It is morningtime at the Washtenaw County Jail, and about 60 men – accused criminals all – are laying quietly awake on their bunks, eyes closed, thinking about their happy place.
Yes. Really. Criminals and their happy place.
As the men hold visions in their heads of the beach, or fishing, or picnicking with their families outside this building of concrete, steel and razor wire, the only sound is soft music from computer speakers. And the still, small voice of Cpl. Carla Wilson, a Washtenaw County corrections officer.
After the inmates are relaxed, “wiping the slate clean,” as Wilson says, for another day of incarceration, she talks to the men about the need to “have a plan” once they leave. “If you don’t have a plan …” Wilson ends the thought with a whistle. “Not good.” She urges the men to “listen to your inner voice that tells you not to do something.” If not, she says, well, this jail may be overcrowded, but there will always be a bed waiting for them.
And, she adds a word to the wise: There will always be “support coat” on the outside, spending time with your woman, taking your kids to school. Some inmates groan in knowing acknowledgment of the jail slang for an inmate’s “replacement” on the outside during incarceration.
About 15 minutes of this “guided meditation,” and life on the block returns to its normal pattern – except for one thing: Inmates line up at Wilson’s desk, making requests that they know will not be ignored under her watch. The requests range from the need for a fresh towel to an inquiry about whether a parole officer has been contacted.
This is J Block, an “open block,” where nonviolent offenders, who follow the rules and do some work on behalf of the jail, are not locked down in a cell 19 and a half hours as they otherwise would be. They can roam around the large room, get access to computers, socialize, attend classes, watch movies.
And every couple of days “Ms. Wilson” rotates through J Block, which is designated a “therapeutic block.”
“This uniform confuses people,” Wilson says in an interview. And by “people,” she means the people who wear the uniforms. “It confuses your ego.” Civilians, she says, “outrank” police officers. “We’re here to provide a service.”
It’s a service she thinks the new sheriff in town, Jerry Clayton, understands. Wilson says that Clayton, who was elected sheriff last November but who was once Wilson’s commanding officer, understands the need to do more with inmates than simply lock them up.
Derrick Jackson, director of community engagement for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, reflects the same sentiment: “A part of what Carla is doing – and she’s been doing it for years now – is really along with Sheriff Clayton’s philosophy of, ‘We’re more than just a holding facility.’ We do more and contribute more to the community than just arresting folks and locking people up,” Jackson says.
When you get a group of people together in a high-pressure environment, with nothing but time on their hands, “doing something positive to engage them” is not only a good thing to do, it helps produce a “safe and secure jail,” Jackson says.
We can look forward to more officers being trained in how to engage inmates in more ways than simply being a keymaster, he says.
Regarding Wilson, Jackson says, “She is definitely ahead of the curve, but it’s something that we, as an organization, have a vested interest in continuing to grow.”
Wilson is optimistic that things will move in that direction, but has seen mostly superficial evidence of that so far. She’s a contributing author to a new book, “Serving Productive Time,” written by Tom Lagana, the author of the popular book, “Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul.”
“Just a handshake. ‘Thatagirl’ and that’s about it,” from her colleagues on the book, she says. The county has highlighted the book contribution on its website.
Both Wilson and Jackson confirm that the old police culture might simply not be good enough for the future. There will be more training in how to interact with inmates beyond the military drill-sergeant style.
Wilson takes this philosophy outside the jail, too. She recently took former inmates with her to speak to a group of mothers in Detroit who have children in prison. This is part of her “Connection Principle” side business – but she often speaks for free.
One former Washtenaw County Jail inmate and J Block resident, who goes on speaking engagements with Wilson, spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Whether it be in the recovery field, or volunteering to assist prior inmates (returning citizens) make the difficult transition back into society, her gift is her ability and desire to help others,” he says. “Having someone like that as a corrections officer was an unusual experience, especially based on the direct supervision style of other corrections officers.”
Wilson is working on a book of her own, “What If I’m Right?” which details more of her experiences at the jail, dealing with inmates and fellow officers. She is hoping that Lagana’s “Chicken Soup” publisher will take a look at the manuscript.
Meanwhile, Wilson continues to live and breathe the jail and its occupants.
“When I’m not there, I wonder how everybody’s doing,” Wilson says. “I’m hoping they have a good day. I’m hoping they have an officer who is attending to their needs, who’s being approachable and professional. That’s what I think about when I’m not there. I hope they have a good officer that day.”
Veteran journalist Howard Lovy has focused his writing the last several years on science, technology and business. He was news editor at Small Times, a magazine focusing on nanotechnology and microsystems, when it first launched in Ann Arbor in 2001. His freelance work has appeared in Wired News, Salon.com, X-OLOGY Magazine and The Michigan Messenger. His current research focus includes the future of the auto industry and the U.S. criminal justice system.