Running a jail is about much more than processing and housing people awaiting trial. At larger facilities, efficiency, personnel management, and resource allocation may mean the difference between swift and delayed justice. Now, some administrators are setting a new goal: making their jails run more like companies.
In Bexar County, Texas, home to San Antonio and the country’s 16th-largest jail, Sheriff Susan L. Pamerleau is trying to do just that. “We were really in the stubby-pencil era, not only in terms of law-enforcement-records management, but also in basic pay and personnel issues,” she said, recalling her post-election assessment of the organization she’d campaigned to lead. “They were still providing hundreds of paper checks for salaries to deputies and civilian employees.” About 1,800 workers received their salaries “in little cubby holes, a sort of shelf unit, on the wall downstairs.” Pamerleau became concerned about the potential for violating individual privacy and exposing the financial information of employees. “In two weeks, unless there was a very specific reason why not, every single person in the sheriff's office was getting a check direct deposited into their bank account,” she said. The automated accounting system streamlined both payroll and recordkeeping.
What does having direct deposit have to do with running a jail? That initial change was easy and cosmetic, but it was just one of dozens of big and small adjustments Pamerleau set in motion to bring the organization up to date and improve how it served the county. This was a natural move for Pamerleau, who was the senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company and served in the Air Force for 32 years. But as Henry Reyes—the assistant jail administrator who has been with the sheriff’s office for 16 years—put it, this “move towards professionalism … requires a shift in culture and a paradigm shift in how we run a jail.” Pamerleau, Reyes, and other leaders in the department are “trying to teach our employees and the public that working in a jail or being in jail is not like what you see on television,” Reyes said. “It’s a career. We like our employees to stay here for the long term. When people are in our custody, we’re not going to lock them up and throw away the key.”