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Jail Time: What we saw at the Henderson Detention Center

IN PHOTOS: A look at life in inside HDC

– It is early evening and the men in orange jumpsuits form a hesitant dinner queue.

“You know they’re from intake, because they’re confused. They don’t know even know which way to line up yet,” says Henderson Corrections officer Phillip Flores.

The men are spending their first day as inmates at the Henderson Detention Center, which houses around 400 women and men at any given time.

They are served meat, bread slices and vegetables, prepared an hour earlier by a staff of cooks and an assembly line of inmates whose job it is to place each item, in more or less in uniform quantity and positioning, on the plates.

Inmates assemble nearly 1,000 meals daily, assembly line style

Inmates assemble nearly 1,000 meals daily, assembly line style

“It’s good,” says Sergeant Scott Stewart during the kitchen preparations as he shovels a still steaming forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.

“It’s all good quality stuff as you can see. The only complaints we get, really, are sometimes about wanting more. The portions are set by federal guidelines.”

The men settle in groups of six around a dozen round tables set into the concrete cell block floor by attached benches. They are subdued, eating efficiently with very little conversation. Only hours earlier they were free and no doubt had significantly different evening plans.

When a person is arrested and taken to the Henderson Detention Center, the experience begins at Central Booking, a large open room with cinder block walls painted pale yellow and a slightly raised staff area.  Open bullpens with phones, bathroom and televisions house arrestees who behave well await intake, and lockups for inmates who do not.

On this day, one man is sequestered in one of these cells, looking through the narrow window in the door and offering obscene gestures to officers whenever they get close enough to notice.

Getting no satisfaction from this activity, he sets about flooding the toilet, sending water seeping from under the door.

“If he doesn’t stop, they’ll take him to the padded cell,” Flores says. “There’s no toilet to mess with in there.”

The padded cells are surprisingly un-padded, but there is a slight give to the surfaces and no hard edges of a bunk or toilet that a person could damage himself against. The room is bare, with a slightly concave floor intended to direct fluids into the center drain.

DSC_0099After personal belonging are surrendered, inmates are led into changing rooms where they undergo a full body search, shower and are issued a jail jumpsuit, underpants and orange plastic sandals. They then return to the bullpen until they are called for mug shots and fingerprinting in an alcove only a few yards away.

“It took me a while to get used to this, to tell you the truth,” says Flores of the open facility. Correction officers carry no firearms inside the building, but are armed with O.C. spray, Tasers and wear ballistic vests.

“It’s very rare that an inmate tries to attack an officer,” says Stewart. “I can’t remember the last time. It’s been a few years.”

“I think that has a lot to do with the way we treat them, interact with them,” Flores offers. “It is a lot more common in other facilities.”

It’s important for me to keep in mind that for some of the people who come through here, this is the very worst day of their entire lives.

Flores interacts with compliant inmates at booking in a casual, borderline re-assuring manner. “For me, this in normal, it’s routine,” he explains. “But it’s important for me to keep in mind that for some of the people who come through here, this is the very worst day of their entire lives. This is like the end of the world. It can be that traumatic. So its part of my job to let them know that it isn’t the end of the world and they are going to get through it and be OK.”

Stewart says some of the biggest challenges come from inmates who are mentally ill. “It’s no secret the jails have taken the place of mental facilities all over the country,” he says. “And it’s only getting worse that way. There are absolutely people here who need to be in a mental facility instead.”

He says a recent incident in which a mentally disturbed man tore off his own scrotum had been unusually disturbing for him. “That one was tough,” he says.

Flores agrees. “Somebody smears feces all over their cell, that’s nothing,” he shrugs. “Yeah, it’s nasty, but the other stuff, the really bad stuff, that can get to you.”

Stewart shows me the officers’ lounge and the new gym, which is utilitarian, but not cramped and filled with gleaming weight machines and treadmills.

“You should have seen what we had before, it was like a closet,” he says. Stewart tells me the gym upgrade was due in part to the efforts of late city project manager Merrill Kieffer, whom Stewart says always worked hard to improve officers’ physical work conditions.

“Merrill was really great,” he says, letting the last word fall into a brief telling silence.

DSC_0196aThe city has a contract with the federal government to house Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, who often account for half of the total jail population. The U.S. government mandates that at least 34,000 people be held daily in facilities across the U.S. on immigration charges. More than 60 percent of detention facilities that house ICE inmates do so for profit, including Henderson, an industry that costs federal taxpayers $2 billion a year.

