Memphis Jail Reform May End Federal Oversight


Shelby County, Tn., has made “tremendous progress” reforming one of the nation’s most dangerous jails, U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla said yesterday, reports the Memphis Commercial Appeal. McCalla hinted strongly that he soon may end federal oversight, a burden to county taxpayers for years. By the time the jail opened in 1981 and was billed the “Glamor Slammer,” the county’s lockup had been the subject of federal scrutiny as a cruel and unusual place. Lawsuits detailed a culture where beatings, rapes, and gang control were the norm.

McCalla ruled in 2000 that county officials were in contempt of court for failing to stop the violence. Chuck Fisher, a court-appointed expert, says that “the level of violence is now very low, and gang control non-existent.” The key to success was reducing the population by speeding up bookings and releases and working with attorneys to push cases through the system. Specialized units — a gang unit, an investigative bureau for crimes in the jail, and a quick response team to quell disturbances — reassure inmates and jailers that they’ll be protected. Before 2001, gangs ran the pods, arranged gladiator-style fights, and dictated who could use telephones. “The gangs were much more organized than the staff,” Fisher said.


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