Jail honors only part of the story [Editorial]

Running a jail is at once among the most unrewarding of endeavors and important functions in society.

Regular readers of the police blotter published in this newspaper can attest that, while there are new names in the arrest columns, a disturbing number of people show up with disturbing frequency. If jails were airlines, they would be racking up some serious frequent flier miles.

To those working at the Harford County Detention Center, it cannot be an uplifting experience to so frequently see the same un-rehabilitated faces cycling through until they do something bad enough to be sentenced to serious time in the state penitentiary, get themselves killed or maimed badly enough that their street days end or finally grow tired of their own anti-social behavior.

Then there's the issue of dealing with some of the more belligerent detainees. With a frequency that people on the outside would find rather unsettling, the use of human excrement in assaults on guards is rather common.

Meanwhile, the function of running a jail is vital to the safety and security of a community. Strictly speaking, a jail isn't supposed to be a place of punishment or correction, merely a holding facility for people awaiting trial. Realistically speaking, however, the local jail is the place where sentences of a few months to a little more than a year end up being served. People convicted of crimes, but who are eligible for work release, as well as those sentenced to things like weekends behind bars, are also confined in the detention center.

And there are the people who are held while awaiting trial on rather serious charges, people deemed by a judge to constitute enough of a threat to society that they aren't allowed out while awaiting trial.

In short, without a well-run jail, the modern criminal justice system would find it hard to function.

It is important that the facility be well-run. Certainly, we citizens have every reason to expect all our public institutions are well-run, from schools to landfills to sewage treatment plants. Unlike most other public operations, however, a jail is a facility that when poorly-run can result in the loss of life. Such incidents have occurred over the years in the jail in Harford County, under the administrations of a succession of sheriffs, including the present sheriff.

All too frequently, people confined in jail take their own lives. Others act violently, potentially injuring guards or other inmates.

A death at the jail, be it ruled by the medical examiner's office as suicide, homicide or accidental, is a terrible thing on many levels. Most basically, it is a tragic end to a life that may have been turned around. From a larger perspective, jailers are responsible for the well-being of the inmates they guard. By extension, the jailers' employers – that is to say the taxpayers – end up being financially liable for mistakes made at the jail that result in death or injury.

All in all, being a jailer is a fairly thankless enterprise.

Last week, it was announced that the Harford County Detention Center had been checked and met 100 percent of the correctional standards for Maryland. The local jail and its staff were honored for meeting the standard, and the comment on jail staff by Howard Ray, executive director of the state's Commission on Correctional Standards that "it's very important that they get recognized," bears amplification.

It's a difficult and largely thankless job, so it's good to recognize the staff of the jail when they score well on a state test.

It also is vital, however, to remember that the jail has been the last place on earth seen by too many people and no amount of high scores on tests will bring those people back, protect the county from liability or prevent future similar occurrences.

Only vigilance and dedication to a difficult job for which there is little in the way of glory will make the jail as safe as it can be. The jail's staff is to be congratulated for its high marks, but also cautioned against coming to the conclusion that the challenge has been met. The challenges of running a jail, unfortunately, never end.

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