Improving practice, image of jailers

October 09, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

When Francis R. "Dick" Ford salvaged it from above a junkyard in Lincoln, Neb., the American Jail Association had just a couple hundred members and a grand vision for improving the practice and image of jailers as professionals.

Washington County's sheriff from 1974 to 1978, Ford was working as director of jail operations for the National Sheriffs' Association in 1986 when he was asked to serve as AJA's first executive director.

"The American Jail Association was an association in name only they had a few members and a diligent group of jail administrators who met regularly," he said. "People that worked in jails were given very little opportunity to grow professionally, there was no training available. They were, really, the stepchild of the criminal justice system."

A training issue

Ford said he felt one of the major issues hurting jails and their public perception was a lack of training among jailers, which varied greatly from institution to institution. He hoped to bring the association, formed just five years earlier in 1981, to the forefront by improving the image and function of the nation's jails.

As a condition of taking the job, Ford asked that the association move its headquarters, which was then just an office above a junkyard in Nebraska used for recruiting new members and coordinating small activities, to Hagerstown.

He made space in a spare bedroom in his Paradise Church Road home for association business, then moved it to half of his two-car garage, and then to larger office space on West Washington Street. The association moved twice more, once to a building on Day Road and, in December 2003, to its own building on Professional Court in Hagerstown.

Ford stepped down as executive director in 1992, handing the position over to Stephen Ingley, but the seeds he planted for the association have taken root and the AJA now boasts about 4,200 members and a broad array of training opportunities aimed at bridging the gap between perception and reality among America's jails.

"The hardest thing about this job is the negative perception that we're faced with," Ingley said. "The reality of jails is that they're nothing like what you see on TV."

Jails, Ingley said, often are confused with prisons, and most Americans' perceptions of prisons are formed by such depictions as those on the HBO series "OZ."

The distinction, he said, is that most jail populations are made up of those who are either awaiting trial or have been convicted and sentenced to terms of typically less than two years. Those sentenced to two years or more usually are sentenced to serve their time in state prisons such as the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown. Sentences and conditions can vary from state to state based upon several factors including the severity of the crime committed.

In some cases, those convicted of crimes that would send them to prison can spend a certain amount of time in jail if the prisons to which they are to be sent are at capacity.

Matter of perception

The perception issue comes into play, Ingley said, because few people give much thought at all to jails. Most communities working with fixed revenue sources would opt to build new schools instead of new jails, he said. As a result, he said, most jails across the country suffer from insufficient resources.

"I think that people perceive that everybody in the jails are the same as everybody in prison," he said. "I don't think the people can notice a difference and I'm not sure they care to know. They expect something to be done, and they don't want to think about it. People don't get elected to office on the platform of jails, on the platform of building more jails."

The AJA seeks to provide training and information to those who run the nation's jails, which vary in size and staff experience from state to state and from county to county. Some states have mandatory training requirements for jail administrators, while others do not. Some jails are run by wardens, some by county sheriffs, still others by directors of corrections.

"Our job is to help in any way we can. There are basically challenges that jails around this country face every day," Ingley said. "Jails come with a sense of danger, you never want to be complacent as a correctional officer, but at the same time, there are ways to minimize the danger."

Accounting for variations, Ingley said, the AJA has developed many of its programs to help jail administrators improve how they run their institutions and their own roles within them.

Ingley, who joined the AJA under Ford as a researcher, said one of the more effective programs has been the Certified Jail Manager program introduced in 1997. About 347 jail administrators have become certified under the program, with 20 more registered to take the four-hour qualifying exam later this year.

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