Unarmed officers keep Douglas County Jail secure

SHERIFF'S LT. DAVE DILLON, LEFT, and Lt. Kari Wempe, both jail administrators, combine for more than 40 years of experience working in jails.

Imagine working a shift unarmed among dozens of prisoners being held in jail for a variety of crimes ranging from misdemeanors to serious felonies.

It’s all in a day’s work for some sheriff’s officers assigned to the Douglas County Jail.

“Here, you are in close physical proximity,” Sheriff’s Lt. Dave Dillon said. “We’re right in there with them.”

In September 1999, when Douglas County opened its new jail near Franklin Road and Kansas Highway 10, a new era of jail operations also began. Unlike old jails that consisted of a lot of bars, cells and holding tanks for groups of prisoners, many modern jails are based on a “pod” cell and day-room system.

At the Douglas County Jail, prisoners are placed in certain classifications of security risk, such as maximum, medium, minimum or special conditions, to determine which part of the jail they will be housed in. Those determinations are based on the seriousness of their charges, criminal record and other factors, said Dillon, who makes such determinations. All of the female prisoners are kept together in one area.

Cells are arranged in a pod system. The medium-security pod, for example, has more than 50 one-man cells arranged around a large day room. Prisoners who meet behavior requirements are allowed outside their cells into the day room at certain times of the day. Only half of the inmates are allowed out of their cells at the same time.

One officer is assigned to work in each of the pods among the prisoners. Although they carry electronic alarms that can be used to signal for help, they are unarmed except for a small canister of pepper spray.

According to Dillon and Lt. Kari Wempe, rarely is there trouble in the pods. The officers use a “direct supervision” system that makes use of interpersonal communication skills to keep the inmates under control. Officers are trained to be proactive and defuse difficult situations or keep them from happening.

“If somebody is screaming and yelling, you don’t follow them up to that voice level,” Wempe said. “You use your voice to bring them down to a calmer level. It works. They can’t have an argument by themselves.”

If the prisoners have problems, they learn to take those issues to the pod officer to work them out, Wempe and Dillon said. Pod officers also play a major role in determining whether a prisoner should be moved into a lesser or higher security pod.

Wempe and Dillon combine for more than 40 years of experience working in jails and with prisoners. Although both now work in jail administration, they have spent time as pod officers. And both worked in the old jail that once existed in the Judicial & Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St.

“The only time you used to have any real contact with prisoners was when you had to provide a basic need: clothing or food,” Wempe said. “It was always reactive. Anytime you had a problem, you reacted to it.”

Wempe and Dillon were among the first officers to learn the new pro-active, jail pod officer system. They were involved with the training of other officers at the jail. One of the challenges was selling the new system to older officers.

“Their first question was, ‘Are there any cameras? Do we carry anything to protect ourselves?'” Dillon said. “Once they went through the training and saw how it worked, the selling was over.”

The first prisoners who moved in from the old jail also were startled to see the pod setup.

“They were really taken aback by what they saw,” Wempe said. “Once they realized what the rules and disciplines were, it was a lot less work for us.”