By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications
Capt. Wesley Lynch of the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office has been called so many names by inmates that he just laughs it off now.
But he knows his reaction goes against human nature.
“You have to have an emotional separation so that you don’t get your ego involved,” Lynch says, “and that’s really hard to do, especially for new officers because it’s not the natural thing to do.”
Handling situations like that is just one of many areas that new Whitfield County detention officers learn about during a special eight-week mini-camp organized each year by the sheriff’s office.
“It isn’t like we grow them different,” Lynch says of detention officers, who are basically deputy sheriffs operating the 400-inmate jail on a daily basis. “This is one thing people forget — police officers, detention officers, deputy sheriffs, detectives are all human beings — right? It’s not like they came out of a different vat. They were born and went to the same school as everybody else, and they’re the same human beings that are out there in the public. But people expect them to act like robots and always be perfect and never get offended and never make mistakes, and that’s not possible for a human being to do.”
What is possible, however, is for these detention officers to learn how to deal better with the tough situations they are often handed on their job, Lynch says.
“They’re all human beings, and you can’t expect them not to act like human beings,” he says. “We can train them to be professionals, but you can’t expect them when they get cussed out and called names that they’re just not going to care.”
But, Lynch points out, “you can teach them to try to deal with it a little bit better. I’ve been called so many things since I’ve been here, I don’t care anymore — I just don’t care. I mean, I think it’s funny. One of the things I do is if they insult me, then I’ll either make a joke about it, or I’ll agree with them. Now if they threaten me, I’m going to handle that completely different. But if they’re just mad at the world and don’t threaten me, I’ll just go along with them.”
The eight weeks of mini-camp comes after the detention officers have already been through 11 weeks of training at the state-mandated jail school operated by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.
But the extra training here is essential, says Lt. Emmit Tate.
“A lot of the stuff we cover in mini-camp is not covered in jail school at all,” Tate says, “like fire procedures — what our basic fire procedure is, how to use a fire extinguisher, how to put on an SCBA (breathing apparatus), turn the tank on, put the mask on, turn the oxygen on, so that you can do what you have to do in a smoky environment. They don’t get that through the state training, and it’s a good thing they don’t with the SCBAs because they make so many different kinds. It would be hard to train everybody at state because when you get back to your agency, well, that might not be the kind we use.”
The fire training has already paid dividends. Last year, the jail’s large commercial-size dryer caught on fire, but in just a little more than two minutes, the officers had already found the location of the fire, picked up firefighting equipment and had reached the fire.
“This is a big building,” Lynch says, “and they had already started putting the fire out in two minutes and seven or eight seconds. That’s pretty remarkable, considering there are 20 different areas of the building and they had to pinpoint where the fire is and they had to gather up the equipment to respond to it. By the time the first extinguisher was used up there was already a line of extinguishers out in the hall to help keep the fire down until the fire department got there. It’s unfortunate we had a fire, but that quick response kept us from having any kind of extensive damage to the building.”
Tate is continually holding fire drills to keep the officers alert, sometimes even sneaking in in the middle of the night for a drill.
“I’ve got one fire drill that simulates the inmates starting a fire over here,” he explains, “but it’s really a diversion because they’re escaping out the back door over there. We’ve had other fire drills where we’ve had simulated power outages to go with it, so none of the doors worked and you had to have a key to get into anywhere.”
The mini-camp training began when the county first opened the new jail back in 2003 and has evolved over the years.
“At first the training helped us transition from the old jail to the new jail,” Lynch says. “The new pod system jail functions a lot different than a linear jail does. What we had before was a linear jail with bars and now we’ve got a system that involves more electronics, but it also requires people do things in certain ways. So we did some jail transitional training at first and after that we kept certain items, especially high-liability items, in our training schedule to make sure that we could show everybody’s been trained the way we want them to do it.”
Since the early days, the training has grown from just a couple of days to several weeks.
“We do this kind of formalized training to make sure everybody understands what we expect from them as far as ethics and how we conduct business,” Lynch says, “what the important department policies are, how they handle certain critical tasks in the jail, like response to fires. We teach a little bit of basic stuff about hazmat, we teach them some medical skills, and we also have a defensive tactics day that lasts about eight hours, which is probably rougher than anybody’s going to get when they go to the police academy.”
The latest crop of graduates from the mini-camp started their training in February, wrapping up in April after completing courses with titles like “Introduction to Corrections,” “Fire Procedures,” “Introduction to the Courts,” “In-take and Housing Procedures,” “Ethics and Professionalism,” “Report Writing,” “Fire Policy,” “Gangs,” “Medical Procedures,” “Key Control/Emergency Access,” “Policies and Procedures,” “Communications,” “GCIC Security and Integrity,” “Defensive Tactics,” “In-Custody/Suicide Prevention” and “Restraints/Use of Force.”
Physical fitness also is stressed during the mini-camp, with strenuous drills that include flipping huge tractor tires over and over, carrying heavy buckets on their shoulders, and lots of running. They even ran one day all the way to the top of the George Disney Trail, which has been rated the toughest short hike in Georgia by some experts.
