Q&A July/August 2008 - Into The West: AJA President Discusses Professionalism, Standards and Best Practices
By Roibín Ó hÉochaidh (07/27/2008)

American Jail Association President Jon D. Hess, CJM, talked about the AJA’s mission and goals, along with his objectives for his yearlong tenure at the helm of the national organization during an interview with Correctional News at the AJA 2008 annual conference in Sacramento, Calif.

Hess took over as president of the 4,200-member American Jail Association in February, after serving on the board of directors since 2003. He is undersheriff at the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, Mich., where he has 29 years of experience with the corrections division.

Q: What is the primary role of the AJA?

A: The role of the AJA is to provide programs, training and information for all kinds and sizes of jail. We strive to provide expertise and insight that shows what other jails throughout the United States have done in addressing common issues, problems and challenges and to highlight policies, procedures and ideas that have been implemented successfully elsewhere.

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At a time of limited or falling budgets and chronic overcrowding, I am very proud to say that our membership continues to grow and I am really excited about how much energy and interest in development there is among our members.

Q: How does the annual national conference contribute?

A: Our primary goal is to professionalize and standardize jails throughout the United States and the annual conference provides an environment where our members can establish contacts and get best-practice information to improve their facilities and operations. On topics such as overcrowding, re-entry, infectious disease control, medical and mental health care, safety and security, we want to make sure the latest technologies and training are available and utilized. We also want to make sure that we focus on providing programs that are effective and applicable for small, medium and large jails. That is what we are about.

Q: What do you want to achieve during your tenure as AJA president?

AJA President Jon Hess talks about pressing issues, hot topics and major challenges facing U.S. jails.
A: A major initiative that we have been working on for several years is establishing the National Jail Academy to train jail administrators. This summer, we are traveling to Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, to finalize some curriculum details in preparation for admitting the first class in the fall or spring 2009.

During my inaugural speech, I outlined many of the important issues facing our jails, and one of the things I emphasized was re-entry and recidivism, which is an issue that affects the entire community.

I also talked about the image of jails that is portrayed on TV and in Hollywood, which is often negative. The AJA is always working to make sure that society has a good understanding of the essential role that jails play in the community. We are trying to better connect with the communities and provide readily accessible information.

More generally, the AJA also has an obligation to ensure that the voice of jails throughout the United States is heard politically. We are focused on continuing to work legislatively for the good of our members and the community. Jails have come a long way in the last several years and we want to ensure that funding is made available to continue those developments.

Q: What are some of the most pressing issues facing jails today?

A: Starting in the 1970s, policymakers began enacting tougher sentencing laws. The trend became one of arresting everyone and throwing as many offenders as possible into prison. Recently, a lot of states are moving to transform jails from one-year to two-year institutions so they can push inmates back into the jail system. Turning jails into two-year institutions would constitute a tremendous drain on staff, facilities and budgets and negatively impact local communities.

Probably 95 percent of individuals in jail are people like you and me, who have ended up there for relatively minor drug, alcohol, driving and nonviolent offenses. Of course there are offenders who need to be behind bars, but most would be better served through alternative approaches and sanctions.

Q: How can AJA members deal with rising healthcare costs and the provision of medical care for inmates with chronic conditions?

A: In terms of chronic care provision, it comes down to dollars and cents. For larger facilities it can certainly make sense from an economic or efficiency standpoint to develop dedicated units for special-needs inmates and to deliver specialized services on site. However, the majority of jails are small and if you operate a 30-bed facility you are not going to have a dedicated medical unit to provide medical services like dialysis or mental health treatment. In that case, it may be more efficient to contract with an outside provider for off-site services.

This takes us back to the mission of the AJA and our role in providing small and medium facilities that may have limited informational and financial resources with the connections and tools that can help them develop appropriate solutions that address these kinds of issues and challenges. Our role in this regard is one of facilitator, to foster collaboration between jurisdictions, among stakeholders and across disciplines.

Q: What about mental health and the growing number of special-needs inmates?

A: Clearly jails are not the most effective, most efficient environment to deal with these individuals, given the context of time, space, funding, available programming, professional expertise and operational demands. But we all have a stake in this problem and it is one that requires a collaborative solution.

Jails have a stake in helping individuals with mental-health or substance-abuse issues get to where they need to be in terms of receiving the necessary care and treatment. We need to establish broad community involvement in order to create the necessary continuity of care and support networks to really address this issue because it is not a problem that is going to go away by itself.

The AJA is focused on providing jails access to innovative best-practice models, which have the capacity to enhance operational efficiency and reduce costs, like the Memphis Model of crisis intervention for individuals with mental health issues.