HDC has been the center of controversy in recent months regarding accusations that ICE detainees have been subjected to mistreatment by staff, including the use of racial or ethnic slurs and the limitation of access to attorneys.

Those allegations are outside the focus of this story, but multiple officers were compelled to speak on the matter, each feeling that HDC and it’s staff have been portrayed unfairly in recent media examinations.

“I was listening to what was being said on TV about what we were doing to ICE detainees, it’s just so far from the reality,” said one corrections officer. “That’s not Henderson.”

“This jail is nothing like any other facility I’ve worked in,” said Flores as he scans the empty common area after the intake inmates have eaten. He picks up a disposable razor that was balanced on a rail.

“They’re not supposed to do that,” he says, holding up the razor. “The guy probably didn’t know, we have to account for all these.

“When I came here from (another correction facility within the region), I had some bad habits,” he continues. “About how you deal with inmates. It took me about a week. A fellow officer would tell me, ‘that’s not the way we do things in Henderson.’ And it’s true. We are proud that we do things the right way. Inmates will tell you all the time, ‘Henderson is Disneyland compared to other facilities.’

“We aren’t here to oppress anybody. That is so far from the culture here.”

(InsideHENDERSON was not allowed to photograph any ICE detainee due to legal issues, nor to publish photographs of any HDC inmate’s face. However, I was given open escorted access to every area of the facility and freely observed interactions between inmates and officers, in many cases without the awareness of either. During our four-hour visit I witnessed no indication of unprofessional conduct by any member of the HDC staff).

“Have you ever had a bad experience out in the world with an inmate you’d dealt with earlier?” city Public Information Officer Kathleen Richards asks Flores.

“Once,” he tells her. “I was out someplace and the guy got in my face. He was not happy. But only that one time. A lot more often you run into people who remember you and are very positive toward you because of the way they were treated inside. That’s pretty common.”

DSC_0194Richards accompanies me throughout the visit, which was stipulated by Henderson Police Department officials as an access condition, with a single brief exception: the opportunity to go onto the floor of the men’s level four block.

“These guys are the roughest we have that are not in isolation, that are allowed to be out of their cells together,” the block officer tells me. “When you walk down there among them, you can really feel the tension. And they can sense fear, I guarantee it. So as an officer on the floor, you’ve always got to maintain that control.”

I remove my press credentials and leave the camera in the monitoring room with a one-way mirror and accompany the officer onto the floor. Several of the men take mild notice of my presence, as all inmates incarcerated for any length of time seem to of anything or anyone that is outside the ordinary.

And I understand immediately what the officer was saying, and why it takes a pretty high degree of courage to daily be the lone authority in a crowd of largely hardened men who have landed here through personal demons and the behavior that stems from them. My presence holds no interest and the men go about their various routines. Talking among themselves, watching television. Killing time. A few are engrossed in a chess match.

Beyond this room is the isolation unit, reserved for inmates who are not allowed to interact with others. In this room the common area is empty. A large television is mounted above reach on the wall, sound blaring.

“Is the volume so high so they can hear it through the doors?” I ask.

“No, it’s centrally controlled,” the officer told me. “But they don’t mind it.”

There are currently five individuals in this block, including one man convicted of shooting a Metro police officer. I count three faces pressed intently  against the door windows, looking not at me this time, but focused the television as a naked woman with a robotic body emerges from the shadows of a sci-fi landscape.

Jails are inherently dark places. Places of human misery, of lives often in profound turmoil. But it is striking how freely HDC officers and supervisors express what appears to be genuine pride their work and their facility. They talk about mutual respect, about building people up. About the hope that sometimes people come out better for the experience instead of worse.

Henderson Corrections Officer Phillip Flores

Henderson Corrections Officer Phillip Flores

As Phillip Flores escorts us from the facility, Richards makes note of the commendation pin on his uniform label.

“I got that for saving a man’s life,” he tells us. “He was about to be extridicted to face rape charges, and he cut his wrists with a razor blade he got his hands on. It was from a disposable razor here. So I just clamped onto him with my hands and held onto the wounds until the paramedics came. He died in the ambulance, but they were able to bring him back.”

“So he survived it?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s doing time now, somewhere.”

“Lucky him?”

“He’s alive,” Flores. “So at least he gets another chance.” | iH


This photo essay was featured on page 16 of the February 2015 issue of Inside Henderson magazine.

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