“Six months after I became sheriff, the most dangerous inmate in the jail escaped and was gone for 10 days,” says former Sheriff Gary Raney. “It was a big wake-up call and I realized we’d gotten complacent. We needed big changes.”

In law enforcement for 31 years and sheriff of Ada County, Idaho, for ten, Gary Raney looks the part: 6’3”, with thick dark brown hair and posture that shames others into standing up straight. But he also smiles more than you might expect a sheriff to, and he admits mistakes.

After the escape, Raney and his staff revamped the Idaho jail’s mission and culture to focus on four specific goals: safety of staff, security of the facility, well-being of inmates, and meeting/exceeding stakeholder expectations. The sheriff’s office also encourages staff members to find creative ways to get things done. One sergeant, wanting to enhance staff safety, asked his deputies to “think like inmates.” He gave his deputies the same items that each inmate receives upon processing into the jail, including a uniform and a plastic bag containing a comb, toothbrush, and toothpaste, and then challenged them to see who could craft the smallest, most lethal weapon. Another asked deputies to figure out how to “escape,” and so they did, which helped identify building security flaws.

When he describes this new strategic approach, Raney sounds in some ways more like a CEO than the former head of a local government agency — in fact, he coauthored a book with business leaders, a football coach, and a dancer on how to improve his organization (Wise Beyond Your Field, 2013). But Ada County’s initiative isn’t all about business. It’s also about creating a culture that allows the jail to deliver better results: for taxpayers, employees, and for inmates, too.

Employees are empowered to solve problems up and down the line, both inside the jail and out in the field. One Saturday night, a patrol officer ticketed two teenagers for speeding and then visited each household the next day, on his own time. The officer talked with the parents and kids, then tore up the tickets, reasoning that the lesson was clear and the impact was stronger than just writing a ticket.

The result of building such a culture is a jail and a system that others want to learn from.

As Raney says of the office he left when he retired last year, “We’re in a human service industry where we’re all a team. We help each other out. We also try to give the deputies autonomy to try things. We can always undo it if it doesn’t work.”

* * *

The Ada County Sheriff’s Office has a 1,217-bed jail, about the size of 3.5 football fields, including an 88-bed hospital. If you stand on the steps of the Idaho State Capitol building in Boise and look southwest, the jail is less than three miles away. Most locals who speed past it daily barely notice the sand-colored, two-story building surrounded by a chicken-wire fence with concertina wire on top. The jail books about fifteen thousand people annually, but on average, roughly 900 beds are full on any given night. At the Ada County Jail, most people post bond and leave in a few days, but if they stay, the average time is 34 days. Some who have been convicted may serve their entire sentences in jail, which is nothing like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

Neuberg Vera Institute Spot1Ada County Jail is typically quiet, with uncluttered hallways, steel mesh instead of bars, and no rancid smells. It was recently highlighted in a Human Rights Watch report as exemplary, because of low use-of-force incidents. The numbers were so low that the report’s researcher initially thought the jail’s data were wrong. In 2015, it was one of twenty U.S. jails to receive a MacArthur Foundation grant to find ways to keep people out of jail, including through diversion programs, which focus on keeping people out of the prosecution system altogether. Instead of jail, first-time or low-risk offenders may be diverted into a program that helps them with problems like substance use or unemployment. This prevents them from entering the system and reduces the likelihood of getting into trouble again.

Still, this is a jail. Some inmates make tattoo kits on the sly, trade commissary, try to bait deputies, and ask for medicines they don’t need. Many are mentally ill and some are violent, so there’s always the chance of “a career-ending injury.”

“It’s stressful,” Raney admits. “Some people on the outside see being a jail guard as derogatory, so it’s tough to feel proud sometimes. Twelve-hour shifts and overtime are hard on home life. And if there is a bad injury, you’ve really got no other skills to transfer to a different field.”

Raney knows why people choose the work. “Good people enter the profession for good reasons. We can make a difference and save a life.”

The former sheriff now consults for the U.S. Department of Justice to help other jails improve and is helping design a diversion program on the national level. “We want to help people do well, and finding ways to keep them from being in jail is a start.”

But if they must be in jail, he wants it to be like Ada County.

* * *

“It’s not easy to hang your arms at your side. The belt gets in the way.”

Jail deputy M. Yamada-Anderson, a fourteen-year veteran at the sheriff’s office, stands with her feet shoulder-width apart and her hands resting on her belt buckle, which is the size of half a deck of cards. Like all deputies, she goes by her last name in the jail, with staff and inmates. The staff do the same for inmates, calling them Mr. Smith or Ms. Norman.

“I’m wearing maybe seven to eight extra pounds, not counting the Glock, which is another three to five pounds,” says Yamada-Anderson. “The newer belts have padding, but I still get back pain after wearing the thing fifty hours a week for years.”

