CEDAR FALLS – “One of the first freedoms you lose when you come to the jail is your right to privacy,” Sheriff Tony Thompson told us right before he took us walking through the Blackhawk County Jail in Waterloo, Iowa.
“You’re on camera everywhere as well as the inmates are, too. Everything is controlled by computer, every function and every camera,” Thompson said before taking the class and I through the doors into the control room.
Dark, full of monitors making odd noises, beeps and radio calls, the control room looked as if it were built for ultimate secrecy with no intent of being found. Sheriff Thompson led our big group out and scolded us for not picking up the pace when we walked and that we must stay together, especially when headed to the pods where real inmates were.
We were led next medical area, which looked like any typical walk-in doctor’s office.
“We have full time medical staffing and mentally ill doctor. Not a lot of other county jails do what we do here, nor can they. We can because we have to. The types of people that we have coming here requires us to,” Thompson said.
Adding onto that, Thompson commented how the state of Iowa criminalizes the mentally ill, which is why it’s so incredible that his jail provides a full time psychiatrist for all inmates.
Aside from providing aid to mental health, which I believe is absolutely tremendous and essential, their medical staff of women seemed like much more than just a friendly smile. They listened to all of our questions and answered eagerly, which leads me to believe they care immensely about the people who come in to see them.
As Thompson led as away from the medical room to take us to the general population pod, he explained the three goals of his jail.
“We want to keep them here, keep them safe and expedite them out of the facility,” Thompson said. Then we all crammed on an elevator, where he prepped us to go stand amongst the inmates.
“They [inmates] won’t like having you there. You’ll be feeling like you’re gawked at even though you’re gawking at them. Remember that you already are a disruption, so try not to be more of a disruption.”
The elevator doors opened, meaning someone from the control room opened them for us, and we all walked out out. One by one. Single file line. Swiftly and quickly, like he had scolded us to do before.
Do you ever imagine what standing naked in the middle of the New York Times square would be like? Yeah, I didn’t either. But once I stepped in front of the inmates in the general population pod, I knew instantly what that feeling was probably like, even standing in the group of my classmates.
Uncomfortable would be the best way to describe it, for lack of better words. I’m not exaggerating when I say all of the inmates never stopped staring at us for the whole length of time we stood in there. It felt like their eyes were tearing off each layer of my clothing.
But I never once felt threatened. We had three officers standing near, with sheriff Thompson right beside us.
Sheriff Thompson, a man who served 6 tours in Iraq, 21 years for the military, 6 years as the SWAT team leader, a previous street level narcotics officer and is now leading a county jail with a staff of 140 was protecting my classmates and I. I don’t think I could have been in better hands.
He took us next to the maximum security pods, which was monitored by a police officer standing in a similar “office space” as the control room. Again it was dark, full of monitors yelling at you, and very discreet to anyone who didn’t already know what it was.
We got to end our tour with questions for sheriff Thompson, where we learned more about him and his tough career path.
“I’ve seen a lot of things, a lot of bad stuff,” Thompson started after someone asked what a hard time in his career was. “My worst week was in 2011. Monday, perigrine financial happened. It was an enormous national fraud. Wednesday, about 3 o’clock, I was notified we had a jail escape. Until about 9 a.m. Thursday morning we were in pursuit of this jail mate. And then, on Friday morning, I got the call that we had two missing cousins in Evansdale. That was a shitty week; lack of sleep, I didn’t make it to my triathlon and an unsolved homicide.”
Thompson also told us about how he used to work as a street level narcotics officer. “My heaviest year I worked 360 cases. About 80% of all crime in Waterloo has a root base in illegal drugs, narcotics, alcohol, substances… Yeah,” Thompson said.
Sheriff Thompson made it very clear that he is one hard working individual, whose stubborn and doesn’t take any shit; in my eyes, a respectable and honorable man.
Overall, the jail experience was nothing like I imagined, but also better than I did actually imagine.