Lyon County has discipline down to black-and-white
YERINGTON – When Sheriff’s Cpl. Douglas Brunson raised the lid covering the postcard sized door window, inmates scurried into their cells and pulled the doors shut behind them.
That’s the rule at the Lyon County Jail in Yerington.
Inmates don’t run the jail here, the sworn officers do. Sheriff Sid Smith wants anybody thinking of breaking the law in his county to know this.
“We want to run this jail like a boot camp,” Smith said. “You’re in jail. It’s not fun. You’re going to do your work. ‘Get out of our county,’ that’s our philosophy.”
The Lyon County Sheriff’s Department, remote as it may be, has spread that message far and wide.
A Sacramento television news account in April likened the Lyon County Jail to the Paul Newman chain gang movie, “Cool Hand Luke.” That segment has had rebroadcasts all across California and elsewhere in the country.
Inmates here have to wear black-and-white striped uniforms reminiscent of jails in a bygone age. No green, blue or orange jump suits here.
Since July 1, inmates have even gotten bills for their stay. Convicted inmates are charged $25 a day for accommodations in cells designed for one inmate that now house up to three people.
Three years earlier, the Sheriff’s Department started charging $10 for each visit to the doctor.
“It has cut our sick call down plenty,” Smith said. “Before, half our inmates would go to sick call. What they wanted was the drugs.”
Smith and his jail officers for the past five years have built the boot camp scenario one piece at a time with more elements in the works to build on the jail’s reputation.
“I can’t take credit for anything,” said Smith, sheriff since 1992. “This is staff driven.”
Two factors led to the Lyon County Jail’s transformation:
— Lyon County’s “era of financial woes” five years ago led to county commissioners asking about efficiency at the Sheriff’s Department.
— Jail duty among sworn officers was seen as rookie duty or a demotion.
“The deputies in jail were looked at as second-class citizens,” Smith said. “It was creating a morale problem. To overcome that, they said, ‘we have to prove ourselves.’ They addressed their professionalism and they got more training.”
And in the past four years a young crew took over in the jail from the old guard. Brunson at 34 years old is right at the top age among sworn officers at the jail.
“I started four years ago and it was pretty much in and out for deputies,” Brunson said. “Now we all seem to run pretty tight. We watch football together. Some patrol deputies now want jail duty.”
Brunson’s crew of mostly twentysomethings set down rules for inmates. He remembers when he started that inmates “played games and messed with you. They made fun of you.”
Speaking to deputies these days is by invitation only. Now inmates retreat hastily when Brunson lifts the window lid.
“They know,” the corporal said. “I don’t let them talk to me.”
Much of the inmate discipline is instilled by work crew supervisor Duane Coy, a retired Navy man who vexes inmates and sworn officers alike. For Coy, rules for inmates are only effective if law enforcement follows them and he lets Sheriff’s Department staff know if they don’t hold up their part.
“He’s managed to piss everybody in the department off at least once,” Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Page, the jail commander, said with respect.
Coy in his 12 months at the jail has established a three-tier work program for inmates and people serving probation with community service requirements.
The work programs are a key component in the sheriff’s ambition to reduce the jail population and put off having to build a new jail as long as possible.
With Coy’s work programs in place, the daily jail population has dropped from 80 or 90 a year or two ago to 60 or 65. The weekend jail count now is generally in the 70s after averaging 100 two years ago.
Coy’s presence allows Smith to hold more convicts accountable while at the same time lowering the jail population.
“It’s gotten people out of our jail and it’s gotten additional labor for the county,” Smith said.
Coy launched a labor in lieu of confinement program in September 1998 where non-violent convicts can work off one day of their jail sentence with every 10 hours of work they do.
Thirteen convicts stayed out of jail by working but two people were sent back to jail. Insubordination, showing disrespect for an employer, not getting work done and being late to work puts the person back behind bars.
“I arrested one guy because he was 15 minutes late,” Coy said.
But convicts that follow the rules in the labor in lieu program can live normal home lives while working off their sentence.
Four months ago, Cox started a community service work program for convicts on probation living in the community. Before, a sentence to community service was the equivalent of getting off with no punishment.
“There were thousands of hours of community service that were never done because there was nobody to supervise,” Smith said.
Now, if a person with probation doesn’t report to Coy within five days of sentence, it’s a trip to jail. And if the person doesn’t fulfill the terms of probation, it’s a trip to jail.
Coy said about 20 percent of convicts on probation fail the terms of probation.
Page said community service is a deal for those convicted of paper crimes like bad checks, credit card fraud or misdemeanor DUI.
“With community service, we put the cream of the crop back on the street,” Page said. “They don’t need to be in jail.”
The third work program involves inmates with trustee status. Trustees do jail duties like take out the trash, make coffee and cook and some work at county facilities like the libraries, senior centers and the irrigation department.
Each Wednesday, a trustee mows the lawn at the Sheriff’s Department. Before Coy arrived, a county public works employee mowed lawns.
Sheriff Sid Smith now has a jail with a tough reputation but his primary goal was to run the jail more efficiently. The black-and-white uniforms were a cost-saving measure.
“We were paying $20,000 a year for laundry service and to rent uniforms,” Smith said. “So we bought uniforms and a washer and dryer and the inmates do the laundry. We were one of the first jails in the country to go back to black-and-white.”