The bright white, two-story building at 230 West Cherry, in Nevada, is still pretty impressive -- on the outside.
It was built, in the early 20th century, when Nevada's old U.S. Post Office found itself swamped by the suddenly overwhelming correspondence between the newly-world-famous Weltmer Clinic, a couple of blocks away, and the physically afflicted but hopeful souls suffering all over the country.
Even now, in its current role as the Vernon County Sheriff's Office, the old place has ghosts of its former dignity. Sections of the first floor front, for instance, sport faintly colorful little marble slabs, while the metal banister between floors is pleasantly ornate without being gaudy. Even the trim around the doors is as elegant as Monticello (well, almost!), if Jefferson had let the place go completely to seed, a couple of centuries ago.
Lord knows, the current staff, helpful, courteous, uncomplaining, and few, make the most of a very grim and steeply worsening condition.
Currently, the Sheriff's Office gives deputies a uniform and a badge (Gee whiz!), but deputies need to provide their own guns and safety equipment! Yep, we need to raise the deputies‚ salaries above the food stamp eligibility level, lest we deprive them of their self-respect, which no employer has the right to do. Consequently, one of the adjectives to adequately describe the number of Vernon County's underpaid deputies is "few," as in, "There is only one person left in the whole building, on Tuesday night, the dispatcher -- plus all the prisoners, of course."
Today, do what the staff may, the visitor's first, and lingering, impression of the Sheriff's Office, is one of severe and dangerous constriction, for women prisoners a bit more than men. People and cardboard cartons, the latter piled high, are, as the Brits put it, uncomfortably "cheek by jowl." With as many as 45 to 48 prisoners daily -- and that's not a rarity -- our jail's current "capacity" for prisoners is only 26. So, with cartons of food and other supplies neatly jamming the passageways and every available space -- making for very iffy safety -- and nearly every other useable space from floor to ceiling, it doesn't take much to imagine numerous inadvertent infringements of state and federal laws governing minimum acceptable living space and conditions for prisoners. The building is a severe accident just waiting to happen.
The building's severely cramped and dangerously deteriorating conditions inside -- 1) peeling paint (lead-based, perhaps?), for example; 2) a mere "suspect" incarcerated in the same cell with a violent criminal; or even 3) water leaking from the defective roof that may compromise a prisoner's crucial and fragile evidence below -- all these, in addition to 4) the ever-present problem of mold -- jeopardize the safety of staff, prisoners, visitors, and equipment alike.
Consequently, according to reporter Crystal D. Hancock, in a current Nevada Daily Mail set of articles, "jailers have no barrier or separation from the cells confining the prisoners. Most escapes that have taken place have been in an area where a jailer has no barricade to be protected by. Jailers have been attacked and even injured resulting in prisoner breakouts."
Sheriff Ron Peckman and his staff need more space for a kitchen large enough to allow safe meal-preparation, and this includes a commercial dishwasher.
They need more free and unemcumbered space for private interviews, and the inevitable deputy paperwork.
And, now that we're on the subject of space, how about a room or two for long-term prisoners who need counseling services, or those who wish to earn their GEDs?
If our picture of small-town prison life has been shaped by the harmless 1960s TV antics of Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show," then maybe we'd better wake up to the bleak and drug-born-dangerous reality of the 21st century here in Nevada and elsewhere in rural Missouri, where it's just as bleak and dangerous. Human lives are, and will be, at stake here in our town.
You may be tempted to react to these cries for help by thinking, "Well, it serves the prisoner right. I stuck to the straight and narrow all my life, so why shouldn't he/she?"
Well, maybe our humanitarian instincts take a brief but very deep nap whenever the subject of prisoners comes to the surface. (especially since the subject of taxes is never far behind.) In the end, however, a human being is a human being, the law is the law, and if our jail is breaking the law, all of us will eventually be brought to account for it.
Sheriff Peckman reports that 90 percent of Nevada's prisoners are here for drug-related offences. What happens when a violent prisoner decides it's time to act up, and can't resist the temptation in such a funky, easy-to-flaunt jail? How long will our luck last?
We need a new and larger jail, with the new and advanced technology that is normal in today's jails, and it does no good to simply ignore our need or look at it as someone else's responsibility. We've done that for years. The world of penal technology and standards has advanced tremendously since Jesse James was among us.
Now, it's high time for us to face the music and vote "YES" on April 3.