Spike in Douglas County Jail female population hinders operations, programming

It appears as if 2017 will be the year of decision on the proposed 120-bed expansion of the Douglas County Jail. The proposed 0 million building program would address overcrowding and problems that have arisen with changes to the jail's demographics.

Jolene Ami took an unusual step when she was released in 2014 from the Douglas County Jail after serving a six-month sentence for her third DUI offense.

“You know what I did?” she said. “I sent a thank-you card to the judge who sentenced me. Jail was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

A month into her sentence, she decided to take advantage of programs the jail offered to help her stop drinking, 48-year-old Ami said. Through programs at the jail, she learned to confront and deal with feelings she kept bottled up since childhood.

“I wanted to know why I was drinking,” she said. “I honestly didn’t know — I just drank. I started taking classes in cognitive thinking and thinking and working through the workbooks. It became clear to me I wasn’t able to deal with feelings, because I wasn’t brought up that way. I kept things buried inside. My mom would say, ‘We don’t talk about those things.'”

With the help of the jail’s re-entry program, Ami also secured a temporary job on her release, which has since become a full-time position. She has also stayed sober.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t been in jail,” she said. “I’m very thankful.”

Ami served the last two months of her sentence in the Leavenworth County Jail as one of the inmates “farmed out” because of overcrowding at the Douglas County Jail. Had she been sentenced this past year, it’s possible she would have spent more time in one of the five counties Douglas County sends inmates — and had less time to participate in the therapies that helped change her life.

Officials at the Douglas County Jail contend the need to renovate and expand the jail is not to simply add beds, but to more safely and humanely house inmate populations, and to have space to provide needed programs. The demographics of inmates have changed drastically since the facility opened 16 years ago. The growth of female inmate numbers probably best illustrates that argument.

Mike Brouwer, director of the Douglas County Jail re-entry program, said that when the jail and its 28-bed women’s pod was designed in the late 1990s, the county averaged six female inmates per year. That had increased to 11 a day by its first operational year of 2000 and stayed steady until four years ago.

“We finished 2011 with an average of 11,” Brouwer said. “We’re going to finish 2016 close to 40 (a day).”

That increase isn’t unique to Douglas County. Although the reasons aren’t well understood locally or nationally, Brouwer and colleagues at the jail assume addiction to methamphetamine, prescription drugs and opioids plays a role in the spike of female offenders.

A 2016 Vera Institute of Justice study, “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” states that female inmate populations increased 14-fold since 1970 in the nation’s 3,000 city or county jails, and that women are the fastest-growing population. And it is those counties like Douglas County with populations of less than 250,000 in which the numbers are growing the most quickly. Since 2000, the population of female inmates in those counties has grown from 79 to 140 inmates per 100,000 women. That compares to a decrease in incarceration numbers from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women in the nation’s largest counties.

The female pod in the county jail has 14 cells with two beds each. The proposed jail expansion would add a 14-bed female 72-hour intake classification assessment pod, a 28-bed female minimum security pod, a 14-bed re-entry/work release pod and a 14-bed female mental health pod.

Douglas County Sheriff’s Office corrections officer Liana Myers and deputy Robin Mather say it’s wrong to assume the current 28-bed women’s pod has a capacity of 28 inmates. There are inmates who have no cellmates because of the nature of their offense (the jail housed four murder suspects at one time last year), mental illness or special conditions. Other factors, such as the fact that pregnant or physically limited inmates can’t be assigned to top bunks, can further reduce the number of beds available.

The increasing female population creates a number of concerns at the Douglas County Jail, the most pressing being the need to “farm” inmates out to jails in Anderson, Allen, Chase, Jefferson, Jackson and Leavenworth counties. Female inmates account for a third of the $1 million the county will pay this year to house prisoners in other counties. Out-of-county placements can be for extended times as inmates await court dates or serve sentences, or for shorter spans as the county jail makes room for the weekends when populations spike with more arrests and an influx of inmates opting to serve required jail time when they are not working, Brouwer said.

Inmates placed in other counties are separated from children and other loved ones, have fewer opportunities to participate in the jail’s nationally recognized re-entry program and face challenges in communicating with defense attorneys, Brouwer said.

Despite all that, there are women pleased with out-of-county transfers. The reason, Myers said, was the greater privileges they enjoy in those jails.

The Douglas County Jail has three pods for men in custody, which segregates inmates by minimum, medium and maximum risk classifications. Inmates in the minimum security pod enjoy more privileges, including more out-of-cell time than those in the medium pod, who, in turn, have more privileges than those in the maximum pod.

That system, which rewards good behavior, breaks down in the female pod because correctional officers won’t place low-risk inmates in danger by putting them in physical contact with inmates with higher classifications.

Because of the space constraints, minimum security female inmates get about 3.5 hours out-of-cell time a day compared to the six to eight hours that men with that classification enjoy.

“There are times you can walk into the women’s pod and there is one person out, and everybody else is in their cells,” Myers said. “People who are behaving themselves are getting less time out.”

Jail officials do know there is a correlation between abuse and the inmate population. All women brought to the Douglas County Jail, even those released after booking, are screened for trauma, Brouwer said. Jail staff then seeks to get those women who are experiencing abuse involved with programs and community partners to help break what may be lifetime patterns. Brouwer said the Willow Domestic Violence Center offers weekly classes at the jail and continues to assist about 15 women annually after they leave the jail.

“Trauma may always have been part of their lives, so leaving that lifestyle and moving to a new one is very difficult,” Brouwer said. “They may leave an abusive relationship only to go into another one. For a lot of our females, they may talk about wanting to make changes or leave an abusive relationship, but as soon as they hit the lobby, their abuser is waiting for them.”

More women who could benefit from trauma therapy or the cognitive behavioral therapy, which was of such help to Ami, must now serve all or much of their time in other counties, Brouwer said. Re-entry staff spend far less time with female inmates, and the jail “really doesn’t currently have a female work release program,” Brouwer said.

Also to be included with the jail proposal would be a 14-bed female mental health pod with such features as natural light and an outdoor gathering area for therapeutic benefit. The population of inmates with mental illness is another demographic that has increased since the facility opened, and such individuals now account for 17 percent of the jail’s population. The problem is even more acute among women, with 30 percent of female inmates diagnosed with mental health issues. That increase once again has jail staff balancing the needs of a diverse population.

“One of the biggest challenges with the population of women with mental health issues is trying to cater to their needs while providing the safety and security for not only them but other people without those same needs,” Myers said. “And with that, there is one officer on duty for the entire housing unit.”