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Viewpoint: Outside looking in, jail tour provides perspective

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opinion Cottage Grove, 55016
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

You might find this hard to believe — or not — but I have never been to jail. Or prison. Or been in any real trouble with the police at all. I’ve been pulled over a few times — one speeding ticket; I was 16. So touring the Washington County jail during week three of the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department’s Citizens Academy was, to say the least, eye opening.

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From misdemeanor offenders to murderers, the 200-bed direct supervision facility in Stillwater houses men, women and juveniles serving sentences for a variety of crimes. The county jail is not to be confused with the large state correctional facilities down the road. (A quick fact: I have a connection to the prison in Stillwater. My great-grandfather, Leo Utecht, was the warden for more than 20 years.)

From the outside, the county jail looks mammoth. But on the inside, concrete walls and disorientating corridors quickly exude confinement. From intake to jail cell, inmates get a couple of pairs of undergarments and uniforms, shoes and socks. Depending on behavior, the inmate will go to general population or into one of the housing units with walls separating the pods — female-only, mental health, Sentence to Serve and work release, and the dormitory-style quarters.

We quipped about the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” thinking that was what was to be expected. However, the Washington County jail isn’t anything like that. There weren’t any open-plan housing concepts; inmates mostly wore blue uniforms, not the bright orange garb that Piper Chapman dons; and there wasn’t a hair salon, large cafeteria or outdoor recreation area in sight. Although, that show takes place in a prison, not county jail. Moving on.

I have never felt that “I think I might be in a fishbowl” feeling before week three, but all eyes were on us when we walked into the first unit. Some were playing cards with other inmates, some were smiling and talking, others were sleeping on a couch or watching television. But all of that was interrupted when our group walked in. Sgt. David Stumpner said the feeling was mutual.

“They feel like they are in a fishbowl too,” he said.

Stumpner made it clear that just because they are inmates doesn’t mean they lose all respect. They are called by either their first or last name, not a number as often popularized in Hollywood jail depictions. They make conversation with inmates, help mentor them and “treat them like I would want to be treated,” Stumpner said. Some in the jail even attend school to learn a trade or get their GED.

There is a reputation of the Washington County jail, Stumpner said, that makes it one of the best around — if you’re headed to jail, that is.

“We’ve had inmates that are actually relieved to come here versus other jails in the state,” he said.

Regardless, it’s still jail. And many inmates are serving multi-year sentences, some even life. A handful of inmates are permanent residents at one of the two nearby correctional facilities but when space becomes scarce they are sent to Washington County.

Have you ever watched the A&E series “Beyond Scared Straight?” Parents send their out-of-control teens to a local prison or jail for a few days to get a first-hand look at a potential consequence of their behavior. Had I been an unruly teen — which doesn’t mean I didn’t give my parents their fair share of teenage rebellion — one walk through a county jail would have had me waving a white flag.

Reporter Emily Buss is participating in the eight-week Citizens Academy, hosted by the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department. Follow her reports weekly in the Bulletin.

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