Behind the bars

The ins and outs of Butte County Jail

Brian McCann, a correctional officer in the gang unit, looks over one of the pods in the men’s facility. Each pod holds up to 40 inmates

Brian McCann, a correctional officer in the gang unit, looks over one of the pods in the men’s facility. Each pod holds up to 40 inmates

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“On the subject of incarceration I feel that once the ‘shock value’ of arrest wears off, there is no longer a benefit to keep an individual locked in a box.”

—Jon Gregory Davis, maximum security inmate #111689, Butte County Jail, in a letter.

Jon Gregory Davis is a tall, fit, middle-aged man with thinning blond hair who looks like your average Joe—except for his red jail-issue jumpsuit.

Inside a 4-by-6-foot cinderblock interview room, Davis spoke nonchalantly about his life. He comes from a normal middle-class family, graduated high school and has a 19-year-old son. Discussing his time in the California prison system doesn’t incite even the slightest crack in his voice.

“I don’t complain about the choices I made,” he said.

The 49-year-old Davis moved to Chico in the early ‘70s, but he’s spent most of his years since then behind bars. Aside from Butte County Jail (his latest arrest on June 25 was for a DUI and parole violation), he’s been in and out of some of California’s notoriously rough prisons, including Pelican Bay, which Davis describes as “a war zone.”

In Davis’ case, years of theft to support his alcohol and drug habits have kept him locked up. Crank, cocaine, heroin—you name it, and Davis has probably stolen in order to get it.

“I usually don’t break laws unless I’ve been drinking,” Davis said. “Then I do stupid shit.”

For Davis, being behind bars is just a matter of passing the time and finding a routine: “You have to do that to keep your sanity,” he said.

Aside from reading and playing card games, part of Davis’ daily regimen includes activities like performing burpees—a combination of pushups and jumping jacks—and taking “bird baths,” where inmates sit on the toilet and dump water over their heads. But no matter what he does to fill the time, Davis said the days all blend together.

Sympathy levels for inmates in America’s jails and prisons likely depend on who you ask. Some would balk at the idea of a convicted criminal being able to watch a baseball game on ESPN, while others might find the fact that a woman has to use the toilet in plain view of a male officer to be downright demeaning.

Both are part of a regular day at Butte County Jail.

At 5 a.m. the correctional officers notify the occupants of the cells and pods that it’s time to rise and shine for breakfast and “pill call.” But unlike in the movies where inmates are herded into a giant communal eating area, food is brought to their respective cells on carts.

Breakfast might consist of orange juice, cold cereal and milk and a fruit bar. Unless inmates have money to buy snacks like Top Ramen from the commissary (an account can be set up and funded by a friend or relative on the outside), that will have to hold them until 11:30 a.m., when the only hot meal of the day is served.

A lot has changed over the past decade, said Mark Campagna, the jail’s food services supervisor. Specifically, the staff has been cut back while the inmate population has increased significantly. And “three hots and a cot,” a term once used to describe life inside jail, has since become “one hot and a cot.”

The kitchen is currently staffed by six civilian cooks and 14 inmates, who do everything from washing dishes to prep work and cooking. Of course, inmates don’t prepare meals for jail employees. Where kitchen staff used to serve 350 to 400 inmates, they now prepare more than 1,500 meals a day for the 500 to 600 people who file in and out of the jail.

A FLICK OF THE KEY<br>Above: Correctional Lt. Bryan Flicker manually opens a door in the women’s section of the Butte Count Jail. An intercom system is used to control the men’s section, which was built in 1994.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“The clientele here is just so consistent,” Campagna said with a wry smile. “Most restaurants would kill for the consistency.”

The menu has changed a bit, too. The kitchen caters to all sorts of diets, for diabetics, people with food allergies as well as low-sodium and religious diets, but Campagna said one of the most common requests is for soft foods.

“There are plenty of people here with little or no teeth, as you can imagine with the meth problem here,” Campagna said. The entire menu is now soft-friendly, which makes things easier for the medical staff and kitchen help.

Those inmates lucky enough to work in the kitchen receive one third off their sentences for good work, not to mention free coffee (which according to Campagna is like gold) and dibs on the leftover food. Plus, it’s just another way to kill the monotony of living in jail.

