Shackles, hope, and TV: 8 hours inside the Alpena County Jail

News Photo by Julie Riddle Inmates talk at a table in a dayroom at the Alpena County Jail last week.

ALPENA — A hand slides a tray through a slot in the door.

Under a blanket, a man in orange striped pants stirs, then sits groggily up, hair rumpled.

He doesn’t want it, he mumbles.

The corrections officer leaves the breakfast anyway.

Inside the Alpena County Jail, where people accused of drug trafficking, beatings, sexual assault, and other serious crime pass the time playing cards and watching television, days pass in a rhythm of meal trays and door locks and occasional bursts of violence.

News Photo by Julie Riddle An inmate cleans a door window at the Alpena County Jail last week.

For months, jail officials have struggled to find workers willing to spend 12-hour shifts dodging threats and the occasional fist from people who don’t want to be there.

A corrections job comes with upsides, too. Sometimes they can tell their work helps people, COs say.

“Do the benefits outweigh the actual job? No,” said Jail Administrator Christina Bednarski. “But we do it, anyway. Because someone has to.”

6 AM

In window-fronted pods lining the outside of a horseshoe-shaped hallway, inmates stretch and pull on shirts, eyeing their breakfast trays.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Corrections officers Kerry Volant, left, and Terri Haken walk through the day room of a pod at the Alpena County Jail last week.

One pod holds the women. From individual cells on two levels, they shuffle in socks or bare feet into the day room with its high ceiling and skylights and bolted-down tables.

At night, their cell doors will lock again, with them on the inside.

In two other pods, men mill, still sleepy, moving slowly.

Another dayroom is empty. Inmates here only get out one hour a day, a repercussion of a fight or some other rule infraction.

Deputy Michael Lash, pulled from road patrol and filling a CO role while the jail searched for hires, chats through a cell door window with a lockdown inmate.

News Photo by Julie Riddle An inmate sends messages with a jail-issued device at the Alpena County Jail last week.

The man grins genially, tells Lash to keep a smile on his face, wishes him a happy Easter.

“He has lots of demons,” Lash says later.

Still delivering breakfasts, Lash rips the pouring spout off a nutritional drink carton, displaying the sharp plastic teeth on the underside.

“That wouldn’t feel too good pressed into your face,” he says, pouring the drink into a cup.

Impromptu weapons, shanks, hooch, handmade tattoo guns, phones smuggled inside body cavities – COs have seen – and confiscated – it all.

News Photo by Julie Riddle An inmate sleeps in an upper-level cell at the Alpena County Jail last week.

7 AM

Meds pass. An inmate asks if the nurse could prescribe something to help him sleep.

In a jail in which the vast majority of inmates are there because of a crime related to drugs, some spend their days daydreaming of getting out so they can have their next hit, Lash says.

Others leave determined to stay clean, he says.

Some of them make it.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Corrections officers Terri Haken, left, and Kerry Volant, reflected in a window, stand in a control center across from a pod at the Alpena County Jail last week.

Many don’t.

8 AM

The COs fetch two inmates, one at a time, and prepare them for transport to court.

Inmates rarely fight the shackles they wear out of the building, because the chains mean the next step in their court case.

“I’ll drive extra slow,” Lash promises as he escorts the inmates to his car for their trip to court and a few minutes out of the building.

Released from his pod, a man changes out of his orange garb into street clothes and collects his personal items.

He won’t be back, he promises the COs, who walk him to a door. On the other side, a family member waits to take him to an addiction treatment center.

“Do I just leave?” he asks, hesitating, feet still.

9 AM

Kerry Volant, a female CO and smaller than many of the inmates, stands in a pod doorway, moving inmates across the hall to the jail gym so a worker can repair a hole the men have picked in a wall.

One of the men complains. She’s violating his constitutional rights, he says. She raises her voice, barks at them, ordering the men to speed it up.

She can’t be soft, can’t do favors, even if she wants to, she says. Once one gets some leeway, they’ll all demand special treatment.

She remembers a former inmate, released and clean for two years, who gave her a hug of thanks.

“Call me crazy, but I love my job,” Volant says. “Yes, they did something wrong. It’s not my job to judge them. That’s up to the courts.”

10 AM

Metallic bangs sound from a hallway. The inmate in a high-security cell is kicking the door again.

The other inmates yell at him to be quiet.

The inmate’s talk is wild and fanciful, laced with conspiracy theories. Police say he attacked a woman and tried to kill her.

“Down on the floor,” Lash yells outside the man’s door, finally.

Three COs escort the man down a hall to cool down in the combat hold, a square room empty except for a video camera, mounted high.

A few days earlier, another inmate smeared the walls and ceiling of the room with blood after he tore bandages off of his hand in a rage.

Such incidents happen at least every other week, sometimes every week, Bednarski says.

Sometimes the substance smeared on the walls – or thrown at COs – is much worse.

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you just go, ‘What?'” Bednarski says.

Every CO has received death threats aimed toward themselves, their children, their dogs, she says.

Candidates for CO positions don’t stick around when they hear what they might encounter on the job.

One new hire, years ago, only lasted three hours.

11 AM

Several large men hover near a dayroom door. Lash, conducting a pod check, orders them back.

When he goes inside, the men make raucous jokes with rough language, milling, restless.

As Lash leaves, one pokes his head out the door in the direction of a female trainee in the hallway.

“Fresh meat,” he crows, then laughs. “Naw, just kidding.”

Inside the pod, a man looms inside a window, staring into the hallway, eyes hard.

In another pod, men perch on tables or stand doing nothing. Lash circles the room, shoulder to the wall.

COs don’t walk into the middle of a pod, even when it’s calm.

“That’s 16 guys,” he says. “I can try to hold my own, but 16 is a lot.”

12 PM

In dimmed light in the control room, Master Control Operator Bud Shaw controls every door lock in the jail.

He unlocks with caution. An inmate could be standing on the other side of the door, ready to rush the officer.

Nothing would please transferring inmates more than to enter prison with a swagger, bragging they sent a CO to the emergency room, Shaw says.

He watches his screens for fights, or for inmates fashioning nooses.

Inmates get desperate, especially around holidays or when they get bad news from court. Some have had their bedsheets taken away as a precaution.

1 PM

Women walk laps in the day room. One lies on her back outside the upper cells, watching television.

Men pace, alone and in pairs. Some hop around the day room like frogs, getting exercise. One spends hours working a puzzle.

Some wash windows or mop.

The jail recently had to replace a pod window after an inmate used a mop handle as a javelin, Lash says.

2 PM

In dim hallway light, windows along the hallway reflect like mirrors, images of the jailed overlapping with those of their jailers.

For some inmates, jail provides the only stability they’ve known, Lash says.

Jail may be the only place someone wakes them up on a schedule, feeds them, holds them accountable.

Supper will come eventually. Before then, perhaps sleeping, perhaps kicking on a door, perhaps a struggle and screaming and the need for a restraint chair.

Perhaps walks in a circle and endless television.

Three weeks into the job, former accountant and current CO trainee Terri Haken hasn’t quit.

With no law enforcement experience before she responded to an ad, she thought the job would give her a chance to help people live better lives.

“I figured, I can do this,” she says. “I’m a tough broad.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.


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