Let me just preface this by saying I knew when I was offered the chance to check out the jail — escorted by three armed men of course (apparently they don’t just let reporters run around in there willy nilly) — that the maximum security wing was going to be both the most interesting and most terrifying section of the tour.
But let’s cut down on the Tarantino effect and instead start from the beginning.
Fun with numbers: As of today, the jail has spent 65.9 percent and 77.6 percent of the budget on building and machinery repairs, respectively. That’s more than $36,000 of the approximately $46,000 budgeted for maintenance. Or, more plainly put, about $10,000 remains for jail maintenance through the end of the year.
In the constant effort to be the intrepid reporter I spent the morning at the jail checking out all the improvements myself. These included a new security camera system, a higher wall surrounding booking and a new kiosk system for the commissary, to name a few.
The innards of the jail aren’t exactly what I would have imagined with a number of inmates who have a much freer existence than I previously thought. Many have access to a law library, GED classes, meeting rooms and a visitation area straight out of a depressing prison flick — complete with phones mounted on opposite sides of a glass window (sporting cracks from what I have to guess would be the gut reaction of receiving bad news from a lover).
The inmates are responsible for helping with almost all maintenance and upkeep in the jail, which the staff explained to me helps cut down on costs. Under supervision, some inmates help prepare the food (which looks exactly like you’d think it would), and others lend a hand for cleanup.
Walking into maximum security — which my morbid curiosity wouldn’t allow me to skip — I spotted one inmate attempting to wrap his arm around an open door and reach a TV set just outside the pod. I was ushered quickly into the control unit as all three of my escorts began yelling at him and inquiring the deputy as to why the door had been left open.
“Mitchell is in there,” said the deputy manning the control unit.
“Who’s Mitchell?” I asked.
My fears for poor Mitchell, the maintenance man as it turned out, were alleviated when the deputy explained that an officer was inside the pod with him.
I was then given the chance to survey the control room and watch uneasily as the inmates gathered at the doors.
“Why are they all congregating at the doors and windows like that?” I asked the jail administrator.
He put it simply, “A lot of them have been down here for a long time, and you’re here.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a “I made it through the Union County Jail tour and wasn’t taken hostage” button or sticker on the way out, but I did receive the journalistic present of recognizing one of the inmates as someone I had reported extensively on. Small gifts.