Spring 2008 Issue

Jailhouse guru

As the Brevard County Jail’s first female commander, Susan Jeter is showing that innovation and compassion equal big savings

By Rebecca Wakefield

Twenty-two years ago, if someone had asked Brevard County Jail Commander Susan Jeter, how long she planned to work in corrections, she would have said maybe a year. A former U.S. Army medic, Jeter thought she’d go back to school and move into nursing or a related field.

Two decades later, Jeter is Brevard’s first female jail commander. In just under three years at the helm, she (under the aegis of Brevard County Sheriff Jack Parker) has ushered in a plethora of reforms and inmate work programs that are beginning to make Brevard one of the most innovative jails in the state.

What kept Jeter, a Distinguished Alumni Award recipient from the School of Adult and Continuing Education, in corrections is, oddly enough, the people she meets in jail. “I came in here and said, ‘Well, this is fascinating,’” she recalls. “If you like to study people, this is a city in itself. You have your good citizens, your bad citizens, the mentally ill. You have every type of make of the human being. The psychology of it is why I stayed in this field.”

A more humane way

Psychology is important in Jeter’s line of work. Brevard’s jail houses at any given time close to 2000 inmates, about twice what it was built to contain. The overcrowding, chronic for years, got so bad that it was cited as a factor in a spate of several suicides over a few months in 2004. The bad press led to the election of reform-minded Parker.

Jeter, a 51-year-old former major with a management style both low-key and no-nonsense, was promoted in early 2005. Brevard County also approved funds for expanded facilities and staffing. First a series of military-style tent barracks were erected on jail grounds to ease crowding in the main facilities. The four tents are high-tech, with Kevlar walls and a concrete base, and able to house 100 low-risk inmates each.

A new medical and mental health facility is also being built to house about 288 inmates with special needs. Currently, inmates with mental health issues are locked up in special “bubble” cells inside the maximum security areas so they can be closely monitored. “These used to be an outer atrium for walking around,” Jeter explains. “We’ve had to put six people in there, mattress to mattress. We’ve had as many as ten in one room. In the new building they will have a room with a bathroom and a recreation area. It’s a more humane way.”

The maximum security population, which ranges from 200 to 300 individuals, is crammed into the remaining space. In some cell blocks, the cells are so full that sleeping cots are arrayed across the common area, where inmates eat and watch TV.

In addition, the women’s detention building is being extensively renovated and updated. In all cases, much of the work is being done by the inmates themselves, part of new programs that have been hailed both for saving taxpayer expense and providing inmates with job skills they can use once released.

All of this is a lot to manage, along with the inmates, a staff of newly unionized officers and civilian personnel totaling about 480 people, and a budget around $39 million. “This is like a family,” she says. “It’s a big, family.” That’s why Jeter typically arrives at the jail at 6 a.m., just so she can spend an hour making her rounds. Jeter says that since she spent her entire career in the department, when she was offered the chance to run it, she had very definite ideas about what she wanted to change.

One of those things was that the commander needed to spend a little less time holed up in the office and more time talking to jail personnel. As she walks, she calls out to everyone, offering little quips and giving people the opportunity to casually let her know what’s going on in their corner of the institution. Jeter also worked to replace old equipment, such as computers, guns, vests, tasers, and an antiquated inmate tracking system.

Maximum savings

On a tour of the jail complex, many areas hardly seem more like a factory than a prison. Minimum security inmates in black and white striped uniforms work alongside contractors in the dusty shell of the women’s annex. Sam Stanton, the project manager for the jail’s many construction projects, has been instrumental, along with Jeter and Parker, in using inmate labor.

“We started to use basic inmate labor,” he says. “To our surprise, we have quite a talented bunch of people in here. Several of them can weld. They’ve worked stride for stride with the stucco guys. If you don’t see the stripes, you can’t tell [which men are inmates].”

Stanton is a big man with a deep, easy laugh. He was also Jeter’s instructor in an administration course at Barry University’s Melbourne campus. Jeter received a Bachelor of Science in Professional Administration from Barry in 2004. Stanton, who emphasizes practical application in all the courses he teaches as an adjunct at Barry, has enthusiastically embraced the inmate work programs.

In fact, he is trying to get maximum benefit out of the concept, by starting a training program that will allow qualified inmates to be certified as construction technicians. He’s talking to local businesses about bringing in men to teach additional skills, and about possibly employing some of the inmates once they leave. “We’ve saved well over $100,000 using inmate labor here,” Stanton says, pointing to the annex. “But one of the things about this is we don’t want them to come back.”

“Maximum security is maximum security,” adds Jeter. “They need to be there. But there are people like you and me in here who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and we don’t want them to end up like those in maximum security. We want to give them a way not to come back.”

The maximum security wing, which houses the most violent inmates, shows just how different the jail experience can be. It resembles a Cold War-era mission control that would not be out of place in “Dr. Strangelove.” The control room, which perches a floor above the cell blocks, is nearly dark, lit mostly by red and green lights on the ancient control panels. Adding to the Star Wars feel, the room is basically a walkway around a square funnel with stairs that open into the controlled section of the inmate level. From here you can see what’s going on in several blocks, as maximum security inmates in orange uniforms mill around the common areas, and in the bubbles, mentally ill inmates in green tear-away uniforms rest on mattresses on the floor.

“When it first opened, you felt you were walking into ‘Star Trek,’” Jeter laughs. “It felt modern. Now it feels the opposite.”