Dinner, usually consisting of a sandwich, chips, a cookie and maybe some fresh fruit, is served at 7 p.m. The rest of the time is spent reading books, watching television and playing dominoes. Inmates receive one hour in the yard for exercise five day a week—two hours more than other jails thanks to a court-ordered consent decree. At 10 p.m. it’s lights out. TV and telephone use is cut off at 11:30 p.m. At 5 a.m. the cycle repeats.

Like many jails in California, Butte County’s faces challenges due largely to lack of funding. The women’s portion has been a hot-button topic for years. It’s old. It’s rundown. It’s essentially a museum piece. Cells with old-style bars separated by hallways conjure up images of prison-break movies from the ‘60s.

It may be because that section of the jail was actually built when John F. Kennedy was president.

“Previous Grand Jury reports document the aging women’s facility, and the conditions remain consistent with those reports according to our observations,” noted the recent report released in June.

It’s a safe bet that if the women’s jail were held to current standards instead of those from 1962, it would have fallen prey to a wrecking ball years ago.

On a recent tour of the jail, correctional Lt. Bryan Flicker, who started out as an extra-help cook in 1988 ("Hey, I started my career when you did,” announced one inmate during the visit), explained some of the other issues concerning the old facility.

Because of the antiquated design of the jail, Flicker said, it requires a lot more manpower, and it poses a danger to inmates. There’s no sprinkler system. And even if modern sprinklers were in place, it would be difficult to evacuate inmates. And the old cells make it easier for inmates to hang makeshift nooses from the bars.

A few issues have been addressed over the past few years, most notably the replacement of nearly $100,000 worth of old painted metal sinks with stainless steel ones.

But it’s also a matter of space. The old day room (a feature not required by the state, but something Butte County still offers its male inmates) and an old drunk tank have been converted into additional housing units to keep up with the growing number of incarcerated women. The average daily population of the women’s jail for the month of June was 90, up from 67 for the same month in 2003.

Flicker added that the growing women’s population is a trend in county jails throughout California. Women make up 14 percent to 16 percent of the total jail population in the state, and Butte County is currently at about 18 percent.

Accommodating them better is a matter of receiving much-needed bond money to either make necessary improvements or to level the old facility and build a new one. That won’t happen this year. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put the kibosh on any jail funding with this year’s state budget.

Flicker said Butte County Jail is in the middle of a needs-assessment study, which is necessary before it can receive any bond money for improvements.

TIME TO REFLECT <br>After spending half his life in and out of jail, Jon Gregory Davis said he blames no one but himself for being where he is, but points out that the prison and jail systems are not doing a good enough job in rehabilitating inmates. He expressed some of his thoughts in a two-page essay. <a href="/binary/a47c07b3/cover-3b.jpg" target="_blank">Click here</a> for a larger version.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“If and when funds become available, we will be prepared to ask for them,” he said.

Flicker is an ominous presence at 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds. He definitely seemed to demand the respect of the majority of the inmates during the tour of the men’s jail, and a few showed their appreciation for Flicker’s making an appearance.

“I decided I like you all so I’m going to stick around for a little longer,” said one inmate through a small window in the door. “Especially Mr. Flicker; he’s my favorite.”

Comparing the women’s jail with the men’s is like night and day. The men’s facility (which currently houses just more than 400 inmates) was added in 1994. The men’s section was remodeled in 1998, but for consistency it was painted with the same funky sea-green color scheme as the women’s.

Instead of the linear style of the women’s jail, the men’s is made up of 12 pods that hold 40 men each. Flicker passes through a number of doors that are controlled by a camera-and-intercom system instead of the clunky old keys used in the doors of the women’s jail.

Two control towers—one that overlooks the maximum-security and one the medium-security wing—look like airplane cockpits, each with a row of monitors and a large panel decked out with rows of buttons and lights.

Five years ago a recording system was installed so officers could roll tape back and review incidents. Chain-link roofs were recently installed over some recreation areas. Flicker said friends of inmates used to shoot tennis balls filled with dope into the recreation yard all the way from the nearby Superior Court building. Some would cover the tennis ball with tape and attach grass to the outside so when the ball landed in the yard, it would be camouflaged by the sod.