The Crisis Intervention Team program, which we have tried to implement in Grand Rapids, Mich., is designed to divert individuals that come into contact with law enforcement from jails to more appropriate facilities and services, where they can be evaluated by trained professionals rather than merely being locked up, warehoused and returned to the street in the same state they entered.

Q: Is this kind of model suitable for jails of all sizes?

A: The Memphis Model functions like a triage to screen individuals and direct them to the most appropriate place, in the most efficient and timely manner possible. The idea is to provide alternatives to incarceration and to deal with special-needs individuals more effectively. The program can help to get police officers back on the street and reduce the burden being placed on jails.

In addressing these kinds of issues, regionalization across jurisdictions, where a number of small jails within a region establish collaborative solutions that yield economies of scale, is emerging as a potentially viable model. It is a theory that’s out there and it may be the most effective and efficient approach.

Q: What role, if any, can technology play in addressing the most pressing issues for jails and what sort of technologies are you excited about?

A: There are a lot of technologies out there that can make jails more operationally efficient and economic. In the context of overcrowding and understaffing, technologies like video visitation, along with camera systems, screening detectors and other security electronics can also make the facility more safe and secure for officers and inmates.

Using video visitation as an example, we recognize the importance of keeping families connected and the role that stability of family plays for an inmate. But we also recognize the importance of safety and security and the risk posed by large numbers of people entering a secure facility. In terms of our overall mission, operational safety and security must be paramount and considerations of family and convenience must necessarily be secondary.

In other areas, some of the systems and technologies in the healthcare field, such as telemedicine, also have the capacity to enhance services for inmates, improve safety and security for staff, and increase operational efficiency.

Q: Buildings and their operations are responsible for approximately 40 percent of energy use and carbon emissions. As the national organization representing approximately 3,200 jail facilities throughout the United States, is the issue of environmental sustainability on the AJA’s radar?

A: The AJA and its members recognize environmental sustainability as an important issue. However, in a lot of respects, as jails we are bound to operate 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. We cannot turn off the lights and we cannot turn off the heat. But many of the new jails being built around the country are environmentally sustainable or incorporate green elements. In existing facilities, installing low-flush toilets or energy-efficient lighting and recycling programs are simple initiatives that even small jails can implement as a start.

However, I think you definitely have to look at the building and your operations as a whole to see what you can do to improve efficiency and conserve resources.

Q: What has the AJA been working on recently?

A: Legislatively, we worked very hard for passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act and more recently the Second Chance Act, which was signed by President Bush in April. As I mentioned, we are putting the final pieces together for the National Jail Academy as a center of education and training in jail management.

Q: What will you be focusing on in the future?

A: We are going to be working on the Prison Rape Elimination Act and its implementation. For instance, helping our members to look at their physical plant and advising them how best to house inmates to minimize sexual assault and violence. We are working closely with the National Sheriffs’ Association to establish and make our members aware of the standards. We will also be working with our members to source re-entry funding through the Second Chance Act.

Politically, a hot topic for us right now is the elimination of funding in the federal budget for the National Institute of Corrections. The NIC plays a critical role in law enforcement, criminal justice and corrections, and the AJA, together with the American Correctional Association and the National Sheriffs’ Association, is focused on restoring funding for this vital program.

Crisis Intervention: Memphis Model at a Glance

In 1988, prompted by the systematic deinstitutionalization of mentally ill individuals and prevalent narcotic/alcohol abuse in the community, the Memphis Police Department joined in partnership with the Memphis Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health providers, community stakeholders and two local universities — University of Memphis and University of Tennessee — to develop, implement the Crisis Intervention Team, a specialized unit dedicated to providing a more intelligent, understanding, efficient, effective and safe approach to dealing with mental illness and crisis events.

The CIT program recognizes that special populations need and deserve special care and treatment. The model provides an avenue for the development of collaboration and partnerships among community stakeholders in meeting common goals of safety, understanding and service in dealing with individuals with mental health issues.

CIT officers receive specialized mental health and crisis management training to better respond to and resolve crisis situations. The Memphis Police Department has approximately 225 CIT officers and provides24/7 situation-response services.

By offering an immediate calm response with an understanding of mental health issues, CIT officers can reduce the likelihood of physical confrontations and injury and enhance care and treatment of individuals with mental illness, officials say.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness credits CIT with reducing instances of use-of-force, saving lives and preventing injuries for officers and individuals with mental health issues. Officer injury data indicates a seven-fold decrease since the program’s inception.

University of Tennessee studies indicate that implementation of the CIT program correlates with a decrease in the arrest rates mentally ill individuals, an increased rate of offender diversion into the healthcare system, and a low rate of mental illness in jails.

Contact Major Sam Cochran, CIT coordinator, at 901-545-5700 or by e-mail at sam.cochran@memphistn.gov.

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