The United Press International reports that Lancaster County, Nebraska is offering its citizens the opportunity to spend a night in its newly constructed jail. At first glance, this would seem like a very risky proposition. As a first year Justice and Public Safety student quickly learns in the Corrections Probation and Parole class, prisons and jails can be very dangerous places.
However, further reading reveals that the jail is newly constructed, not yet occupied and the purpose for the citizen stays is to test the occupancy readiness of the facility. So is this a good idea?
First of all, the beneficiary of the money raised from this endeavor is the local Operation Santa Clause and the local Child Advocacy Center (CAC). I’m not sure about the parameters of Operation Santa Clause (how could anything associated with Santa be bad?), but I do know that the CAC plays a major role in reducing the trauma of child exploitation, particularly child sexual abuse. They are kid friendly “one stop shops” for most of the forensic activities that must occur when child abuse has been reported. Thus, it seems that money raised from the overnight jail stays is certainly going to good causes.
As we learn in the Justice and Public Safety program, jails (and prisons for that matter) are like miniature yet dangerous cities. Inmates must be housed in decent conditions; they must be fed, provided medical treatment, and kept secure from their fellow inmates, just like in any city.
Anytime a new building is constructed, it has its bugs and flaws. Jails are no different; in fact, they are more likely to have defects because of their intricate nature and the people who are housed in them. I recall many years ago when the new Jefferson County jail was built that there was much fanfare about its so-called “unbreakable” glass windows. Within days of its opening, the news reports were filled with stories of inmates breaking out the windows and climbing down to the street with bed sheets. Needless to say, a lot of people were embarrassed.
Even under the best of conditions, you can’t just move a group of inmates into a new building and hope for the best. This is a very dangerous time. Inmates who have nothing but time on their hands will find ways to exploit even the smallest flaw in a facility. Couple this with staff who are unfamiliar with the operation of a new building, and you have a disaster waiting to happen.
While nothing can make this process foolproof, the program in Nebraska sounds like a very creative way to start. The general public is fascinated with jails and prisons. This is evident from the many shows on TV, such as Lock–Up, that chronicle prison life and prison operations. There is a very popular bed and breakfast in Bardstown that formerly served as the county jail. There is also a popular pizza restaurant in Brandenburg that was the old county jail. People are fascinated with spending time in these places – as long as they can leave when they want.
In Lancaster County, citizens can now see firsthand the inside of their jail and hopefully will have a better understanding of what goes on there. First year Justice and Public Safety students typically get a tour of a correctional facility as part of their course. Without fail, most of them report that it is nothing like they thought it would be, for any number of reasons.
It sounds like Lincoln, Nebraska is seeking to capitalize on this fascination with penal facilities while at the same time getting a trial run of its brand new jail. As an added advantage, local charities will benefit from the citizen’s curiosity. In these days of drastic budget cuts and the burgeoning cost of corrections, this sounds like just the kind of creativity and innovation we need in our modern correctional administrators.
About the author:
Keith Hardison is an attorney who has spent practically his entire career in corrections. His first job was as a probation and parole officer in Louisville.
After graduating from law school, he became an administrative law judge for the Kentucky Parole Board. He went on to serve as deputy general counsel for the Kentucky Department of Corrections and ultimately became executive director of the Kentucky Parole Board.
He retired from that position and currently serves as chief administrative officer for the Association of Paroling Authorities International (APAI), conducts supervised placement revocation hearings for the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, does program/security reviews of prisons and teaches at Sullivan University.
When not doing these things, Keith can be found scuba diving, refereeing high school basketball, doing woodworking or playing bluegrass music with a local band.