SYCAMORE – Jail isn’t supposed to be fun, but when it’s overcrowded, it’s not only the inmates who suffer.
The corrections officers and other members of the staff who work there also have to put up with the less-than-ample space. When the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Academy received a tour of the old and new jail facilities, attendees saw the congestion of the old jail and the changes in jail construction over the past 40 years or so.
Jail is boredom. Inmates mostly focus on passing time until they reach the next milestone in their journey through the justice system, whether that’s the next court date, sentencing or release.
Inmates spend 23 hours a day confined to their cell blocks, which are confined areas made up of several separate cells. On Thursday evening, they were watching TV, playing chess (with plastic pieces on cardboard) or working out, using a wash bucket for resistance. Mostly they were quiet, but sometimes an inmate can get out of hand. When it’s too much, there is a room with light blue, padded walls, and sometimes a chair with restraints, in which inmates can be confined. It doesn’t always work: The narrow glass window was recently replaced after being broken.
Chief of Corrections Joyce Klein emphasized that inmate TVs are not paid for with taxpayer money. For an hour a day, inmates have access to a multipurpose room that includes the library, which has varied collection including Louis L’Amour, John LeCarre and an array of Barnes and Noble Classics. Sometimes, the room will be used for a Bible study or academic classes.
When the old wing of the jail opened in 1980, it was expected to house fewer than 90 inmates. In 2017, the county had an average daily population of about 140.
Over the past 20 years, the county has paid almost $10 million to house inmates in jails in other counties with more space.
Even with many people being held off-site, space still is at a premium. On the tour, the class saw one of the inmates being held in the attorney meeting room, flipping through a well-worn copy of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
Around the jail, visitors saw how increased inmate population had changed the way space was used. Employee break room? Now used for booking. The storage closet? Now the space for inmates to video conference into court. When the jail opened, every cell was single-occupancy. Now, most inmates have a cellmate.
There is an important difference between a jail and a prison: Jail is supposed to be temporary. If you’re in jail, you’re either awaiting trial or have a sentence to serve of less than a year. Anything longer, and you end up with the Illinois Department of Corrections and in a prison, such as the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, or the imposing campus at the Pontiac Correctional Center. That said, those in the county jail awaiting trial can wait awhile. One inmate has been there for four years. And jail time can pass slowly.
The second half of the class was at the new jail, which has so much more space that some of it isn’t expected to be used until decades into the future, Klein said. Where the old jail had to give up a small storage closet to inmate use, the new jail will have an entire basement for storage. Whereas the kitchen in the old jail was used for reheating food brought it, the new one has full kitchen facilities, including an industrial dishwasher. Where the old jail has a household washer for laundry, the new one will have two industrial laundry facilities with space to add a third.
Novelty and space aside, the new building is still a jail. A corrections officer at a duty station in the middle of the rotunda containing the cell blocks can see into every cell. Beds come in two varieties: concrete and steel. The toilet facilities are all one unit: toilet, sink and fountain. Visits will still be conducted with a window between and, as a punishment, even that can be taken away in favor of video visits.
Windows inmates can see out of are designed so they can only see the sky – a concession to community members who did not want inmates watching people in downtown Sycamore.
Relief for the inmates and jail employees is coming. The county expects to take possession of the new jail in the spring and begin housing inmates in July.