After nearly 20 years at the jail Flicker, who was born and raised in Oroville, has seen and heard just about everything—escapes in the giant rolling laundry bins and through old air vents (some got away for good, although no inmate has successfully challenged the walls of Butte County Jail since the new men’s section was added in ‘94) to finding guns carved out of soap and what he thought at the time was a functional key made out of a meal tray (it didn’t actually work).

Of course, boredom leads to extra-curricular activities among some of the inmates. One item was quite impressive: a metal plate from an electrical outlet fashioned into a shiny blade with tightly wound string for a handle. There was even a message on the blade peeled from a deodorant container: “Protection you can count on.”

Then there are the typical stabbing devices made out of wire and combs and razors, which Flicker said are mostly found in medium security. Inmates gain a sense of power by having something the others don’t, he said, regardless of whether they use it.

As is the case with street cops, the job of Butte County Jail personnel is “to protect and serve” the population, which in June averaged 539 inmates a day.

Most of the people who walk through the jail’s doors receive medical care that they might not even seek on the outside.

“They always leave here in better condition,” said Linda Wilms, medical program director at the jail, adding that the center will fill prescriptions up to three weeks after an inmate is released.

Wilms and her staff of about 25 (all employed by California Forensic Medical Group) include a psychiatrist and an on-site dentist who sees about a dozen patients a day. Together they handle close to 1,000 sick-call visits a month. A doctor is always on call, and two registered nurses are on site 24 hours a day. Full physical examinations are conducted 10 to 14 days after booking, at six months and again at one year.

Wilms said half of the jail’s population is on medication. Nearly 14 percent were receiving psychiatric meds in June, and 31,000 shots and pills were dispersed in that same time.

The main clinic is located down the hall from the women’s jail and includes two treatment areas, including an exam room, a dental room, three holding cells, a pharmacy and a quarantine room used for communicable-disease management. There is also a separate room where mental health screening and treatment are provided. Total cost—$2.6 million a year.

But there have been a few issues regarding sterility on the premises. According to the recent grand jury report, the small dental room was ‘disorganized” and ‘due to the size of the room, dust or what appears to be airborne residue from the dental work, settles everywhere, making it a challenge to keep supplies sterile.” However, when CN&R popped in recently, things looked orderly, and an employee was disinfecting the equipment.

OUT WITH THE OLD <br>The women’s section of the jail was built in 1962 and is still held to the same standards. With the population of incarcerated women climbing rapidly, a new facility is needed desperately.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Dr. Larry Kyle, the on-site dentist, said the majority of his work deals with treating ‘meth mouth"—the rotting of teeth brought on by years of methamphetamine use—including extractions and temporary fillings. He also gives inmates information on seeking care after their release.

Wilms, who’s worked at the jail since the beginning of 2005, said the rapport between the medical staff and the officers has made her life easy and insists that it’s safer than a regular hospital.

‘For one, I know my population,” Wilms said. ‘And there’s always an officer with you.”

Of course, ensuring the health of inmates goes further than simply doling out pills and shots.

The Grand Jury reported that it was “unable to get a picture of what major events had occurred in the Butte County Jail during the past year.”

Until just recently the jail did not maintain any type of major incident history either weekly, monthly or annually, except for in individual inmate files—no history log or reference that documented fights, suicide attempts, inmate grievances or internal affairs incidents. Flicker said the issue has since been addressed, and that the jail now compiles jail-wide statistics.

When it comes to the gang population, staff still faces a constant battle to keep one step ahead of the inmates.

“We have a major north-and-south conflict,” said Brian McCann, correctional officer of the gang unit. “That doesn’t stop at the door.”

McCann’s desk is riddled with photos and slips of paper with symbols that he uses to identify the major gangs that run in Northern California—most notable is a coffee mug lined with gang logos. He held up a manila folder stuffed with photos of gang members’ tattoos and symbols like “XIV,” which refers to the 14th letter of the alphabet, “N,” in Norteño or Nuestra Familia.

There was an average of 50 gang-affiliated inmates in custody in the month of July, 60 percent of whom were Norteño.

Aside from the classification process (where probable gang members are interviewed and checked for identifiable marks like tattoos), officers also keep an eye on inmates while in custody.