“We started putting the physical fitness into it for morale reasons,” Lynch says, “and also because we wanted to make sure that people got themselves ready for defensive tactics to prevent injuries because if you’re going to pick people up and throw them, if your support structure isn’t ready for that, then you could end up getting hurt pretty bad. The physical fitness part is not easy at all, but when it’s all over with, they know they have done something.
“Some jails don’t go that far, but this helps with a couple of things we want them to learn during mini-camp.”
Own your mistakes
“First — and this is hard for a lot of young people to understand but we really need them to understand this,” Lynch says, “and that is, you’re responsible for your actions. If you make a mistake, it’s your fault. It’s not somebody else’s fault, it’s not your mom’s fault, it’s not the weather’s fault, it’s not society’s fault. You have to own your own mistake.
“And the second thing is, when one person makes a mistake, all of us suffer for it in law enforcement,” he says. “That’s just the way it is. If one person doesn’t do his job, it’s going to make somebody else’s job harder. And if somebody messes up, the job of the person that has to come fix it is 10 times worse than the person that could have done it right the first time.”
Because detention officers work together much more than patrolmen, Lynch says “it’s important for them to know that you’re in a group and your success or failure affects that group. In the way that your personal failures as far as your job performance can affect the group, your ethics, your work ethic, and how you conduct yourself also affects the group. Right?”
That’s why when one person makes a mistake in mini-camp, everybody else makes the mistake in essence. “That’s how we handle it,” Lynch says.
In fact, during one recent physical fitness session, one of the officers didn’t follow the instructions correctly, so the entire group had to go back and do the drill again.
“That’s another thing,” Lynch says. “We try to teach them when you get told to do something, pay attention to what you’re told to do, pay attention to details, and they’re not used to that, especially a lot of young people that are fresh out of school because ‘everybody plays, everybody wins,’ at school. It doesn’t work that way in the real world.
“If I tell them to do something, even if it’s something simple, hey guys, this is how we’re going to do this. I want them to be able to concentrate on that, and I want them to be able to do it under stress and when they’re tired. They have to learn that.”
A first step
For the most part, working in the jail is the first step toward becoming a patrol officer or a detective.
Lynch believes being a detention officer offers the men and women new to law enforcement a chance to find out what it’s like in the real world.
“Jail is a more structured environment,” Lynch explains. “You’re not operating on your own, and it’s a good place to learn the games inmates play because a lot of officers aren’t used to dealing with criminals, they’re just not. They don’t understand the way inmates act, their mentality, the way they relate to each other. They’re not used to people lying to them all the time. You work in the jail for about a year or so, and you’re going to learn all that. So it’s kind of a good proving ground for who needs to be an officer.”
He’s found that the recidivist inmates who are in and out of jail frequently “don’t have a lot of accountability for their own mistakes and their own actions, and they have very poor impulse control.”
Dealing with adults who have the impulse control of children makes for a dangerous work environment. That’s why the detention officers are trained to keep their guard up at all times, especially important since they’re not allowed to carry a gun — just a Taser.
“You have a certain element that basically doesn’t have regard for anybody but themselves,” Lynch says. “They don’t really believe in right or wrong, they believe good and bad is what’s good for me and what’s bad for me. I think a lot of people are that way to some degree, but you’re going to find it’s a lot more in the inmate population. And that’s part of the reason why they’re here in the first place. They don’t have a lot of regard for other people’s property, feelings, health, safety. A lot of that probably comes from drug use and other things.”
Being a detention officer at the jail offers a look into the world of crime that patrol officers don’t always see.
“A patrol officer usually has one contact with the person during an emergency situation,” Lynch says. “Well, if you’re working in a jail, you see the same people over and over and over again every day, so the inmates learn the officers and the officers learn the inmates. It’s like a community.”
Training can be the difference between life and death.
“That’s why we tell people there are certain ways we need to do things, certain ways we want to behave, certain standards that we want them to have,” Lynch says, “because we don’t want the officers to develop a personal relationship with the inmates. We do want them to be able to develop a professional relationship with the inmates they supervise. There are lots of wrong ways to do that, so it’s kind of hard to train. You can be firm with the inmates and still be fair, and some of them are going to respect you as a professional.”
Communicating with inmates is important, Lynch points out.
“There’s a lot of psychology involved with this job,” he says. “I used to wrestle in high school so when I first got started in law enforcement, I was proud of the fact that I could handle people physically if I had to. Then after awhile, I started to learn that there are other skills involved — communication skills. I’ve learned that if you say the right thing at the right time in the right way, a lot of times you can end a fight before it ever starts. In our Defensive Tactics class, we even have scenarios that can be ended by using appropriate communications. We’ll put the officers in these situations so they understand that every event like this doesn’t have to end in use of force.”
The biggest communication problem is teaching officers how to listen under stress “because you’re just not wired to do that,” Lynch says.
“If you’re under stress, generally your ears turn off and your eyes turn on, and you’ll see that if you have an argument with a personal friend or somebody like that. The more stressed out and ill you are, the less likely you are to hear what they’re actually saying. We have to teach people as long as there’s not an emergency, go in and listen first and then make a decision.”
