Spending 12 hours a day in jail is no dream job for deputies
Deputies that run Hillsborough's jail say events that have them in the spotlight are aberrations.
By Abbie Vansickle and Mike Brassfield, Times Staff Writers
Published March 9, 2008
TAMPA - Detention Deputy Constance Boyd wriggles her fingers inside the inmate's mouth.
"I glued it," says Traci Thompson, explaining her stubborn chin piercing.
Boyd, a thin woman, hair pulled into a tight bun, tries again. Her short nails and slippery protective gloves get in the way. She promises aloud to let her nails grow.
The metal stud won't budge.
The jailer and the jailed manage small smiles.
In the assembly line of the criminal justice system, Boyd is the first stop.
For 12 hours at a time, she corrals the recently arrested in Central Booking at the Hillsborough County jail, searches pockets for cigars and cell phones and doles out plastic bags that serve as makeshift belts for baggy pants. About 200 people pass through the doors each day, more than 72,000 last year.
Recent claims of abuse have plagued the deputies at Orient Road Jail. One attorney accused the jail of systemic abuses of prisoners. The deputies say that's not true, that the case of a quadriplegic man dumped from his wheelchair was an aberration. They say their work can be stressful, keeping them in close contact with people at their worst, but that it's mostly rote.
"Most people just want to come in, get processed, use the phone and get bonded out," says Detention Deputy Glenn Cloversettle, a five-year veteran frisking new arrivals at the booking desk. "But some of them are drunk, high, agitated."
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It is a not a job of children's dreams. Everyone acknowledges this.
"The profession itself is kind of looked down on. Nobody grows up saying, 'I want to be a jailer,' " says Capt. Anne Herman, a tall, upbeat, 18-year veteran of the jails. She first heard about the job at a booth at the state fair.
Deputy Boyd had served in the Air Force, then worked a series of dead-end jobs before coming to the jail, where she has worked for eight years. Another deputy had worked in retail.
For deputies, 12 hours a day is a standard shift, allowing blocks of days off.
In Hillsborough, detention deputies must have a high school diploma or GED, while patrol deputies have more stringent requirements. Jailers also have a lower pay scale than road deputies.
Detention deputies start at $36,931 and can make up to $54,927. Road deputies start at $39,115 and make as much as $61,042.
It's different in other counties; in Pinellas County, detention deputies start at $41,284, while road deputies start slightly lower. In Polk County, detention and road deputies have the same starting pay: $35,740.
Many, like Herman and Boyd, make a career of the jail. Others hope for another direction.
Detention Deputy Frank Rabsatt, 43, works in booking. He took the job because he wanted to become a road deputy, but now dreams of becoming a bailiff because so much additional training is required for street deputies. He shares custody of his son, and the courthouse hours will give him more time to be a dad, he says. Then, there's the extra perk of the work environment in the courts.
"It's a little more calm," he says with a grin.
Detention deputies receive some of the same training as road deputies. Road deputies, though, also are trained in law, tactics and driving. Both are trained in the use of force.
Maj. Jim Previtera, who leads training for the agency, said it has been frustrating to see criticism of the jail deputies because the agency has put an increased focus on staff training.
"It's been tough to sleep at night because this obviously sends my mind racing at 100 miles an hour as far as what I need to do," he said.
Detention deputies employ what's called a use of force matrix. Their behavior is determined by the inmate's actions. If someone is verbally uncooperative, the deputies are supposed to respond with words or possibly an "escort position." If someone gets physical, the deputies are trained to use force. If someone tries to harm deputies, they can defend themselves.
About three months ago, Deputy Rabsatt noticed a man on the floor. Rabsatt says he asked the man to get up off the floor, and the man came up swinging and tried to bite him.
Rabsatt, a thickly muscled deputy with a calm demeanor, hit back, he says. The inmate was put into a restraint chair.
"Number 1, I don't like is spitting, biting. I'm going home, as simple as that," Rabsatt says.
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Handcuffed prisoners come into booking with the arresting officers to be processed. Some come in crying, but most look disgruntled and bored.
It's a wide-open room lined with clerk's counters, nurse stations and holding cells. Motivational posters on the wall tout "Collaborate" and "Attitude."
Deputies in latex gloves search each person with a wand. Then inmates sit in a line of chairs, awaiting their turn at the booking desk. The cuffs come off, and detention deputies pat down each person. Deputies have found marijuana, cocaine, crack pipes, knives, Tasers and guns stuck deep in pockets, socks and underwear. One time, they found a gun tucked in a cowboy boot.
