I went to jail again. This time to Mecklenburg County Jail North. This is a correctional facility that houses up to 614 inmates located off I-77 in North Charlotte. Like Jail Central in downtown Charlotte, it is a nationally accredited jail that must meet strict standards. With the guidance of our Citizens’ Academy leaders, Julia Rush, Director of Communications, and Deputy Erik Hagesether, we walked through the facility and got a good feel for what goes on behind the scenes. Our host for the evening was Sgt. Henderson, Cpl. Goodman, and Keith Cradle, all on staff at Jail North.
Driving up, we saw fences topped with barbed wire, but inside the innocuous two-story building, it looked more like a school than a prison. However, the inmates housed inside are incarcerated and not free to leave until their sentence is served. They must abide by rules and regulations or suffer the consequences, but in Mecklenburg County, under the leadership of Sheriff Chipp Bailey, the goal is to create an environment of rehabilitation that lowers the risk of repeat offenders.
In 2010, Jail North expanded to include a Vocational Training building, greenhouse, and youth housing unit. Male youths between the ages of 16 and17 are housed here, separately from the older male population. They must attend school from 8:00 to 3:00 weekdays. In a classroom environment, they study the same subjects as mandated in CMS schools and have the opportunity to complete their education. We were told that some go on to college. We could see the pride in which Sgt. Henderson and Keith Cradle, Adolescent Program Manager, told us of the accomplishments and turnaround of some of the youths. I was happy to see a library that offered a good selection of books. The efficiency at how it is run is awesome.
What impressed me and others in the Citizens’ Academy were the various programs and opportunities available to inmates at Jail North. First, we walked through the greenhouse where inmates grow plants from seeds. There is also a garden. The crops produced are donated to programs like Friendship Trays and to homeless shelters.
Next we went to the carpentry shop. The work that inmates turn out is amazing. Beautiful and well-constructed birdhouses, tables, patio chairs, planters, and much more. Nothing goes to waste. Scraps of wood were used to make a chess set and checkerboard game. Outside furniture made by inmates is donated to the county Park and Recreation Department.
In an art class, inmates create beautiful work. We passed around canvas pieces that showed vibrant colors and intricate designs. Many are put on display at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in downtown Charlotte. I can only imagine the pride the inmates must feel at having their work admired by others.
Like the culinary school planned, the different programs make it possible for inmates to earn accreditation through Central Piedmont Community College. This will equip them to get jobs once they are acclimated back into society. Volunteers offer even more opportunities and inspiration through activities like yoga and Bible study.
Also on our tour was the laundry and kitchen facilities. Can you imagine the monumental task of washing uniforms and linens for over six hundred inmates? And if that doesn’t boggle the mind, think of the kitchen producing meals for Central Jail and North Jail for approximately 2500 inmates three times a day. They get started at around four in the morning! Food for Central Jail is put on tray carts, covered in shrink-wrap, and transported downtown.
Before we left, we were each given a surprise gift of a wooden planter, handcrafted by inmates. It contained beautiful mums in bloom, grown also by inmates. I will enjoy this lovely gift for years to come.
In the youth detention living quarters (wet cell pod), Keith pointed out a decorative wall-hanging with the design of a tree trunk and branches. It hangs high up above the common area. I’m sure it is there to make the inmates ponder its meaning. On the first panel is written the word Was. The second panel has the word Am. Lastly, the third panel says Will Be. Of course, this is a reference to past, present, and future. I love this inspirational message! I bet you like it too.
In my next blog, I will tell you about what we learned about the recruitment of new officers and their training at the Academy located at Jail North. Stay tuned. I think you will find it interesting.