Official: Inmate safety ‘balancing act’

CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle The Curry County Adult Detention Center has an inmate population of around 230.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Jails have an inherent threat of violence, which makes keeping inmates safe a challenge, according to Curry County Adult Detention Center administrator Leslie Johnson.

Safety among inmates is in many ways a balancing act, Johnson said, and officers must constantly watch behaviors and dynamics among the inmates.
“When you take some of the roughest people in the county and you put them together, it gets more than interesting,” she said.

“Unfortunately, a lot of them do their problem-solving with their fists. We’re constantly trying to watch for what I call the ‘flavor of the pod,’” Johnson said, explaining each pod develops its own personality and mood.

Sometimes officers can anticipate trouble, sometimes they can’t, Johnson said.

Placing inmates in the right areas can go a long way toward reducing potential violence, she said.

This is done by classifying inmates based on the charges against them, gang affiliations, other family members or codefendants in the jail, behavior, past history at the jail or other facilities, mental and physical health, and vulnerability to other inmates, Johnson said.

With a jail population around 230, Johnson said sometimes it’s a difficult juggling act. If pods and segregated cells can’t provide a solution, inmates may have to be sent to out-of-state facilities, she said.

“We have to keep the public safe from them, and we have to keep them safe from each other,” she said.

Additionally, officers frequently search pods and cells for weapons, Johnson said.

Fights among inmates are sporadic: One week there could be two and none for the rest of the month, she said.

The last fight at the jail resulting in serious injury occurred in December when a 20-year-old inmate received a non-fatal stab wound, Johnson said.

Sometimes inmates concerned about their safety go to officers for help.

“Any time an inmate complains that he feels unsafe in the jail, we make every effort to make him feel safe,” she said.

Detention officers investigate complaints and concerns, she said.

If a fight does occur, the parties involved are separated.

Depending on the severity of an altercation, law enforcement may be called in for a criminal investigation, she said.

Undersheriff Wesley Waller said any time an inmate has a criminal complaint, his office and other local agencies would investigate.

“Even though they’re incarcerated, they have their rights and protections just like anybody else,” he said.

Inmate Nathan Perez said in a telephone interview with the CNJ last week he has received numerous death threats from other inmates.

Perez, 25, who was transfer to the Curry County jail from prison more than three weeks ago to testify in a local trial, said he does not believe the system works to protect inmates.

Perez said he has received notes addressed to “half dead Nate,” “snitch” and “rat” that promise retribution for snitching. He and his wife have gone to jail and local law enforcement officials with no result, he said.

He is serving time on a probation violation for 2005 charges of attempted bribery, intimidation of or retaliation against a witness, and telephone harassment.

Johnson declined to address the specifics of Perez’ case, but said her staff is taking his complaints seriously.

“Everybody’s passing the buck. They refuse to move me, they’re just letting me sit here,” Perez said.

“What is it going to take? They have no concern for the safety of the inmates or what we go through in here. I feel completely unsafe in this facility all together.”

Perez was in a fight this week and placed in isolation, his wife, Holly Perez, said.

Johnson confirmed Perez was moved out of his pod following an altercation, but would not comment further.

“It’s sad that it took that fight to get him out of there,” Holly Perez said.