‘Jailhouse blues’ no more?

Jail Escape
File Photo
The Union County Jail has had its fair share of problems in the last few years, but the new warden, in place since 2009, has taken significant steps to correct the problems.

UNION COUNTY — Certainly Union County Jail Director Brian Riordan knew he had a big job ahead of him when he came aboard in 2008. But this former Riker’s Island warden is no stranger to hard work. Nor is he to understanding that getting back to basics often is the answer to solving problems at a correctional facility.

Over the last six years his efforts, the expertise of consulting firm Luminosity and a staff that had to be guided “back to basics,” enabled the problem-plagued county facility to make a turn back in the right direction. Still, there are miles to go and this correctional facility director would be the first to admit it.

In 2008 the county jail had “an air of disfunction,” Riordan said last week in an interview with LocalSource. Without hesitating the director of the county jail that houses close to a thousand inmates admitted that jail employees previously were lax at their jobs and prisoners took advantage of that situation.

At the end of 2007 county officials knew something had to give at the jail after two prisoners made a daring jail break right under the noses of correctional officers who were supposed to be guarding the facility.

What followed was a shakeup that saw director Frank Crose removed from his post and former New Jersey State Prison Warden Gary Hilton brought in to take over the helm and overhaul the facility. Crose’s assistant, James Dougherty, was also pushed out of his $113,303 a year job to make room for Hilton’s company, Paige Plus, a correctional service and consulting company, who took over until a permanent director could be found. But the task ahead was not an easy one. And that is when Riordan came in to provide correctional facility leadership that only a former Riker’s Island warden could provide.

Few understood how two prisoners managed to spend weeks boring through cement walls, break free, leap over 30-feet of razor wire and make an escape. But past problems at the jail were evidence that the inmates were running the jail, not correctional officers, and Riordan faced an uphill battle.

In 2008, a corrections officer, maintenance worker and four inmates were indicted for running a contraband ring that involved smuggling cigarettes, loose tobacco and cell phones to inmates. The 19-month indictment came just three months after the dramatic escape of the two previous inmates.

In June 2009 there was another incident when an inmate stabbed a corrections officer in the neck with a sharpened pencil. Two corrections officers were injured during that uprising. In August of that same year the county jail was put on lockdown following brawls between inmates which caused a near riot.

A month later, a 41-year-old corrections officer with 16 years seniority fatally shot himself with a handgun inside his vehicle parked down the street from the county jail.

In 2010, an inmate bolted from the county jail while taking out the trash, but he ended up being caught and doing another three years. In March of the same year another correctional officer was found not guilty of breaking an inmates jaw.

In January 2012, two county correctional officers were under investigation after a pair of inmates escaped from a jail cell Thanksgiving night and roamed freely throughout the detention area while chatting with other prisoners. Jail security cameras captured the incident and two officers were accused of sleeping on the job.

Riordan is aware of the downside of the correctional system he oversees and openly discussed the problems he faces as director.
“It is a battle against complacency,” he said, adding that his job for the last six years has been to retrain correctional officers.

“I tell them they have to change it up. Prisoners watch what they do. They know that at 10 p.m. correctional officers will get up, go up the hall, turn right and make rounds,” said Riordan. “They can’t do things the same way all the time. I tell them walk upstairs instead of downstairs, don’t create a habit that prisoners can rely on.”

“We had to rebuild and reinvigorate our staff so they were aware that general vigilance is important, critical,” the director said.
Riordan explained that “getting back to the basics” by being “observant, vigilant and consistent” was one of the ways to improve things. Still, as director, he said he cannot discount the impact being in a correctional facility has on prisoners.

“The reality is some of these men and women will never enter society again, while others are in here for lighter offenses, will serve their time, go home and never break the law again,” Riordan said.

Part of the equation, he explained, is getting prisoners through “the system,” and much of that is out of Riordan’s hands. That is where the consulting firm Luminosity came in to help this director move prisoners through a system that is notorious for moving slowly.
“We’re a piece of the puzzle,” the director said, adding it was immediately apparent to him six years ago it was taking longer to process inmates through the court system.

