There was a loud metallic clank and the door to cell block A opens.
Inmates, dressed head to toe in orange, except for their white socks, exited their cells and turned their attention to the open door.
A young inmate entered, holding a stack of trays, emitting an aroma of cooked ham and vegetables, with a Cortland County, N.Y., correction officer close behind.
The cell was quiet. Inmates on the top floor stood still either by their cell or at the nearby community table while the young inmate handed a tray of food to each of them.
When the young inmate and officer went to the cell’s bottom floor, all correction officers in the area watched with anticipation. There were no issues, though. The young inmate finished handing out the trays and exited the cell block to move on to the next.
One correction officer walking by asked, “did he throw it?”
“Not today, or at least not yet,” another answered.
“We have one guy in A block who if he doesn’t like his food will throw his tray,” said Sgt. Rob Ganoung, a supervisor in the jail.
The national debate on how to solve overcrowding in rural jails has usually focused on bail reform and more pretrial services. But a key factor is also the added pressure placed on jail employees.
In many communities, staffing has barely kept up with the demand.
Jail numbers in Cortland County began to spike in 2013. There was a 50 percent increase in the length of time people stayed in the jail and a 37 percent increase in the jail census.
Since 2013, 19 percent of total bookings were people who stayed one to seven days in jail. That was the same total booking percentage for those who stayed 31 days or more.
Officers are constantly tasked dealing with inmate personalities and needs, trying to accommodate space for them –– especially when those personalities don’t mesh –– which can be hectic as the jail was built to hold 57, but averages about 90 inmates a day. Most of an officer’s time can be spent on the road boarding inmates out, or taking them to court.
They must deal with inmates with mental-health problems and addiction. The courts have made a concerted effort to release without bail people accused of lesser crimes, so those who remain face serious charges, sometimes of violent crimes.
Many are convicts accused of parole violations awaiting disposition.
“It’s a day-to-day job,” Correction Officer Sean Ward said. “It could be quiet, then all hell breaks loose.”
It’s a profession Ward and Ganoung said they entered because they wanted a job in law enforcement.
Life in the jail is usually quiet, Ward said. But something different is always going on for correction officers.
Inmates are on a daily routine. Breakfast. Recreation time. Down time. Lunch. Dinner. Programs and court hearings mixed within.
While the duties of correction officers follow that routine, an officer’s individual tasks can vary from day to day.
They could be stationed to monitor a cell block, or monitor the cameras, which cover about every angle of the jail, in the sally port. The officer who monitors the cameras also controls the panel to unlock any door in the facility.
They could also have to transport inmates to a court hearing, another jail or rehabilitation center.
In a matter of a couple of hours last Wednesday, two groups of inmates were brought to and from court.
When inmates return from court, officers need keep each inmate’s paper work in order, looking at their charges, sentencing and bail to see if anything changed from the court hearing. Then put all that information into the jail’s system.
It can get hectic, Ganoung said. Especially when the jail’s population rises and inmates have to be boarded out, too.
It’s the supervisor’s job to keep track of which inmates have to go and make sure officers are available to do so.
“The work load triples,” he said.
In June, there were 108 inmates in the jail, Ward, said. Every morning, officers were going to different counties to pick up inmates. He said he’s spent a whole day just driving inmates back and forth from jail.
The Sheriff’s Office is still looking for seven corrections officers, jail Capt. Nick Lynch said.
“It makes it a little more hectic being down officers,” Ganoung said.
An officer scheduled for one shift could have to pick up another one and end up working a 16-hour day.
Driving inmates around takes up most of at least two officers’ time, as they travel in pairs.
Part of the problem is the rise in opioid use.
When Ward started working as a correction officer 3 1/2 years ago, he said it was mind-blowing to see the amount of drug activity in Cortland.
Some inmates will try to sneak drugs into the jail in parts of their body where officers wouldn’t be able to find them, Ganoung said.
“There’s always something to look out for,” he said.
When inmates come into the jail, they’re forced to get sober, and then mental-health issues arise because the drugs no longer mask them, Ganoung said. He and Ward stated one of the most challenging aspects of the job is dealing with inmates who have a mental-health issue.
Those inmates are some of the hardest to deal with because there’s no knowing what’s going on or what the issue is, Ward said.
Almost every inmate that comes into the county jail has some kind of underlying mental health issue, said Chris Cushing, the forensic mental health counselor in the jail.
All the staff in the jail is trained in lower-level mental health issues, Undersheriff Budd Rigg said.
“One day you’re a correction officer, then the next day you’re trying to mentor them (inmates), giving them life goals,” Ward said.
Some inmates promise they’ll never get in trouble again, and don’t return, Ward said. But there are some inmates officers know will be back.
One inmate currently in the jail has been booked 45 to 48 times in the past 10 years, he said.
For the most part, the inmates are respectful to the correction officers once they get to know them, Ward said, but may give new officers a hard time.
Inmates rarely fight, he said, only one he’s seen in his 3 1/2 years with the sheriff’s office. Most fights are over what channel to watch on the television, he said.
Some inmates have stuffed their clothes in their toilet and flooded their cell, Ward said. The dangerous part about that is an officer must go into the cell to turn the water off.
Ward said he’s never been concerned about coming to work. “You know what you’re getting yourself into,” he said.
Officers’ main goal is to help inmates so they don’t return to jail.
There are several programs in the jail for inmates to go to, such as peer services and health services.
But not all go, Ward said. Even when they should, but they can’t be required to.
The exception is inmates who lack a high school diploma; they must take general equivalency diploma classes in the jail. Several have left the jail with a GED. It’s one thing inmates do like going to, Ganoung said.
More organizations would like to provide services at the jail, but the facility lacks space. As the jail population increased over time, rooms that use to be used for programs turned into housing.
For now, Ganoung said they make do with what they have.
While days in the jail can be quiet, officers are always busy.
“There’s always stuff to do,” Ward said. “You’re always wondering what’s going to happen next.”
It could be a fight in the dorm, or an inmate throwing their tray and food. “You know it’s not always a repetitive day,” he said.
Nicholas Graziano, a staff writer for The Cortland Standard, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is the final story in a five-part series looking at jail overcrowding. The full series is available here.