NEWPORT — No one wants to go to jail, but on Tuesday, several members of the community voluntarily did just that for a tour of the facilities.
When it opened in 1992, the building had 101 jail beds. Today, after several reorganizations, it still stands on the corner of Olive and Nye Streets but houses 60 more beds. Forty-eight full-time employees work behind these concrete walls as deputies, cooks, administrators and medical professionals. In the basement, a diesel generator with approximately a month’s worth of fuel lies in wait for “the big one.”
But from the outside, there is little indication of how much happens on a daily basis.
“It’s strange,” commented Sergeant Josh McDowall. “You see this big concrete block occupying some of the better real estate in Newport and it never stops, it never turns off — since 1992, 24 hours a day, seven days a week — and you step outside, and you’d never know what goes on.”
Members of the Lincoln County Sheriff Citizens Academy took a tour of the county jail on Tuesday night, accompanied by officers who served more as tour guides than wardens. Groups were led through booking, multiple living pods, the medical treatment area and the kitchen.
Throughout the tour, officers comfortably waited for an unseen hand to unlock doors and press elevator buttons — they referred to this force as their “Uber driver.”
For security purposes, all the doors and elevators in the jail are operated from a central control room. In the room sits a deputy, who has a wall of screens in front of them, each showing different camera feeds of the hallways, elevators and rooms of the jail.
McDowall calls this “Lincoln County’s most boring video game.” The deputy spends their time there unlocking doors and sending elevators to the correct floor without passengers ever touching a button.
While this makes for a safe and efficient jail, it does have some unexpected side effects for the officers. McDowall shared with a laugh that he will often walk into an elevator at a hotel for instance, and stare at the elevator panel, forgetting he has to push buttons himself.
As for the inmates, there are fewer interactions with the Uber driver and more with the deputy stationed in their living pod. Each living area has a deputy overseeing the pod, doing welfare checks as needed, monitoring inmate relations and stepping in when the need arises.
The inmates are sorted into different pods — which have different numbers of cells and different numbers of possible occupants for the pod and its cells — based on a categorization system which takes into account the inmate’s personality, behavior, mental health and physical condition, as well as the severity or type of crime they committed.
Jail officers noted that this categorization system helps keep the peace within the jail, as well as incentivizing good behavior. But the inmates, overall, were not raucous as the citizens of the academy came through. A couple in the “general population” pod were calling for attention, but the vast majority in that living space backed away from their cell windows upon seeing the visitors or stared silently, without gesture or disturbance. In other rooms where inmates were not locked behind doors, they waited for the citizens to pass while smiling politely, or else ignored them.
Sheriff Curtis Landers explained that many inmates settle into acceptance after they are sentenced — particularly after they go through detox or were put on the appropriate medication.
“The truth is,” said Landers, “you take away the alcohol and drugs and (most) of the people wouldn’t be in here.”
This makes medical care an important aspect to the betterment of the inmates. The jail employs four registered nurses, a counselor and a medical doctor. McDowall commented that the counselor, Dennis Buckmaster, goes above and beyond in his duties. He also expressed admiration for doctor David Long’s dedication to the jail — he is always on call, for the nurses or the deputies to call on for advice or assistance. Long recently answered a call from the jail even though he was out of the country.
Another important aspect to the care of the inmates is rehabilitation, so that when they are released back into the community, they don’t end up back in jail. As such, programming is essential. McDowall explained that the jail staff is always trying to get more programming for the incarcerated but, “The challenge is … nobody wants to pay for it.”
However, thanks to a high volume of volunteers in Lincoln County, there is quite a variety of programming. Some of the jail’s previous programs included: Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups, art therapy led by a licensed therapist, yoga and tai chi.
“We are getting them on their worst day and we are taking that individual and trying to make them a better individual before putting them back out into the community,” explained Lt. Jamie Russell.
Jail tours are available for the public: citizens can request to tour the jail by calling 541-254-4277 and a supervisor will respond to schedule. Minors will need a parental consent form to attend.