Yamada-Anderson contradicts many people’s expectations about jail deputies. She has a college degree in philosophy, was one of Idaho’s first applicants for a license to marry another woman, and sees jail work as akin to being in sales.

“I don’t tell people what to do,” says Yamada-Anderson. “I ask. I convince them it’s to their benefit toNeuberg Vera Institute Spot2 do what I ask. They’ve already lost a lot, so I don’t want to take it all from them.” In the dorms, for example, if an inmate stays in her pajamas rather than changing into her jail daytime clothing, Yamada-Anderson will talk to her about how getting dressed makes you feel better about yourself. She and other staff members know that they can’t just order; they need to give reasons for what they ask inmates to do. This is a first step to returning to the community.

“If you can’t do jail right, how will you do it in the community?”

As Yamada-Anderson says, being arrested epitomizes loss. If you stay overnight in jail, gone are your clothes, your wallet, and your wedding ring. Forget controlling your schedule or your privacy. You wear a uniform, share a room with strangers, and eat when someone else tells you to.

“Jail is the ultimate equalizer,” she says. “Everything is stripped away from you. No makeup. No jewelry. The same uniform. The only thing that separates people is the quality of their tattoos and the quality of their teeth.”

But it’s hard for deputies as well, especially shifting cultures from inside to outside the jail. “Where else do you get training about not beating your spouse or how to keep from killing yourself? We have different currency, a different language, and different laws inside the jail. It can wear you down.”

But she has stayed in the job, partly because of positive feedback — like what happens to her at least monthly away from the jail.

“A former inmate will stop me on the street to tell me she’s doing well. Makes me feel good. We help people in a strange way.”

Like other staff members, Yamada-Anderson tells stories of how taking a little extra time to talk with an inmate or even the simple respect that she shows can make a difference for someone going through a rough time in the jail. If she can do a good job on the inside, she figures, maybe the inmate will do better on the outside.

* * *

Nurse Ed Walker looks like the actor Robbie Coltrane who plays Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter films — large and self-assured, with a more cultivated gray-and-black beard and haircut. He shifted his NFL football allegiance from the Rams to the Buccaneers, partly to support an underdog, and largely because of the pirate ship on the field during games. Walker, who has three silver loops in his left ear, admits he’s a bit of a prankster with colleagues, and says he’s “living his dream” working at the jail.

“I like giving health care to people who otherwise probably wouldn’t have access to it, people who haven’t had a lot of breaks in life.”

Before nursing, Walker drove a truck for 25 years, delivering beer, paper, and building supply products, and working up to ninety hours a week behind the wheel. After he and his wife and two children left California for Idaho, he cared for his kids for six months before entering nursing school at age 43.

“I was always fascinated by those medical TV shows. Couldn’t watch enough of them. So I decided, if I was ever going to change, this was the time. I became the ‘super student’: perfect attendance and grades.”

Given that several relatives had worked in law enforcement in Los Angeles, Walker was comfortable with the culture. At the jail, he meshed that culture with nursing.

“I tell my patients — and I always call them patients, never inmates — that I will never lie to them. Sometimes they ask why I’m listening to them, because no one else does. It’s part of how I take care of them. After a while, they learn that if we say something to them here, we mean it.”

But on the outside, not everyone understands what he does.

“Some people ask why I’m not a ‘real nurse.’ I tell them that I save lives and take care of people they ignore.”

Many of the ignored are returning patients — often alcoholics, homeless, and cut off from families. They lose hope, jobs, and end up at the jail in worse shape each time Walker sees them.

The better moments for him are when he knows he saved a life or helped a patient. “We had a chronic alcoholic who was deaf. I built a rapport with him over time. One night the deputies and nurse on duty said he wasn’t cooperating on his health assessment. I went to see him and he just didn’t seem right. Pale. Shutting down. I got him to let me take his vital signs and his heart rate was 36, really low. I checked the records and it had been dropping for two weeks. So I sent him to the hospital.”

The emergency room doctor called later and asked Walker how he’d known about the patient’s heart condition.

“I didn’t know. Then the doctor said if I’d not sent him to the hospital, the patient would have died in 24 hours.” The patient received a pacemaker two days later.

When Walker can help someone look to the future, that’s even better. “A young man, drunk, on opioids, had a car accident and killed his friend. He said his life was over. Nineteen. I said, ‘You’ve made a mistake and you can make excuses — the drugs, the alcohol — or you can accept responsibility, take the penalty, and get on with your life.’”

Walker learned that six months later, the young man was clean, sober, and doing his time.

“He’s got a good outlook on his future. This is not TV. We’re here to take care of people and help them succeed.”