The bottles of hand sanitizer and frequent need to clean give the area the lemony smell of disinfectant. There's an occasional whiff of body odor and bologna.
There's an easy rapport among the deputies, who tease each other about who uses the most hand sanitizer. They whistle. They listen as street officers talk about flea bites and who's running the paddy wagon.
Clerks wrap inmate property in plastic. Jailers take fingerprints and mug shots. Nurses screen the inmates and check vital signs and medication needs. For many, it's the first medical care they've received in years.
One nurse compared the jail to an emergency room, a constant stream of people with all kinds of issues. Drug use, diabetes, mental health problems, you name it.
The busiest spot in the place is the phone bank. Jailers want inmates to post bail.
Dozens of inmates sit around, bored and quietly grumbling. Some sleep. Others sit glumly, staring into space. Every four hours, they get juice and bologna and cheese sandwiches.
Bad behavior can mean time in a holding cell, a bare room with a bench, and a small privacy area with a toilet. Tonight, only one is occupied. A large man in a gray shirt sits docile on a bench.
Ronald Maish, 33, faces a warrant on murder charges out of Indiana. His case made the news up there, so he's considered high-profile and must be kept away from others, deputies explain.
Maish says the Orient Road Jail seems nicer than some of the jails he has seen up North.
"It's all right. They got to do what they got to do," he says. "It's all right, better than most."
If inmates in the cells misbehave, they can be placed in a restraint chair, a menacing device with straps for arms and legs that is used about once a day.
If no one posts their bail, inmates get orange jail uniforms, underwear and sandals. Before moving to housing pods, inmates have to sit on the BOSS chair, a Body Orifice Scanning System that checks for metal hidden in, well, orifices. An alarm flashes if the machine catches anything.
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The job wears on people. Experts say there's evidence that corrections officers in prisons and jails have higher divorce, alcoholism and suicide rates than other law officers, and a shorter life expectancy.
A recent report by the National Institute for Justice found widespread stress among detention officers because of long shifts, low pay, staff shortages and the profession's poor public image.
Hillsborough has a hard time filing detention deputy jobs; right now, there are 100 vacancies.
All of that can lead to burnout, illness and strained family relations.
"Correctional officers are dealing with people they do not trust for eight to 10 hours per day. Such stress carries over outside of work," the report said. It called for jails and prisons to beef up their counseling programs.
"It's very stressful when we have a lot of people coming in at the same time, you know, dealing with many different personalities and people in varying states of intoxication, both alcohol and drugs, and also people just being upset that they're arrested at all," says Deputy Boyd.
Most deputies say they try to leave it all behind when the shift ends. Boyd golfs. Rabsett hits the gym.
Maj. Previtera applauds that mentality. The most important thing a detention deputy can do is to build a life outside of work.
The job can change a person's view of others.
"It's a pretty negative environment. You become very skeptical of people, more likely to think they're lying to you," says Capt. Herman. She cracks that when she's stern with her kids, she uses what they call her "inmate voice."
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The inmates, most of them repeat offenders, offer up sharply different views of the jail detention deputies, with varying degrees of credibility.
"If you don't get loud or act out, they won't mess with you," says Thompson, now free of her chin piercing and in line for the phone. "If you act out, if you act stupid, of course they're going to mess with you."
Jan Wolf, 39, of Tampa complains of brutality: "I've seen inmates get beat down, kicked, slapped for no reason." Then again, he also says he has been arrested 33 times in a year and has been thrown in a holding cell for being drunk.
Chester Brooks, 49, wears a Microsoft 2000 shirt and has a hole bigger than a quarter on the sole of his shoe. He came to jail with $6.24 in his pocket. He repeatedly asks the deputies if he can use the bathroom. They allow him, but only after he waits several minutes and is searched.
"I've been here before," he says. "They've been straightening up ever since this thing hit the TV."
Despite the pressures, some detention workers say they've found their calling in jail.
Sgt. Cecelia Williams sits in an office in the booking area. She's busy. Deputies drop by with reports. An inmate comes in, asks to use a pen.
Williams studied criminology at Florida State. She was young and idealistic when she came to the jail. Years later, she has lost some of the naivete amid the daily grind, but she still believes.
"You know, you just feel like you want to help people in society," she says. "Somebody that's never been here before, you can talk to them and scare them. If you catch that one person, if you can just sway that one person, it will make a difference."
She leaves her work behind when the jail door slams shut.
"You don't take it home with you," she says. "You can't take it home."
She wants people to remember that detention deputies are human, that they're more than the silent figures moving through those jail booking videos.
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3373.