Riley County Jail’s average occupancy at low point

By Tim Weideman

The inmate occupying cell F202 of the Riley County Jail stood close to the door, staring intently outside the window of his second-level, locked-tight living space.

“You may think he’s looking at you,” corrections officer Shalondra Booker said as the six-member Riley County Police Department 101 Class gathered Tuesday night in one of the jail’s two control rooms.

“He’s not. He’s watching TV. It’s up against the wall.”

Even if he wanted to, the inmate gazing from his cell couldn’t see the class or anybody else in the control room, which looked over pods F and G — the jail’s two highest security level sections.

The control room’s occupants were shielded by tinted windows.

The only light inside the room came from monitors flipping through security camera feeds and a touchscreen Booker could use to send various commands throughout the facility.

The RCPD 101 class was given a tour of the jail, 1001 S. Seth Child Road, as part of its six-session course on law enforcement in Riley County.

Corrections officers like Booker play a vital role in housing people the local court system, for a variety of reasons, has deemed must be removed from the community.

To accomplish this in the safest way possible for all involved — including the inmates — the jail employs 37 corrections officers, six sergeants and three lieutenants to cover three shifts.

Built in 2001, the jail is a multi-custody level, direct supervision facility, meaning the corrections officers are in with the inmates.

As of the latest expansion in 2011, the jail has seven pods with a total capacity of 147 prisoners.

Recently, the jail’s average daily population has been in the 60s. On Tuesday, it housed 63 inmates.

In his three years of working at the jail, current facility commander Capt. Hank Nelson has seen the inmate population reach 120. Recent population trends, he said, are likely related to area crime rates.

“I don’t think it’s coincidental that crime is also down in Manhattan and Riley County,” Nelson said Tuesday night before the class toured the jail.

According to yearly average daily population statistics on the RCPD website (which provides records from 2000 to 2012), the jail hasn’t seen a year’s average daily population in the 60s since 2004.

That year, the jail had an average daily population of 68.7 inmates.

From 2010 to 2012, the jail had average daily populations of 100.3, 95 and 102.8.

Nelson, who’s held many positions with the RCPD over 27 years of service, said he believes the low population won’t last.

“It’ll bump back up,” he said. “There’s no question.”

In fact, the average daily population for a year may not paint the entire picture. It’s not as though the Riley County Jail is much larger than necessary.

Lt. Travis Freidline, tour guide for the night, told the class he’s seen the population for a given day reach as high as 143 in his 14 years of experience at the jail.

Freidline is one of the lieutenants in charge of a shift at the jail.

He said officers in the control rooms, such as Booker, are the ones who help everyone else keep tabs on all the inmates. That’s even truer when there are many more inmates to keep an eye on.

“She’s what I like to call our guardian angel,” Freidline said.

Though the jail currently is well staffed, that may change if Nelson’s predicted inmate population increase comes to fruition.

But that’s where the next step becomes tricky.

As far as employee-to-inmate ratio, there’s no best way to determine a correct number, according to the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) — an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The NIC’s website states there are “too many variables, such as physical plant design, level of security, level of programs and activities, state and local standards and statutes — among other factors — to recommend a specific officer to inmate ratio.”

Nelson said Riley County has an idea of the minimum number of officers needed to operate the facility.

But he added that it’s harder to determine when the jail would have to add more officers should the daily inmate population increase.

Plus, there’s no recommended ratio formula given by organizations like the NIC.

“I honestly don’t know what that breaking point is, because jails are different,” he said.

Until that point is reached, Nelson said the RCPD would continue to proactively quash problems outside the jail walls to prevent people from being placed behind bars in the first place.

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