* * *

Deputy G. Ellington stands in the jail’s transition dorm area, three rooms housing 41 patients (25 men and sixteen women) who have mental illnesses or are recovering from health problems. Ellington is slight, with gold-auburn chin-length hair framing her face.

She joined the jail eight years ago, after twenty years in retail.

“I wanted to finish my college degree and was tired of seeing people shoplift and I couldn’t do anything about it,” she says. “So I went into criminal justice.”

When she compares what she likes about the two fields, it boils down to “interacting with customers.”

“It’s the same at the jail — they’ve just made some mistakes. But it’s still a person you’re working with.”

Ellington says she still “talks a lot,” as she did in retail.

“I ask how the day is going. I have an open policy on my desk in the dorms. People can come up and talk to me.”

The Ada County Jail has six “open” dorms. In low-security areas, one deputy oversees 92 inmates, on twelve-hour shifts, four days a week. Many visitors — civilians as well as officials from other jails around the country — marvel that one deputy can manage so many inmates.

“It’s all about respect and how you approach them. If you’re confident, tell people what the expectations are, and don’t show weakness, it works out fine. Yes, the men try to play us and the women try to play the male deputies. Some try to bait us. But we never take it personal.”

Unlike patrol, where spikes of action and adrenaline disrupt long periods of calm, jail deputies maintain constant “relaxed vigilance.”

“It’s an unknown here. We never know what will happen. So we watch.”

Ellington looks into the men’s dorm through the large glass windows that let the inmates see her as well. “The guys in there watch out for each other. Usually there’s an older man who’s the ‘dorm daddy.’ He’ll notice if someone needs something and help him get it from us. They are helping others for their own benefit or because that’s just who they are.”

Ellington watches for anything out of the ordinary, often body language.

“See that guy in the back, the older one? He’s been sick. He’s just sitting there. I’m keeping my eye on him.” Today she seems more worried about whether he’s recovering than whether he’ll cause trouble.

But mostly, Ellington says she tries to brighten the day for inmates.

“Today there’s one gal who’s having a hard time — upset because she has 20 more days. I told her to think of it as ‘one sleep at a time.’ Since ‘sleeps’ go faster than the days, she should think about 20 ‘wake-ups’ versus 20 days. It’s easier to handle.”

* * *

Kate Pape, a sheriff’s office social worker and health services administrator, is partial to funky multicolored reading glasses. She leans forward and shoves her glasses up on her head.

“I remember talking to one gentleman who was accused of an especially heinous crime. He was so soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He wanted to read me something and reached for his reading glasses. I remember that gesture, reaching for the glasses, because it made him seem so human.”

Still, he had committed an awful crime.

“But that’s what makes this job so interesting,” Pape continues. “The contradiction of crime and empathy.”

After graduate school, Pape worked in Los Angeles County, home to one of the largest and most diverse inmate populations in the United States, first with juvenile sex offenders, then in the jail’s “Twin Towers,” working with inmates who had mental health issues, and then on the jail mental health emergency response team at the North County Correctional Facility “Supermax.”

“When you walk through a jail, you either feel comfortable or you don’t,” says Pape. “I never felt claustrophobic or depressed, and don’t mind the slamming doors. When I go to work at the jail, it’s like a haven. I know I can handle the problems.”

She and her husband left L.A. in 2005 for Boise, seeing it as a good place to raise their children. She joined the Ada County Jail and “felt like I was home.”

“The criminal justice piece adds texture to what social workers do. In a jail, people have multiple losses, not as clear as hospital patients who have a presenting illness. It’s more layered. If you’re in jail, something in your life is broken and it’s not always clear what. Your criminal charge doesn’t explain who you are. There’s always a backstory with more depth.”

In jail, people are at their most vulnerable, the lowest point in their lives. Pape tries to remember that “there’s more to a person than the worst he has ever done.”

“We can’t change the whole constellation of planets in their lives. But if we can be one planet that shows care and kindness, that may make a difference. Sometimes, the simple act of getting water for someone can make an impact.”

A few weeks before this interview, she met a man on suicide watch who had been arrested on a parole violation.

“A great big guy, in the yellow uniform [denoting suicide watch]. He said he’d lost all hope. He’d gotten a job, had a girlfriend, was working to see more of his kids and then [the arrest] happened. Made him depressed, frustrated. He wanted to give up, to kill himself. We talked for about half an hour, got around to what he did have to live for, and there was a change in him. By the end of our talk, I felt like he wouldn’t try to kill himself.”

So what motivates her?

“We instill hope.”

* * *


Read more stories at The Human Toll of Jail.

N.K. Napier is a distinguished professor at Boise State University in Idaho. You can reach her at nnapier@boisestate.edu.

 Vinnie Neuberg is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and cartoonist. See his work at vinnieneuberg.com.