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A Trip Inside Houston County Jail

By Greg Ritchie

Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – May 5-11 is National Correctional Officers’ Week and The Messenger thought it high time to visit the local jail, to see how Houston County Justice Center operates and how the officers work to house, feed and keep their “guests” safe as they navigate the justice system.

It is important to note – and several of the officers mentioned this – many of those housed at the local jail have been arrested but not convicted – and the officers take this difference seriously. “Innocent until proven guilty” means those housed in the jail must behave and follow the rules, but their humanity is not taken for granted as their diet and health are taken into serious consideration. 

Should you find yourself in the tough position of entering the jail from the sally port garage area, the first thing will be a check in, where you will be asked about your physical and mental state, before the nurse checks you out and you are photographed and fingerprinted. Not all of those entering these walls are happy to be there, of course, but many come under the influence of many different substances and must be housed in special cells, where they cannot hurt themselves or others, while they come down from whatever cloud they happened to be on. 

Although already 14 years old, the jail is bright, clean and modern – this is not the dark and dank jails of long ago. Many of the cells have a telephone, where inmates can call loved ones or attorneys (when allowed) or even call jail administration to report a problem. The inmates can receive money, through money orders or online, which they can use to buy snacks or toiletries at the commissary, or even video chats with loved ones far away. 

A trustee makes lunch for the nearly 140 inmates currently housed at the jail.

We were privileged to tour the entire complex, with nothing off-limits, thanks to longtime Jail Administrator Martha Jackson, who allowed us to go anywhere and speak with anyone – employee or “resident.”

A good number of the inmates are housed here on behalf of law enforcement from other counties who pay a set rate to Houston County to keep them here until their cases are ready. Some will be out in a day, some spend up to a year, if there is not a bond in their case, waiting for justice to take its course. 

A.C. Rains keeps watch over the jail facility and buzzes officers in and out of controlled areas.

The men and women are separated, in communal bunks, where there are plenty of toilet facilities, fresh water and tables and bunk beds. They have recreation time, where they can work out and get out of the cell for a while. No one would mistake it for a fine hotel – it is jail, after all. But it is clean and well-maintained, with a rolling kiosk for inmates to contact their families by video chat (when allowed) and the traditional rolling book cart with everything from romance, non-fiction and Bibles. 

There are constant counts throughout the day and a battery of several dozen cameras can monitor every corner. At a central control desk, A.C. Rains keeps an eye on the cells, the surrounding area, buzzing doors open or closed, as requested by officers going through the facility. 

Jailer Brenda Christian does an inmate county, during her rounds at the jail. Some areas are counted more than twice an hour.

Orange jumpsuits are standard here and while they may never be a hit on the Paris runways, they look reasonably comfortable to fit-for purpose. Certain inmates wear black and white striped uniforms – these are the trustees – those who have shown they can follow the rules and be trusted. They perform all kinds of jobs in the jail, from cooking and cleaning to handling the laundry. Every single one of them confirmed – being able to escape the cell a few hours a day, learn a trade, keep their minds occupied and live in the trustee cell with more space – is well worth it. 

As it was nearing that time of day, the next logical question had to be, “What do inmates eat?” 

Inmates returning from a downtown Crockett court visit through the jail “sally port.”

The kitchen is large and has a walk-in refrigerator and freezer with another room for dry storage – it takes a lot to feed 140-or-so men and women each day. Working in the kitchen this day were three trustees, each working in a different area. The men work in six-hour shifts, happy to be away from the humdrum of cell life and even had a little radio to enjoy while they cooked for their fellow inmates. 

A female trustee works in the laundry room at the jail. She said following the rules allowed her to have the job, although she admitted when she gets out she will work anywhere except another laundry facility.

“Chicken and rice today,” one said. 

The jail has a dietician plan the meals and the trustees run the kitchen along that meal plan – learning not only to cook, but organizing and ordering supplies, too. 

Trustees are given certain privileges inside the jail, as they spend their time learning new trades, cooking and cleaning for their fellow inmates.

One trustee said he looked forward to putting his cooking skills to work. Saying he only had about a month to go before he could leave, he was already thinking of a job at one of the local restaurants in Crockett. From the cleanliness of this kitchen to the smell of that chicken and rice, if he stays on the straight and narrow, he will make a fine career for himself. Let’s hope one of our local businesses picks him up and it will chicken and rice for everyone. 

Sgt. Marvin Ackley works to check inmates in and get their mugshots and prints into the system.

Near the back of the complex, Chief Deputy Roger Dickey was bringing a number of inmates back from the courthouse. Transporting these men and women is not always straightforward and the sheriff’s office takes special precautions when inmates are on the move – no one wants a loved one to try and do something silly to get their uncle out a little ahead of schedule. 

Trustees work in the jail kitchen, with chicken and rice on the menu for the almost 140 inmates.

This is part of the life of the local jail, where even though it was clear some of the “guests” might intimidate on a dark alley – there are opportunities for them to have all basic needs met, and even reform – if they want to – although many do not. 

Visitors are welcome to visit, but must sit behind glass and speak over in-house telephones. Video visits are also available for family members far away.

All of the officers mentioned the “repeat business” the jail gets. There is not a family in the country without some family member who has gotten themselves in trouble and maybe ended up in a place like this – if only for a night. What they do inside, and more importantly, after they leave this place, will tell the tale of whether or not they will be back to normal, or back inside. 

Jailer Brenda Christian joined the team about a year-and-a-half ago, after her husband passed away. He was a longtime investigator with the department and she wanted to help her “blue” family in uniform. She said it was the Lord who got her into this. 

The book cart for inmates sees everything from non-fiction, romance and religious texts.

“I knew I would see things ladies don’t need to see sometimes, but I just take it with a grain of salt. You know, they’re human. We’re all sinners,” Christian said. “These people here can beat the odds, but it takes a lot of work on their part. And it takes them keeping their eyes on God and that’s what I try to tell them, when they get out. ‘Keep your eyes on God and it’s going to be hard on you, but you can do it.”

There are no firearms allowed in the facility – not even by the jailers. If there is a serious issue, they are on their own until help can arrive from the outside. They must keep the place sealed – themselves included – until the cavalry comes. With 140 folks in those cells, not everyone can make that kind of commitment. 

A mobile kiosk used to bring video chat technology to the cells, from court appointments to family chats.

Johnny Romo worked for the state prison system, before he retired. He has retired a few times now, but can’t seem to accept a life of sitting on the couch. We caught up with him this day, after assisting Christian in one of their many inmates counts. 

“When we were growing up, we were always brought up to be respectful, because if we weren’t, you were going to pay the consequence from mom and dad,” Ramos said. “This generation today? They don’t care. They don’t care about anything or anybody. And then they come to jail and they don’t get what they want. And then they want to cry. And they want to call home. That irritates me. They’re man enough to go out there and commit a crime and do whatever it is they did, but yet when they come in here, they’re not man enough to do their time.”

Christian herself admitted she was tested a few times, being a smaller woman, but kept her cool and gained the respect of the bigger inmates. 72-year-old Sgt. Marvin Ackely has been on the job and hasn’t yet decided just how many more years he will stay at it. 

“We’re babysitters,” Ackley said. “The inmates are courteous with me because we always treat them fine. Just because they’re incarcerated, no one treats them rough. Everybody’s got family that gets in trouble, some way. They all have moms and dads and grandmas who are worried about them.”

Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected]

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