Detention officers — even after completing jail school and the mini-camp — are really never done with training.
In fact, new officers are assigned an FTO (field training officer) for four more weeks of on-the-job training.
“During that time, they’re allowed to do certain things depending on their FTO’s evaluation of them,” Lynch says. “But they’re also still spending time with their FTO making sure they’re on track. Most jails don’t go to this much trouble to train their detention officers.”
Even more training
The training doesn’t stop after that, either.
“We do roll call training probably 10 to 15 times a year,” Lynch says. “That’s just a way of the sergeant reviewing issues with the staff without us having to pull the officers off the job. It saves the county money, and it works really well if it’s an issue that you can quickly review and don’t need an instructor. We keep a record of it and still get the officers POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training Council) credit for it. It’s only about 15 minutes or so at a time, but over a year, it’ll add up.”
Being a detention officer is obviously not an easy job, but it’s a critical one for society.
“These D.O.’s are responsible for people’s lives as much or more than a patrolman is,” Lynch says. “In some ways, they have to be a counselor, they have to understand the law, at least to the degree that it affects the way they work, they have to be able to understand policy, they have to understand enough about medical that they know, hey this might be a serious issue and I need to forward that to medical personnel. They need to understand security procedures because they have to be able to sufficiently search somebody and search their area or they might miss a weapon and somebody might get hurt.
“They have to understand how to use force correctly because they’re going to have to use force on people,” he says. “But if they don’t use enough force, they’re going to get themselves or their friends hurt that work with them. If they use too much force, then they could be considered excessive and then we’re going to have liability issues and an inmate could get hurt unnecessarily.
“There’s lots of things they have to understand to do,” Lynch says. “Two weeks of jail school isn’t really long enough to teach that. So that’s why we have the FTO program, that’s why we have roll call training on issues when they pop up, and that’s why we have the departmental mini-camp.”
Such professionalism is one reason why being a jail officer is getting more and more respect as a long-term profession, instead of just a step on the way to become a patrolman or detective.
“Jail officer is becoming more and more a profession and something to be proud of,” Tate says. “I mean, we’ve got people that’s been back here as a jail officer for 10 years. They have no desire to go anywhere else. They’re happy doing exactly what they’re doing. In some states, it’s considered almost a different job path. Like you get hired at a sheriff’s office and there’s a route that you take to be a patrolman, but there’s a completely different path that’s detention-oriented. You’ll see that especially in Florida, and I think you’re going to see more of that in Georgia as time goes on.”
Exactly what is a detention officer?
Basically, a detention officer is responsible for ensuring that safety and good order are maintained in the jail.
Some detention officers work in Booking or Intake. “When inmates come to jail, these officers search them, inventory their property, deposit their money and their personal effects, screen them for obvious injuries, and then process them into the computer system, and fingerprint them,” Capt. Wesley Lynch said. “This same group will also be releasing inmates when they are ready to get out of jail. They’ll make sure that a criminal history has been run; you don’t want them released if they have active warrants out on them. And they’ll give their property back to them before they are released.”
Other detention officers work in Housing, in the back of the jail where the inmates live.
“These officers monitor the inmates on a daily basis, 24 hours a day,” Lynch said. “They’re going to be interacting with inmates if they get in a fight, for example. They’ll be referring inmates to medical care if needed, and both groups of officers will have to be able to watch inmates for signs of suicide ideation and make sure it’s reported and we act on it. They’re basically a patrolman who works in a jail.”
Detention officers who work in Booking also learn a lot about the law. “These guys are reading every single warrant that comes in,” Lynch said. “They’re reading every single ticket that people are arrested for, and after awhile, I’ve seen veteran patrolmen from all agencies come up to our D.O.’s and say, ‘Look, how are they charging this one?’ The D.O.’s have dealt with it so much that they understand the law from top to bottom. They know the difference between a burglary and a criminal trespass. They understand what qualifies under Family Violence and what doesn’t because when it doesn’t work, they have to fix it. They have to coordinate with the courts a lot so they learn a lot.”
Housing officers, meanwhile, learn a lot about how inmates act and how they interact with one another.
“They’re back there with the inmates every day,” Lt. Emmit Tate said. “They have to see them a dozen times a day or more, so they know this inmate always does this, this inmate does that, so if they ever do go out on the road as a patrolman and they come across that guy, guess what? They know who he is, they know his MO, they know how he operates, they know he likes to sucker punch people, they know to watch their P’s and Q’s when they’re around him.”
Sixteen detention officers ranging in age from 19 to 56 completed the recent mini-camp at the Whitfield County Jail, including Tommy Spurlock, Joshua Bryson, Jessica Brewer, Crystal Walker, Dustin Taylor, Coleman Jenkins, Cody Ruddell, Zach James, Donny Jones, Brandon Norwood, April Hudson, Breanna Rider, Jordan Williams, Jonathan Lavelle, Cody Withrow and Tyler Mitchell.