Finding a solution to that problem, though, was not easy. In 2011 when Luminosity entered the picture to provide a closer look at why there were high overtime costs, a growing inmate population and problems with moving prisoners through the judicial system.
So the county paid the consulting firm $158,000 to use a computer software program that analyzed exactly where the problems were so prisoners could move faster through “the system.”

Luminosity found that while the numbers of prisoners sent to the jail had dropped by 23 percent since 2005, the daily population numbers remained about the same. This, Riordan explained, was in part due to the fact that the average length of stay increased from 46 days in 2005 to more than 55 days in 2010. That, he added, had to be addressed.

Riordan said a number of factors play into how long the average inmate stays at the county jail, including court backlogs, judge shortages and high bail amounts.

Luminosity’s goal was to identify opportunities to improve efficiency at the jail and find effective strategies to reduce unnecessary detention while maintaining public safety and the integrity of the judicial system; a large order for a county correctional facility with close to 1,000 prisoners on an average day.

Riordan has nothing but praise for Luminosity, who spent 2012 working with his staff and officials to figure out how to solve this problem.
One of the key components of this effort was JPAW, or Jail Population Analysis Wizzard. This program took all prisoner data and compartmentalized it so officials could understand what the slowup was and how to resolve it.

“What JPAW did was paint a picture and tell us how many inmates were in jail and for what offense,” said the director, noting that with this information they were able to get on top of why prisoners were spending so much time at the county jail.

“The thing is every prisoner case is different. We will have someone come in who fails to pay a traffic fine and a warrant went out for their arrest, another for not paying child support and then, of course, there are those inmates here for more serious offenses such as murder or kidnapping,” Riordan said.

In 2005, 8,726 prisoners came through the jail. Of that number, some went home and others stayed for years. That number went down in 2011 to 6,169, but the average daily population of 1,017 stayed about the same as it was in 2005. That alone set off a warning bell for Riordan.
“You would hope that the average daily population would have dropped if the annual number dropped, but it didn’t,” Riordan explained.
“Part of the equation is a lack of judges because you need men and women in robes to reduce the caseload,” he said, adding that while every prisoner has a destination, each one has to work their way through the criminal justice system.
How fast that process goes for each prisoner depends on a host of variables.

Luminosity’s computerized information helped Riordan and other officials prioritize exactly how to best utilize the judicial system so prisoners did not stagnate in jail longer than necessary.

“It doesn’t help me as much as it helps the courts,” he said, explaining that if there are ten judges available to hear cases, Luminosity was able to help figure out the best way to utilize these judges in the most efficient manner.

“Do I send three murder cases to court that might take months to complete or do I allow 30 defendants with lesser charges to have their cases heard?” he asked, adding that with the information Luminosity provided they now know what prisoner is at the county jail on what charges, how long they have been there and how to best move them through the system.

“Luminosity gave us the capacity to see all this,” Riordan said, adding that this enabled them to put together a Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

The CJCC involves “all the stakeholders,” the director explained, including prosecutor office staff, judges and jail officials.
“Since we started sharing data the number of average daily prisoners dropped from 1,117 in 2011 to 898 in 2012,” Riordan said, but he noted that considering the needs of prisoners and their families should always be a part of the picture.

“I’m working diligently to bring a video component to the jail which will enable the families of prisoners to interact with their loved ones right from their homes,” Riordan said, explaining this would eliminate family members and their children from standing outside waiting for visiting hours.
“This would let them interact more with their families, which would be beneficial,” he added.

The cost of such a venture would run $6 for 20 minutes but while this feature is similar to “Skype,” Riordan explained that families of prisoners would have to be “vetted,” or cleared, in order to use this type of interaction.

Certainly such a venture would require equipment, but the director said there is revenue to support bringing this type of technology to the jail.
With 20 years experience in the criminal justice system, Riordan is a professional who knows “the system.” But he is not so jaded by the environment of a correctional facility that he forgets he plays a pivotal role on the criminal justice ladder.

“There are very few jobs in the world that you have more influence on a large number of people,” he said.
“You’re only as good as your last performance,” Riordan said, adding that not a day goes by that he forgets this important component to being the director of a correctional facility.