She continues, pointing out the dangers of overcrowding in the cell blocks. Each block was originally designed for 16 inmates. With double bunking, the jail packed 32 people in each block. Soon, even that wasn’t enough. “There’s probably 70 inmates in each now,” Jeter says. “There are inmate fights almost daily. In a unit [composed of six cell blocks], you might have 400 inmates and maybe three officers. We used to be able to lock them down, but because we’re overcrowded we now have to say in many cases, ‘Hey would you please go sit on your bunks for the rest of the night.’ A lot of this will be fixed with the renovations.”

Paws and Stripes

Most of the jail is comprised of minimum security inmates and here is where Jeter and her staff have made the most innovative strides. Besides using inmates as construction crews, they have implemented several programs designed to benefit both inmates and taxpayers. Sheriff Parker has said the various labor programs have saved the county nearly $10 million.

Most people envision “Cool Hand Luke” style road crews, clearing ditches and breaking rocks while plotting their escape from the chain gang. But Brevard’s inmates do more than clear roads and waterways of trash, or paint over graffiti.

They cook their own food, sew uniforms and bed sheets, and work in the laundry. They also sort recyclables at the landfill and use the profits to refurbish bicycles for underprivileged children. They grow plants suitable for landscaping county buildings and also do the installation and maintenance of the landscaping.

One of the most popular programs is Paws and Stripes. Inmates learn to train shelter dogs in basic obedience for eight weeks. The dogs are then certified as trained and sent back to the shelter for adoption. The inmates also receive certification as a dog handler, and learn pet first aid.

The dogs selected are usually those with behavioral issues that are hardest to adopt. But with training, they all get adopted. Two former inmates also found jobs with kennels after their release.

The sewing program is fairly new and involves training willing inmates on industrial quality machines. Mostly the women do the sewing, but occasionally some men express an interest. In a workshop next to the dog kennel, they cut the heavy gabardine material used for the uniforms, and then sew stacks of shirts and pants. Just switching from buying uniforms to making them has saved about $33,000. They also make sheets.

Pam Rogers, who oversees the program, says they will soon start making mattresses as well. One inmate, Melissa Martin, says she would much rather be in the workshop making clothes than sitting bored in her cell. “I learned how to sew in the program,” she says. “When I get home, I’d like to make something for my kids.”

Inmates also are able to take the GED test and driver’s license test while at the jail. There are programs for drug abuse and domestic violence, and group therapy. Jeter has also empowered the rank and file officers to become cellside psychologists, talking to inmates constantly to head off any issues before there’s a suicide attempt. She credits that approach with reducing the suicide attempt rate by more than 95 percent.

Rusty Haese, the jail’s budget guru, says Jeter’s style has produced a real change in the emotional environment of the jail. “It’s amazing how just treating the inmates like people and not like a bunch of animals makes such a difference,” the 19-year veteran of the facility remarks. “That’s what Susan conveys to them so well – the inmates and the officers. They respond to it.”

The Humor Defense

Another program that has made a big difference is crisis intervention training for the officers. The training gives officers a set of rhetorical tools to defuse a situation, generally involving a mentally ill or emotionally disturbed inmate. The aim is to reduce the shootings and injuries that can occur when an officer doesn’t know what else to do to control a crisis situation.

Jeter is especially sensitive to the value of such training because she has a family member who suffers from a mental illness. She has also seen too many preventable tragedies while working as a medic for the Sheriff’s SWAT team.

“You see people in that situation forced into, in their mind, I have to kill myself or have them kill me,” she recalls. “What I tell people is, you’re not being soft. You’re just using some good common sense, if you can achieve the same result without force. We’re trying to emphasize that word correction -- correct the behavior.”

As of the end of the year, about 25 percent of the officers had been through the training, which probably saved the life of one female inmate who tried to steal a truck and ram her way out of jail. CIT trained officers were able to resolve the situation without shooting her.

Jeter says her management style is based on the principal of engagement rather than unnecessary confrontation. As a female in a male-dominated profession, she says often women have advantages over male counterparts in dealing with inmates. Women tend to be more discerning and adaptable, and the male inmates view them differently. “The inmates don’t feel as territorial and challenged,” she muses. “Women with kids do especially well, because the inmates are like their kids. I use humor to defuse situations.”

The guy or girl next door

For Jeter, the complexity of human interactions in an unnatural environment such as a jail is always interesting. She enjoys watching the ingenuity of the inmates in their endless psychological warfare with each other and the officers. They never cease to amaze her.

“The really bad ones are the most fascinating to me,” she says. “You think you can identify the bad guy, and often it’s the guy or girl next door, cordial and charming, who is the worst one.”

Jeter opens a display case filled with homemade weapons and other devices made by inmates from the most unlikely materials. Besides numerous types of stabbing devices, there are nunchucks made of a shoe lace and tightly rolled magazines, a war mace, drug pipes, a pair of dice made of tape, cloth crosses made out of socks, and an incredibly detailed cribbage game made out of a shower sandal.

In Jeter’s office, besides the jail-commander style keys she hangs on the wall for decoration, and various Barry University paraphernalia, she keeps two of her favorite inmate confiscations. One is a realistic toy gun made with a potato chip bag, tar out of a window frame, and plastic wrap off a sandwich. The other is a wonderful doll carved out of blue institution soap, with toilet paper ruffles on the dress. The doll looks as though it were made by the Spanish porcelain company Lladró.

“You look at this and think, ‘Wow, if only they would apply this to their lives, imagine what they could do,’” Jeter says.