Esteban Perez is one of the classification officers who makes sure rival gang members are kept in separate pods and that inmates are differentiated by the color of their jumpsuits (red is for maximum security; orange is for medium; and white is for the kitchen workers).

Perez said most gang-affiliated inmates are pretty forthcoming during the interview process.

“They know if they don’t tell us they’ll get into a situation where they won’t win.”

Butte County Jail is a halfway house of sorts, with 90 percent of inmates still awaiting trial. Some simply can’t afford to post bail. The jail receives an average of 30 new inmates a day, many of whom stay one or two days.

To keep the jail from overflowing, programs like SWAP (Sheriff’s Work Alternative Plan) allow nearly 300 low-risk inmates (mostly in for DUI) working with Parks and Recreation and the Butte Humane Society in Chico, Paradise, Oroville and Gridley. As with kitchen workers, every inmate involved receives a third off his or her sentence for good behavior. And a court order gives misdemeanants early releases when the jail is at 90 percent capacity.

But a bigger issue than housing inmates is what’s being done to keep them from returning.

A DAY IN THE LIFE <br>Working in the kitchen not only makes time go by quicker for the 14 inmates employed there, it also reduces their sentences.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“We build facilities to last 20 years and they’re filled in two, said attorney Paul Persons, a professor at Chico State University, who monitors the conditions of Butte County Jail and pays unannounced visits to the facility at least once a month.

The consent decree, adopted in 1986, was a result of a lawsuit filed by Persons against the county and the jail for the lack of proper medical facilities, lack of officers and, of course, the issue of overcrowding. The lawsuit and consent decree also put the jail at a higher priority to receive money for the construction of the men’s facility.

Persons said aside from ongoing proposals to demolish the women’s jail, there is not enough program space for alcohol and drug programs and there is no lock-down mental-health unit for those who need to be confined.

Inmates can receive two 45-minute visits from friends or family per week, but Persons says it’s not enough.

“We don’t have a good child visitation space, which helps with reunification of the family unit,” he noted.

A program was set to start in May to provide inmates with an opportunity to earn their GED, but the teacher quit at the last second. The jail does offer Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs twice a week, with the help of about six to 10 volunteers, usually former inmates, but even that is difficult to maintain, as many people who leave the jail don’t want to come back—for any reason—making it hard to meet the high demand.

“It’s like coaching a Little League team,” Flicker said. “It takes a lot of commitment.”

Brian Hronis will be out of jail in two months.

Hronis is a soft-spoken man who, by the way he furrows his brows, appears to put a lot of thought into his answer when asked if he thinks he’ll ever be locked up again.

The 42-year-old has spent the last year in Butte County Jail for failure to pay child support, and he says his alcoholism has prevented him from holding down a job for any length of time. It’s also gotten him time in Santa Rita and Elmwood jails in the Bay Area.

He described how his problem started with cocaine. “I got really good at drinking alcohol with that coke,” Hronis said. “It was my own choice—I messed up and here I am.”

Hronis joked that his wife has a list of things to do when he returns home to Pennsylvania (where he was arrested)—Bible study and AA among them.

He spoke very lovingly of his three children (he also has three daughters with two other women) and put a lot of emphasis on the importance of role models: “Maybe now’s the time we can be the all-stars we really are.”

But when asked if he’d ever be back behind bars, there was uncertainty in Hronis’ voice, “I can’t really say I won’t be back in jail—but it won’t be for drinking.”

As with many inmates, life is a vicious cycle. He goes in. He’s released. And once on the street, his substance abuse leads to more problems.

Jon Gregory Davis blames no one but himself for his troubles but said 25 years behind bars has allowed him to witness first-hand a system that he says doesn’t work.

Davis blames public defenders for not trying their best to give adequate representation. He also said many arrested, while not completely innocent, are overcharged.

“It’s almost like they want you to fail [once you get out of jail],” he said. “It generates a lot of money and a lot of jobs. It’s like a factory.”

He slid a two-page handwritten essay across the table; the last lines read:“As a caring community we need to become more involved in our justice system to ensure that it does what it is supposed to do: help those that have a problem conforming to that which is right and healthful.”