The Troup County Sheriff’s Office and Correctional Facility didn’t plan on a May makeover; it just panned out that way.
New programs that have been developing over the past year are getting finishing touches, while new high-tech equipment has arrived to give deputies a leg up in fighting crime.
The public’s perception of law enforcement may not always be positive, but Public Information Officer Lt. Chad Mann makes it his mission to remind the public of the Troup County Sheriff’s Office purpose: to protect and serve the community.
“People associate us with being bad,” he said. “The truth is, we do far more good.”
According to their official mission statement, The Troup County Sheriff’s Office, aims to enforce law in an “ethical and constitutional,” yet “fair and impartial manner.”
Taking a tour of the correctional facility is one way to witness deputies put words into action .
Detention officers talk about trustees, or inmates rewarded for good behavior, with a tone reflective of the facility’s atmosphere.
“These guys work the night shift,” Detention Officer Tim Wheeler said, dimming the lights of the dorm-like detention pod. The 77-foot long white structure where he watches trustees is the larger of the jail’s two control centers. Currently occupied by 33 trustees, the pods are considered to be the correctional facility’s quietest area.
“It can be kind of boring back here,” he said. Wheeler can usually be found at a station where there is much more action.
In the central control center, a new surveillance system covers every corner of the compound. With 39 cameras, there isn’t any area or angle the system can’t see.
“People think it’s to keep people in, and that’s true,” Sheriff Donny Turner said. “It’s also to keep people out.”
Wheeler demonstrated how the system works by showing officers important details from the outside, such as conducting surveillance on parked cars. Recently, while checking tag numbers, deputies tracked down a driver suspected in a hit-and-run accident in the facility’s parking lot.
“There’s no place where you aren’t being watched in one way or another,” Wheeler said.
The back gate, nurses’ station and visitor parking lot are all under constant video surveillance. When UPS or FedEx personnel bring deliveries to the back gate, the control center commander also sends an officer outside to supervise before they begin to unload.
The nurses’ station never closes and is the first stop for inmates after entering the jail. It is also one of the most secure. The primary reason for the high-security status is the nurses’ safety. Nurses work 12-hour shifts and at least one nurse is available around the clock. Because they are contracted from private companies, nurses are not considered jail employees.
“They’re civilians,” Wheeler said. “We need to keep them safe.”
Using a stick-controller, Wheeler zooms in on another room kept under constant surveillance: the pharmacy. The pharmacy, located between the dentist and nurses’ stations in the medical center, stays locked at all times. Security cameras are setup to watch anyone entering the pharmacy, including correctional officers, who must be accompanied by a nurse.
With the push of a button, the system performs a 360 degree sweep, showing each section of the facility. Control center commanders can check rooftops, hallways, and even see who’s sitting in the dentist’s chair within seconds.
Cameras frequently follow trustees as they go to and from their jobs. Trustees are divided into three classifications signified by different-colored stripes on their uniforms. They are entrusted with responsibilities ranging from cooking and cleaning, to washing cars and cutting grass.
“A couple guys here are pretty good barbers,” Wheeler added.
Jail Administrator Capt. Marty Reeves said there is no shortage of trustees with specific skills, such as plumbing and painting. “You’ve got guys who can paint anything you want painted,” Reeves said.
“There are guys who helped build this building that are in jail here,” Reeves said, adding they are a testament to the talent of trustees. “They’ll tell me, I remember when we laid this brick right here.”
Trustees wearing white and green uniforms are allowed to walk without being escorted by an officer, but only along selected paths marked with red lines. Reeves said an unaccompanied stroll, although short, can be significant to those inmates who earned it.
Church services, held five times a week and twice on Sundays, are also important to inmates. Services take place in pods set up like classrooms. Ministers bring materials for inmates to use during services.
“Our trustees actually got to watch [the movie] ‘Courageous,’” Reeves said.
While spiritual movie viewings are rare, inmates have access to other forms of spiritual literature.
Seven churches representing different denominations, send service leaders but Reeves said what is most impressive are average people who participate in jail ministry. One woman who was, was previously incarcerated at the jail, has become a regular participant.
“She can get right in there and level with them,” he said. Reeves said services are a great privilege to inmates.
An upcoming service, set to begin May 3, will benefit people both inside and outside the jail. A video visitation center was built last year and is located less than 200 feet from the jail entrance. It will make the visitation easier for inmates and visitors. Although visitors will no longer enter the jail, they are likely to feel closer to inmates than before.
“They’ll be face-to-face from a distance,” Mann said.
Once inside the freestanding facility, friends and family can choose one of 10 stations, each equipped with a chair and a 10-inch LCD screen to hold video conversations.
Correctional officers said they will monitor the visits via computer.
The modern approach to visitation provides increased security, reduces the labor costs and controls contraband.
Turner said the correctional facility has had several incidents where visitors attempt to pass contraband to inmates. Luckily, the new system prevents this problem.
Attorneys will also appreciate the upgrade, as they can speak with clients from their home or office.
Each Vizvox Sentry model unit is capable of IP addressing, video conferences and visitations, and is virtually indestructible. The sheriff’s office spent approximately $350,000 for the 10 units.
The new visiting center will bring benefits extending far beyond the jail. For this reason, the sheriff’s officials are optimistic public will respect the visitation center’s regulations.
Turner said anyone who decides to disobey rules or damage the units would be doing a disservice to others, as well as themselves.
“It would affect a lot of people,” he said. “You don’t want to mess it up for everyone else.”
Significant changes have also been made to the department’s fleet of vehicles.
In the past year, high-mileage patrol cars were replaced with newer vehicles that were purchased with drug-seizure funds. New Ford Expeditions will soon replace transport vehicles.
The sheriff’s office will begin installing tag readers into these vehicle next week. Each reader costs $50,000 and scans the the tag numbers of every vehicle it encounters while driving. The reader automatically alerts police when an uninsured or stolen vehicle passes.
“People better have their insurance,” Turner said. “If they don’t, they need to get it taken care of.”
The sheriff’s office stays connected with the community by posting new changes and announcements online. In 2008, the sheriff’s office began using social media. The Troup County Sheriff’s Office Facebook Page has a following of 3,138 people and counting. The page’s popularity is due, in part, to constant conversations.
“It’s about establishing communication with our deputies and the general public,” Mann said.
Mann manages the the office’s social media. Since society is spending so much time surfing the web on smart phones, he said staying as transparent as possible plays a big part in keeping Troup County connected.
“Upstanding, law-abiding citizens never see the inside of a jail or experience deputy procedures,” Mann said.
In March 2010, the sheriff’s office began offering mobile alerts through Nixel, a website which only requires a county name and mobile phone number for registration.
The following year marked the launch of the TCSO application, now available in App Stores for Apple and Android devices. Push notifications keep citizens current on things they need to know.
Another free-feature benefiting the community is fender-watch. The program, which can be found on the TCSO website, alerts users when a sex offender moves into the subscriber’s neighborhood.
These programs have allowed citizens to see more than just the current crime scene.
For more information on Troup County Sheriff’s Office or how to activate alerts, visit www.troupcountysheriff.org.