At Jail Lights Are Always On

October 30, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — In this facility, everything is a security concern, be it a flooding toilet, jammed door, short circuit or burned-out light bulb.

"If there is a lighting issue, you have blind spots. If the electricity isn't working properly, the doors might not open or close like they should," explained Steve Hudenko, facilities management director for the Kent County Correctional Facility. "If you don't maintain the temperatures and it gets too hot or cold, the inmates get unruly; they cause disruptions, violent actions."

The term "comfort" doesn't really apply in Hudenko's work. There is little of that in the incarceration experience. But the management of inmates' needs for food and shelter can play just as large a role in the jail's safety and security as the dozens of deputies constantly on guard. And doing so is a constant, ever-increasing challenge.

On this morning, the facility's processing and intake area is relatively quiet. All of the arrests in KentCounty pass through this secure facility — 31,164 entrants last year alone, 80 to 120 a day. Many are released on bail within hours, and may or may not return for a lengthier stay. Those not released are processed into a larger staging area, where they will stay until a bed is selected for them among the 1,478 available between the main jail, the adjacent CommunityRe-entryCenter and the Honor Camp in Gowen.

This all happens in the pod-system addition completed in 1993. Roughly half of the general population resides in this section of the main jail, with the balance living in the nearly 50-year-old linear jail renovated at the time of the expansion. A study in contrasts, the addition is still considered state-of-the-art, while the linear jail — so called for its lines of cells extending away from command centers — is functionally obsolete. Both are under constant pressure from a crumbling infrastructure and the stress of normal operations.

"When we talk about infrastructure, people think that the jail is only 15 years old, it's new," said Hudenko, an engineer by trade. "But in corrections, you don't ever turn down the lights. Everything in here is running 24/7, 365 days a year. For a facility like this, you assume a 3.2 multiplier. In reality, this is a 45-year-old building."

By that measure, the original infrastructure — plumbing and conduits sealed in concrete decades ago — is over a century old, and rapidly deteriorating. On top of that, the facility absorbs all the abuse one might expect from housing roughly 1,200 bored criminals.

"There is constant destruction of the facility," said Hudenko. "Graffiti, scratching and carving, flooding toilets for the sake of flooding them. You have 1,200 inmates with nothing but time on their hands: It's 'How do I disassemble this?' 'How do I manipulate what is here?'"

There aren't many things the inmates have access to, he said, but they are ingenious at finding opportunity for theft and vandalism. This potential is apparent in the ongoing $200,000 renovation of a general population block into the facility's new mental health unit. These inmates — suicidal, violent or otherwise disturbed — have proven the worst of offenders.

The new unit is designed to remove every conceivable opportunity for harm to the inmate, staff or facility. The bunk frames have been replaced with poured concrete slabs. The door windows are larger and a tray hole has been drilled to allow the inmate to be fed without personal contact. The exterior windows are fitted with an extra layer of glass to prevent the inmate from wedging himself into the bars. The vents have been replaced with a thin mesh so that objects cannot be inserted into them.

Since the 1960s, the number of inmates incarcerated at the facility has increased an average 4 percent each year. Meanwhile, available alternatives to incarceration have increased from six in the late 1980s to 32 today, so the lowest-risk offenders are no longer incarcerated. The result is a facility that is constantly near overcrowding, with a much larger percentage of medium- to maximum-security offenders.

This has a limited effect on the roughly 16,000 work orders Hudenko's 31-employee operations crew fulfills each year. It does raise the urgency of keeping cells in service, as the different security classification tiers should not be mixed together.

Bill Raymond, facility food service director for five years, previously held a similar role at the Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility, home to many of the state's most dangerous offenders.

"There is a tremendous difference in classification levels," Raymond said of his former facility. "The staff became aware of this very quickly, and they take greater precaution. Either way, they have to get fed."

In his current role, Raymond oversees the preparation of more than 4,000 meals a day. Last year, his staff served over 1.4 million meals. A consulting dietician helps write the menus, which include special diets for diabetic, lactose intolerant or otherwise afflicted inmates.

He is proud of his kitchen's output and efficiency. With its large operation, it commands significant leverage over vendors, most of which are Michigan based. Despite constantly changing headcounts, little food is wasted. Plus, the kitchen provides one of the few constructive experiences available to inmates.

Much of the work in the kitchen is performed by inmate trustees — 20 each on day and night shifts — who outnumber civilian staff three to one. Some of these inmates use the kitchen duty merely as an opportunity to get out of their cells, but others use the culinary experience to find work once released.

"It depends on the individual," Raymond said. "If they want to go out and be a responsible individual in the world, there is a good possibility they can use this experience to find a job."

Trustees supplement other work as well, including custodial and light maintenance inside the facility. A group of trustees from the re-entry center provide much of the exterior maintenance and lawn care. A group of eight female inmates work in the laundry, where 2,000 pounds of laundry is washed every day.    

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