Where the inmates get no breaks

Saturday, August 7, 2004

Capt. J.P. Mulcahy, the Cape Girardeau County Jail administrator, keeps a few unusual mementos in his office.

There's the tiny, perfectly cubed dice that an inmate meticulously formed out of ordinary shredded paper. There's the cigarette lighter that was hidden in a half deck of cards. And there's the numerous intricate soap carvings -- one of an eagle, presumably crafted with the teeth of a comb.

The items serve as a reminder of just how much time, and sometimes talent, inmates have on their hands.

Even with a state-of-the art facility just a few years old, even with 80 cameras on site, even with electronic sally port doors that are only opened from one of two secure command centers, Mulcahy and deputy John Dace know all too well that time, motivation and savvy can find weaknesses in the most secure places.

"We have about eight hours a day to study our work environment," Dace said. "These guys have 24 hours a day, and they can study the system as long as they want."

By all accounts, the new jail, built in 2000 for $8 million, is more secure than the old one. There have been no escape attempts since the new facility was built. But the officers who remember the old jail also remember a few hard lessons.

Dace was working during a jailbreak in 1996 and an attempted escape in which he was attacked in 1997.

The 1996 escape was one of the biggest news stories of the decade. Russell Bucklew, in jail for murder, kidnapping and rape, escaped with the trash through the help of a prison trustee.

Stricken with a terminal disease, Bucklew was whittled down to 90 pounds. Dace believes Bucklew used the disease as an excuse to lose weight, planning all along to escape in the trash or a duct vent.

The 1997 escape attempt occurred as Dace and then-Cpl. Gaylen Sanders entered a prison common room where several inmates were having Bible study. Today's jail has a sally port -- a closed space with secure doors at either end -- at such places. But back then, the old jail only had painted yellow lines on the floor to show inmates where they could or couldn't go.

As Dace and Sanders entered, three inmates who had hid around the corner charged the officers. Sanders had laundry in his hands. The two were caught by surprise.

The three inmates fought the officers with their bare hands.

A few prisoners came to the officers' aid. One tackled an inmate who was ready to use a fire extinguisher to bash Dace's head.

"We were lucky," Dace said. "We wouldn't be alive without their help."

Extreme measures

The security measures inside and outside the jail might seem excessive, but they have to be. Inside the jail walls Friday were more than 190 men in orange jumpsuits. Some of them are federal prisoners, a few of them murderers.

The two control centers, one of them overlooking the cells, have the appearance of a spaceship's interior. Several television monitors show images from around the jail. One of the centers monitors the perimeter doors. The other watches the internal doors.

At one of the control centers, a monitor shows a map of the jail and a computerized woman's voice "talks" to the operators, telling them when and what doors lock after they are opened.

Virtually every door in the place is locked. And those who help run the jail, like Sgt. Dennis Hinkle, don't carry any keys.All officers do carry pepper spray and wear Kevlar vests for protection. Before entering any door, they communicate with radios to the control center what door they need opened.

The jail, however, has its flaws.

Even the jail's top man, Mulcahy, says some of the things the designers did "were downright ludicrous" and will have to be lived with, but he doesn't want to give examples.

Some jail workers question the jail's dependence on technology. Not long ago, electrical surges knocked out the fuse that controls the doors. The facility is backed up by powerful generators, but the electricity doesn't work on circuits with blown fuses.

All of the doors can be manually opened and closed with keys.

But even with its blemishes, a prisoner trying to escape would have to exit no fewer that six electronically controlled doors before escaping.

While jailbreaks are always a concern, the more pressing security concerns deal with making sure up to 220 inmates get along. The inmates are let out of their 10-by-12-foot two-person cells for about nine hours a day. Several inmates sit at tables in the common room, playing cards or chess. They can watch digital cable television, with limitations. Anything that keeps them entertained, instead of thinking of new ways to cause trouble, is OK with the jail staff.

The inmates are separated in blocks, depending on the severity of their crimes.

Meanwhile, a staff of 23 people, including shifts as small as three, are assigned to keep the bad guys behind bars.

One full-time nurse is on staff and in charge of all medication. Hinkle estimates 50 percent to 75 percent of the inmates are on some sort of medication for physical or mental illnesses.

There are some inmates the jail doesn't hold. About seven years ago, a prisoner stood on a sink and dove face first onto the floor with a pencil up his nose. The inmate was found surrounded by a pool of blood. He was treated at a hospital and later turned over to Farmington's correctional center, where the man escaped.

But generally, the inmates are just there to serve their time. Some repeat offenders get to know the jail staff well and have civilized conversations out in public between jail stays.

"It's a professional relationship," Mulcahy said. "We have to take care of their basic needs like medication and food. We have to provide them a secure and clean environment. The stuff you see on TV and movies, most of it is false. We're not the type of jail that's out to punish anybody. We're not here to judge. We're here to hold them until they're sentenced."

bmiller@semissourian.com

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