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Local Column

Olson: An 'old farmer' prefers a tougher jail

From time to time, I get calls from a self-described “old farmer from Kirkland” named Wilbur Watson, who likes to talk about the news.

Wilbur’s life experience is longer than and different from my own, which gives him a different perspective on things – and I like to talk about current events with people who see things differently than I do.

On Thursday, however, Wilbur wasn’t terribly happy with me. He didn’t like the picture we’d run with the story on the expansion of the DeKalb County jail on page 3 of that day’s edition.

If you missed it, Photo Editor Mark Busch’s shot depicted five jail inmates in khaki prisoner uniforms around a steel table, laughing and playing dominoes.

The prisoners talked about how the food was better in the new jail, there was more natural light, and one said “there are a lot of days where we don’t feel like inmates.”

That’s not what jail should be like, Wilbur told me. Jail should make you feel every bit an inmate. It should be austere, regrettable. A place with cement slabs to sleep on, hot in the summer, chilly in the winter. Something on the order of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s now dismantled “tent city jail” in Phoenix.

If the inmates are going to have free room and board on the taxpayers, they ought to be out working for the public to pay for it. If you can’t follow society’s rules, you’re going to submit to society’s will.

I get his point. We don’t want to think of people in jail accused or convicted of heinous crimes having a laugh in the day room.

The public has little desire to spend money on jails and prisons. DeKalb County voters refused to pay more in taxes for this jail expansion – so the county’s repaying the $33 million it borrowed to do it by allowing Waste Management to build a mountain of trash near Cortland Elementary School.

But once we put somebody behind bars, they’re the public’s responsibility. We can’t knowingly allow them to be harmed.

Sheriff’s deputies work at the jail, too. Keeping inmates uncomfortable and agitated makes their jobs more dangerous. They’d rather oversee the happy, smiling inmates in Thursday’s photo.

I agree with Wilbur’s point – jail should not be pleasant. But losing your freedom, while pondering the prospect of prison and how long you might spend there, seems unpleasant enough, no matter how good the food is or how wide the skylights are.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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