbid that would ever happen."

At 7 p.m., it is Jones' turn for dinner. He is not allowed to leave the jail, so he reluctantly eats a salad at the cafeteria. He returns to the pod before the end of his break because he likes to help Truhan with the final lockup.

Truhan turns the televisions off with a remote control at 8 p.m.

"It's that time, gentlemen!" he announces over a loud speaker. "It's that time. Lock up! You've got two minutes."

Final goodbyes are said on the phones. Games are ended. Some inmates come by to say good night to Jones and shake his hand. Then their doors are closed behind them for 11 hours, until 7 a.m.

Barring an emergency or suicide, Jones and Truhan have three hours of quiet time until the end of their shift at 11 p.m.

At ease

Jones says he doesn't drink or take drugs to cope with the stress of his job.

At his Pleasant Hills home, far from the jail, large, framed photographs of three his kids greet him in the entryway. He says putting them through college (one is a Ph.D.) is the thing he is most proud of.

Jones' wife, Jeanie Jones, 54, says being a corrections officer has let the soldier in Eugene out again. He likes the structure of the job, and the uniform, she says. She worries that he'll get hurt, but they filter their fears to forget about the jail.

"I'm sure he brings [the jail] home with him, but he does not show it to the family," Jeanie says. At least not consciously -- Eugene has sporadic nightmares, marked by fits of screaming, punching or kicking. Jeanie wakes him with a soft but firm voice.

"I didn't know I had them," Eugene says of the dreams.

Jones stays on at the jail, ever mindful of the retirement that eluded him at Sears. After 25 years there, he was told he could stay on as a salesman for commissions only, but there would be no more base pay of $10 an hour. His other option was to leave with one week's salary for each of the years he'd worked.

Jones recalled his first days at Sears, when the company showed a film of a man who started as a janitor, worked his way up and retired rich. Now "they wanted rid of bodies," Jones recalls. "It broke my heart."

He took the buyout and worked a series of jobs, including at Foodland as a stockboy. Finally, he found openings for corrections officers in the "help wanted" ads.

Jones is keenly aware that he needs nine more years before he will have served the 15 years necessary to leave the jail with full pension. He's confident he'll do it without a serious incident.

But "if I can't retire at 65," he says with a flourish of gallows humor, "I might be back as an inmate."



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