Public Safety Day
By Nick Moschella
BELLE GLADE - We're standing in an eerily lit, gray concrete and dull steel cellblock of the PBSO West Detention Center. "Worst of the worst," one deputy remarks of the locked-down tenants.
The unit's heavy door slams behind us and hollow voices start bouncing off the cinder-block walls.
"Ya'll bring people in here to look at us, but don't bring our food!" an inmate yells from a second-story cell. Cackling echoes all around our group as other inmates suddenly appear at their cell door windows.
One man, standing across from us in a first-floor lockup, trains his unblinking eyes on the visitors. Mouth slightly agape, he barely moves, does not engage in the chatter now entertaining and agitating his fellow inmates, and maintains his gaze.
"That guy," I say to a deputy, pointing my head toward the cell as we leave. "What's he in for?"
"Stalking'" he replies, a slight smile curling his lips.
A touch of dark humor on an otherwise soberly serious day for the Leadership Palm Beach County Class of 2014's Public Safety tour of law enforcement and fire-rescue facilities in the far reaches of the county.
The detention center was the first main stop, with a capacity of 999 inmates and run by Executive Officer Patricia Brown and a staff of 164. Renovated three years ago, Brown says the inmates realize "This is heaven" compared to the creaky, crumbling main PBSO jail on Gun Club Road in West Palm Beach.
Michael Gauger, who as PBSO’s Chief Deputy helps oversee a $292 million budget that includes deputies by land, air and sea as well as operating corrections, touts the West Center's efforts to rehabilitate habitual criminals.
"This is a tough place," said the 39-year law enforcement veteran, "but we manage - with a minimal amount of difficulty."
If things do get difficult, a call goes to what could be called the jail enforcement's Superhero Division - the highly trained and heavily muscled Crisis Intervention Team.
The five-man unit packs plenty of debilitating weapons and more testosterone than the cast of "300."
Take Napolean Nealy Jr., squat and thick as an oak barrel, a man whose training included blasts of pepper spray to his face and a taser shot to his upper body - 50,000 volts at a five-second clip.
"And the more muscled you are," said Nealy, whose muscles are piled on his double-wide frame like boulders on a mountaintop," the worse it is. . . . All those nerve endings."
Still, Nealy prefers counseling inmates to clobbering them. He works to develop relationships and preaches about turning around lives.
Gauger, proud of the PBSO's various youth outreach programs, knows that in many cases the only solution is to cut off the vicious cycle of crime.
"The streets will kill you," Gauger said. "I've arrested grandfathers, fathers, sons, grandsons. Generations go through here."
One more note on the West Detention Center population. Yes, as we on the "outside" believe, those guilty of sexual-related crimes are cordoned off from the more mainstream inmates.
"We have a unit for sexual deviants," Nealy said. "And you know what? They're the most quietest and respectful as far as behavior."
On the way out we're treated to a display of PBSO's vehicular muscle, including the mean and green SWAT truck appropriately nicknamed “The Hulk.’’ Weighing in at 2,600 bulletproof pounds, The Hulk carries sophisticated attack and surveillance equipment and 10-12 amped-up SWAT members.
"This will encourage bad guys to give up nicely," a deputy said.
The quarter-million-dollar Hulk was built with special financing - money confiscated from drug dealers.
On to the county’s Fire-Rescue Station in South Bay, a cavernous garage through which the wind came whipping off the surrounding burned-out cane fields, distorting our speakers' amplified voices but not their messages about justice.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who supervises 116 lawyers across five offices, defended the often criticized exercise of plea bargaining as a fair and efficient way to move cases through the clogged court system, spoke enthusiastically about his office's working relationship with the public defender's office and provided a startling and scary fact about the county's highest rate of misdemeanors.
Of 126,000 cases reviewed last year, 105,000 were misdemeanors, 30-40 percent resulting from people driving with suspended licenses.
"So when you go home tonight," Aronberg joked, "take solace that many people driving next to you do not have licenses or insurance."
Aronberg's counterpart, Public Defender Carey Haughwout, explained why an agency devoted to defending wrongdoers would be invited to participate in Public Safety Day.
"A just justice system is necessary for public safety," she said. "Our job is to stand before the power of government, representatives of poor individuals in the court system."
Haughwout stressed the importance of addressing the growing problem of mental illness and its role in the crime rate.
"We can't arrest ourselves out of crime," she said. "We can't just lock up people and think we'll be safe."
Haughwout also spoke in favor of legalizing marijuana, a "victimless crime" that promotes wildly disproportionate arrest records along ethnic lines, she said.
Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock took the mic and cut through the whistling wind with forceful delivery of her office's mission.
"We insure impartiality and fairness in every system that we touch," she said. "We want to make all payments pass the public-purpose test."
Bock, who said her technically advanced office should be paper-file-free within two years, also drove home the C and C's role as a "hallmark of open government."
The day's final stop proved inspiring in its mission and from the efforts of its dedicated staff.
The Sago Palm Reentry Center in Pahokee provides state prisoners from Palm Beach County the opportunity to spend their final three years or less preparing to return to society and reunite with their families.
The 3-year-old prison offers classroom teaching to earn GEDs and gain basic adult education and train for real-life encounters such as filling out job applications and experiencing interviews.
Of course, for those who've served lengthy terms, the learning curve is especially confounding.
"I recently told one man that there are no more Blockbusters and he looked like he was going to cry," noted one of the facility’s educators.
Of the 377 inmates, perhaps the luckiest live together in a narrow, two-story cellblock where visitors are immediately hit with the unmistakable whiff of canines.
This is where we met Brett and Hollywood - one a wiry, head-shaven gentleman two months from release; the other a bouncy Golden Retriever with hair the color of flavored coffee creamer and less than a month from a full-time job helping a wheelchair-bound owner navigate life.
These prisoners have been trained to train service dogs, whose distinguished alumni are immortalized by names stenciled lovingly on the walls of the unit.
On Brett's command, Hollywood uses his snout to flick a light switch on, clenches a rope hanging from a doornob to open the door, uses his body to nudge the door wide enough for a wheelchair to pass, steps forward, steps back, rolls over and all but offers to massage his visitors' aching, uh, dogs.
Hollywood soon will leave Brett, who expects that he will "cry for two hours" like the last time one of his obedient pups took a job on the outside.
Speaking of jobs, we were pleased to hear from Brett that he has several dog training gigs lined up when he leaves the prison.
"Won't have much time to myself," he said, less of a complaint and more a self-satisfaction that he indeed took advantage of Sago Palm’s unique program.
Our class is then led out of the prison by Jimmie Reese, the assistant warden who acted as our tour guide. Despite his suit, tie, quick smile and quicker quips, Reese’s congeniality hardly masks an undercurrent of power and respect that surely resonates with inmates.
Someone asks what offense led to Brett the dog trainer's incarceration.
"Don't know. ... Don't want to know," Reese replies, not missing a step on his brisk stride through the prison yard.
He explains that he respects an inmate who applied for and committed to opportunity at Sago Palm.
"Don't want to judge anyone for what they did," he said.
Indeed, an uplifting ending to an eye-opening day.