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Jail Overcrowding

Sheriff Bill Young and Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid introduced valley residents to the idea of a temporary jail this year to confine people accused of non-violent crimes. They say they need it because of an overcrowding at the downtown detention center. KNPR's Ky Plaskon takes a look at who is in jail.

SOUND: Fremont Street.

PLASKON: A few blocks from the jovial atmosphere on Fremont Street is an equally busy public facility, the Clark County Detention Center, CCDC.

SOUND: People at jail.

SOUND: ID please, do you have an ID?

PLASKON: This building has two towers totaling 12 floors of housing for inmates.

SOUND: Opening door

SOUND: Intercom

PLASKON: Sitting in a dark surveillance room inside the jail is Sergeant Becker. With just one phone call he can find out how full the jail is. Its officially only built for 2,860 beds.

BECKER: Three thousand sixty three. Thank you very much, bye bye. 3063 we hold here.

PLASKON: Room after room at CCDC is at or near capacity.

SOUND: Opening door

PLASKON: They have two TVs where they can watch TV, they can bring a movie.

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PLASKON: Each room is dark with one person like Officer Ogis.

OGIS: There are 63. Right now it is free time so they are sitting silently watching TV 64 is our max.

PLASKON: Another area of the jail is a series of cots where officer Doty watches as inmates lie under white sheets and stare at each other silently.

DOTY: What are we looking at here? This is not ideal?

DOTY: No this is not ideal, this means we have too many people and this is where we have to put our overflow people, there are 25 cots, on one side they have 25 cots. So you are looking at about 75 inmates in here.

PLASKON: While the instances of violent crime reported by Metro to the FBI have actually declined between 2002 and 2004 and non-violent crime has stagnated, the jail population has continued to rise. So who's in jail? Sergeant Becker at the CCDC has an example of an extreme mental health case commonly known in the detention center.

BECKER: Finger painters, you don't wanna see that. Those people take their feces and paint the walls, usually those people are serious psychological problems or they have done too many drugs and they don't know what they are doing. But we don't get it too often. Schizophrenia, they are all on medication and they are seeing things.

KINCH: My Name is Linda Kinch and I am an EMT here at the Clark County Detention Center.

PLASKON: She is one of the first persons inmates see.

KINCH: Approximately 80 percent of them, they are anti depressants we have a lot of bi-polar situations, manic depressants, schizophrenia.

PLASKON: The jail is a lot like a hospital with nurses, psychologists, infectious disease quarantine and even a maternity ward. Many of the inmates get medication in jail and once they get that they are fine. That's what people don't understand she says.

KINCH: That criminals are all crazy or all bad and a lot of them misunderstood and a lot of them just need a second chance.

PLASKON: It's a revolving door though she says. When they get out, they don't get the medication and decline into the disabled mental state that got them in trouble in the first place.

SIGEL: The largest mental health facility in the state are the prisons and the jails, that is the choice we make because we don't really give a dam about those people.

PLASKON: Richard Sigel is president of the Nevada ACLU.

SIGEL: And so as a result we overbuilt jails and under built mental health and that is the decision we made.

PLASKON: He says 40-70 percent of people in jail at any given time are technically innocent and that Las Vegas should have a night court like similar sized cities to move accused non-violent criminals out of the overburdened system. While Metro Vice Lieutenant Terry Davis says part of the answer is a new jail, he agrees that people could be moved through the system faster.

DAVIS: It is not just a one-pronged approach, it is not we can just build a bigger jail, expanding the court system, what you are saying is accurate.

PLASKON: Prisons are one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics there are more than 2.1 million people in federal, state and local institutions and the population in jail is rising at 4 percent a year. Terry Davis Metro Vice Lieutenant doesn't like letting them go.

DAVIS: Our jails, our prisons are overcrowded I think it is a sign of the times and it impacts our community when we release violators of the law and it gives them the opportunity to go back into the community and commit crimes again.

PLASKON: In Las Vegas police have changed policies and increased the number of people in jail accused of non-violent crime. According to Metro's office of public affairs, in January 2004 Sheriff Bill Young ordered staff to start holding some people for non-violent crimes. Women suspected of prostitution were to be jailed rather than released as they had been in the past. Arrests for prostitution increased to ten percent of all Metro arrests. This year however, the justice court however ordered the police to release them and Metro's arrests for prostitution has since dropped to its lowest level in two years. Critics like Magdaleno Rose Avila say pumping up jail populations with non-violent criminals like prostitutes is part of a political strategy to build new jails.

AVILA: They say I mange more staff, my salary needs to be boosted. That is really what they want. It is a game. It would be different if the institutions were really changing people but they are not.

PLASKON: And take-home pay is going up. The CCDC's Becker explains what it takes to manage booking and releasing all the accused criminals brought in.

BECKER: I call in the overtime at night. We probably run 100 plus hours just in this tower, not including this tower because we don't have enough staff every single day. Officers want to work overtime there is pretty much as much as you want. Officers are making more than lieutenants because they are working so much overtime.

PLASKON: Corrections officer salary range is 46 to 70-thousand a year without overtime. The ACLU's Richard Sigel says it's expensive.

SIGEL: We don't have enough money for education; we don't have enough money for health, why do we treat criminal justice for the most miner infractions as if there is all the money in the world? You have had a huge jail-building program. Somebody needs to look at the jail building and is it consistent with the nature and the actual criminal patterns that you have."

PLASKON: Not all of the Metro staff agrees that they need a new jail like one officer who declined to be identified.

OFFICER: This is a large building; there is always space here.

PLASKON: But County Commissioner Rory Reid calls building a new jail a quality of life issue.

REID: We can't do a sting operation on the strip to address the prostitution problem. We can't do something aggressive with serial graffiti perpetrators because we have no place to put them.

PLASKON: Metro still does stings however on non-violent criminals. For instance two months ago some 60 teen-aged and young adult drag racers were arrested and brought to jail. They were subsequently released and that sends the wrong message to the criminals that could be reformed Reid says. A bigger jail could serve as a community resource too.

REID: It's not just the jail it creates opportunities for us to use these people as a labor force to remediate the crimes they have created. But we can't do that right now because the jail is full of the worse criminals and we don't want work crews from that population. This would create a population of people that can be reformed and solve some of the communities problems."

PLASKON: Reid says the county is at least 120 days from hearing a proposal that could do that. Last week the Whitney Town Advisory board heard public comment on Metro's proposal: Erect a 400-bed tent at a sewage treatment plant to incarcerate accused non-violent criminals.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

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Friday, November 4, 2005