Voices of Authority: How Brazos County Keeps Headcount Down and Good Behavior Up

Voices of Authority: How Brazos County Keeps Headcount Down and Good Behavior Up

In this series, Greg Eash, a 25-year veteran correctional officer specializing in classification and inmate behavior management, sits down with corrections experts who are making a difference in their communities to learn about their successes, challenges, and what’s next for their jail.

Greg: I’m here with Wayne Dickey, jail administrator at the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office in Bryan Texas. Wayne started with the Sheriff’s Office in 1986 as a detention officer, attended the Peace Academy and was promoted to a patrol position, and returned to the jail in 1994. Wayne is a leader in managing inmate behavior, and he’s known for promoting interagency cooperation.

Wayne, tell me about your jail.

Wayne: Thanks for having me, Greg. Our facility has almost 1,100 beds, and we’re housing 644 today. The current headcount is a result of a combination of things. One, I think our county did a really good job with a master plan for our correctional facility that was intended to help us meet the community needs until 2025. And, so, we have some space in anticipation of that growth over those years.

And second, one of the things that has lowered our population is that we have a very active crisis intervention team. We have four deputies that work under the detention part of the sheriff’s office, that go out and serve as crisis intervention officers for people in mental health crisis. Their job has two primary purposes. One is that if a law enforcement officer is about to make an arrest and they suspect that mental illness is involved, one of these crisis intervention deputies can respond and make a decision about whether diversion from jail is an acceptable alternative. And in that case, they may do a peace officer’s emergency commitment or get that person into some other kind of services.

The second responsibility that these officers have is to help people in the community that we know are frequent users of mental health resources, and to follow up with them on a periodic basis to make sure they make it to appointments at our mental health authority, make sure that they’re taking their meds, and do wellness checks so they don’t go into crisis. That reduces the chances that they’re going to get involved with the criminal justice system.

Greg: Two-part question for you, Wayne. First, how often are people diverted from jail? And second, what happens when someone who is mentally ill ends up in jail anyway?

Wayne: We performed about 500 civil commitments—peace officer’s emergency commitments—last year. Not all of those were involved in the criminal justice system; some are individuals who have been identified as being in crisis. It’s not uncommon for us to have 200 or more diversions out of the criminal justice system each year.

And you’re right, we do still have people with mental illnesses in jail. The deputies on our crisis intervention team are used internally as well. We have a mental health authority representative in the jail, and that certainly helps in dealing with issues with mental illness. And when someone’s behavior in custody gets to the point where they’re a danger to themselves or others, those same CIT deputies can help us get them into a facility to get them the help they need.

Greg: I know inmate behavior management is near and dear to your heart. Could you talk a bit about where you started, the implementation process, and where you are today?

Wayne: As part of our county’s master plan, when we were designing the new facility to meet our community needs, we started reconsidering our operational philosophy, and we knew that we wanted to start making a change to direct supervision. We reached out to the National Institute of Corrections and asked them for some training on direct supervision, and it was fortunate for us that they were rewriting the curriculum on direct supervision at that time. We went up to Colorado, and I knew right away that their Inmate Behavior Management program, now called Strategic Inmate Management (SIM), was the way we ought to be running jails.

There are six elements to inmate behavior management.

One is that you have to properly assess for risk and need. The next is that you have to properly assign people to housing. The third is that you have to meet basic needs. Fourth, we have to convey our expectations for behavior. Fifth, we have to provide proactive supervision. And sixth, we need to provide productive activities. So, those six elements together became the basis for how we run our jail.

Let me give you an example. Officers in the past might see an inmate that has covered a vent. It’s a common behavior in the jail—they’ll use various materials to cover vents. And so, under the old philosophy, it would be, “Hey, I’m going to write you a case, or do a disciplinary action on you, because you covered this vent.” And that just gets repeated over and over. The inmate covers the vent, they get written up, and we just keep going in this circle.

But with the SIM approach, you simply say, “Why are you covering the vent?” And, as you might expect, the answer is, “It’s cold.” And, now, we can solve this problem a different way. Now, we can look at either moving that person to a different bunk so they’re not under a vent. We can have maintenance consider maintenance issues, whether the temperature is properly adjusted. Or maybe we just issue a second blanket.

All three of those approaches are permanent solutions to the problem, rather than a temporary one.

“What we’ve seen is a general decline in grievances, a general decline in assaultive behavior, and a decline in criminal mischief.”

Wayne Dickey, Brazos County Jail Administrator

Greg: It’s a good point. At my jail, we were really good at telling them the things they’re doing wrong, but we never really took the time to learn why are they doing that, or to tell them what we expected. I think that’s pretty common around the country in jails.

I’m thinking about inmates hoarding clothing, for example. There’s a pretty simple answer to that: They feel like they don’t get enough clothing, right? So, I think SIM is part of maturing as a jail.

Wayne: Right. We create an artificial value on things. Whether it’s toilet paper, clothing, or towels, the tighter that we control access to those things, the more valuable they become, and then people either will break the rules to get them, or they become a commodity in the facility. If you just make those things readily available, most people will use them like you intend to use them, and the ones that don’t, then you address that behavior, rather than just saying, “Well, if we put towels out they’ll take all the towels.” There might be someone that takes extra towels, but then you address it.

Greg: With SIM, what kinds of effects have you seen at your jail?

Wayne: What we’ve seen is a general decline in grievances, a general decline in assaultive behavior, and a decline in criminal mischief. We’ve also seen a reduction in the level of damage to the facility.

For example, we have a zero tolerance policy on graffiti, and that means that first we tell people we have zero tolerance for graffiti. We actually act on that rule, and if someone does put something on the walls, they’re expected to clean it up, and if it can’t be cleaned up, then we paint it. And the reason is, is because it goes back to the six elements.

One, we convey expectations. Two, we hold them accountable, that if you mess it up, you have to fix it. And three, if we don’t correct it by either having them remove it or by us painting over it, then the fact that it’s there actually creates an indirect expectation that it’s acceptable.

Greg: Right. I was reading about some of the creative things jails have done, especially regarding graffiti. One jail painted a black square on the wall in the cell, and they told the inmates that they could hang anything in that box, as long as it’s in that box. That’s kind of outside-the-box thinking.

Wayne: I’ve heard some pretty creative ideas, too. That’s one of the ways we’re using the NIC’s SIM program, to consider the latest evidence on what’s working in behavior management.

Greg: Wayne, thank you for joining me. Lower headcount because of good community planning and an effective crisis intervention team, and strategic management of the inmates who do end up in your custody—I think we have a lot to learn from Brazos County.

Greg Eash has worked in law enforcement and corrections for over 25 years. After graduating from Vincennes University with a degree in Law Enforcement, Greg worked as a patrolman for a year before joining the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Office in Elkhart, Indiana, in 1995. He attended the Indiana Law Enforcement Jail Academy and steadily rose through the ranks throughout his career, most recently serving as Jail Warden. Greg specializes in classification and inmate disciplinary processes, and he is currently the operations manager over the Supervision & Custody division at equivant.

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