The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Jess Macinko
News Editor 

Welcome to jail

 

Jess Macinko

PROS WITH CONS: Robert Bianchi stands in the hallway leading to the Klickitat County Jail cells, with the door to one open in front of him.

On Dec. 26, 2014, an inmate at the Klickitat County jail assaulted a corrections officer. Patrolman Robert Bianchi investigated the attack. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed chief civil/jail deputy. The incident made a lasting impression on him.

"The big enemies in law enforcement are complacency and distraction," he says, speaking of security precautions he's introduced. Now, every shift must have a minimum staff of three, with a designated officer in charge. There is also a security committee to keep an eye out for weak points.

The jail, a 49-bed facility, occupies the basement of the Klickitat County Courthouse. Bianchi took on the administrative role two years ago, under then newly elected Sherriff Bob Songer. Last Tuesday, The Sentinel toured the jail for the first time since the change in management.

The new administration espouses a shift in corrections philosophy, placing dual emphasis on security and the welfare of inmates and employees alike. Much of the time, Bianchi says, tension can be reduced or eliminated simply by treating the inmates fairly and without rancor.

"If there's a person who's late to visit [an inmate], we're going to let them visit. You're conveying that you're just doing your job. There's nothing personal."

Bianchi, who's had a long and varied career in law enforcement, is now on conversational terms with inmates he used to chase on the outside. But he also acknowledges the inherent strain of the work, and the importance of reducing negativity for employees' sake.

"Mother Theresa wouldn't have the patience for this job. You have to treat [inmates] with respect and decency, knowing the things they've done. [On the other hand], you're looking at human beings in cages. It can be emotionally draining. [The officers] do an incredible duty."

Mental health

Bianchi estimates 15 percent of the jail population have mental health issues. "A lot of the time, the problem is they don't like their meds and stop taking them. Most of them are running afoul of the law in pretty small ways." Trespassing is a common offense. Often, subjects simply don't know where they are.

Bianchi sees the jail's role as a support system. "The goal is to not lump ordinary criminals and people with mental illness together," but to identify and properly address the latter. Goldendale's small size is an asset in this regard: officers see the same faces and get to know which residents have mental illness.

Another issue is that people with mental illness may self-medicate with street drugs. In those cases, the jail acts as a holding area, allowing the drugs to wear off so subjects can be evaluated and potentially transferred to Comprehensive Mental Health or the state hospital.

Providing for inmate's medical and mental health needs is a priority for the jail. "Our goal is to never have anyone deteriorate while they're here," Bianchi says. Counselors from CMH visit the jail twice a week to see and assess inmates. The jail also has a physician's assistant on call. All officers are trained to distribute medication, which occurs three times daily.

Getting out

The control room, which Songer calls "the nerve center of the jail," looks out over two floors of cell-blocks. Cameras allow the control-room officer to monitor cells, hallways and other areas of the jail, and to unlock doors remotely. This "indirect system" means inmates don't need constant escorts.

On the day of the tour, Deputy Randy Wells is running control room. Wells, a patrol officer, is manning the post while recuperating from a knee injury.

As Wells and Bianchi watch the inmates, they talk about recidivism. During his time at the jail, Bianchi's seen a lot of the same faces show up again and again. At some point, he says, it's up to the individual to decide, "I don't want to be a criminal anymore." He points out a few inmates he notices maturing. "You can see it. He's like, 'Alright, this isn't fun anymore.'"

Jess Macinko

PROS WITH CONS: Officer Randy Wells stands in the control room with its monitors surveying activities throughout the facility. The two levels of the jail are visible in the window behind him.

At present, Goldendale doesn't have much of an outreach system to get people released from jail back on their feet. Bianchi says it would be nice to have transitional resources, say a work-release program across the street, but for the time being it's just an idea. The jail does partner with Adult Probation to set up outside work for qualifying inmates. And there are jobs within the jail itself: the kitchen and laundry are run by inmates.

In the future, Bianchi would like to see the jail partner with the Fort Vancouver Library System, which offers GED programs, and the Columbia Gorge Community College, which offers free online classes.

"This is jail [as opposed to prison], so they aren't in here that long. But we'd like to have them do more with their time than just sit."

 

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