Niagara Gazette

August 5, 2012

LEADERSHIP CHRONICLES: Jail and court for me and my LN classmates

Michele DeLuca, Commentary
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — I went to jail the other day. I learned its true what they say about the food there.

Lunch came in a big, gray plastic box about 2 inches high, with compartments for canned beans, applesauce, a handful of chips and a pile of sloppy Joe’s that lived up to its name, with a small bun plopped at the side of the pile. 

And, while we did not eat with the inmates, and while I was starving and trying to be a good sport, I couldn’t eat much. The battered plastic, worn by hundreds of washes, reminded me of all the prisoners who ate from this tray before me, their lives broken by bad judgement and circumstances.

On that very same day I spent time in a court room, watched a police dog drag a man by his arm; and went nearly deaf from a shock bomb.

It was “Law Enforcement Day” for my Leadership Niagara class, a session that immersed my 2012 class into the agencies throughout Niagara keep us safe.  

There was so much to take in on this non-stop adventure created by LN director Molly Anderson — who reportedly feels very guilty about making the classes eat jail food. But, it was an unforgettable day.

Here are some of my impressions.

You don’t want to go to jail.  Those who worry about making jail too comfortable would be happy to know that the renovated and expanded facility in Niagara County is no hotel. There are levels of residency there that provide the inmates with increasing amounts of space for good behavior. The worst ones stay in compact little cells with nearly no space to walk, called, fittingly, “the hole,” by inmates. Those who behave can spend time out of their cells, which overlook a giant open pod where they can move about freely within a football field sized area with cafeteria and televisions.  But only if they follow all the rules. The worst ones stay in compact little cells with nearly no space to walk, called, fittingly, “the hole,” by inmates.

Nobody gets away with anything at the jail.  Our cheerful and dilligent tour guide, Carmen Granto, son of city leader Carmen Granto, told us that while guards don’t carry any weapons so that none can be grabbed and used against them, there is an elite squad of guards who can be on the spot in seconds to quell an uprising or challenging inmate. Met some of those guys and came away with an understanding of why the squad has won every challenge its ever faced.

Police Dogs are cool. My husband’s friend, Sheriff Deputy Craig Beiter, is an officer who works daily with a police dog. We had a demonstration of how the dogs work.  Everything is taught to them through play and so chasing criminals is a game. That doesn’t mean they won’t have fun biting into the arm of an uncooperative suspect.  FYI: Approached by a police dog?  Give up immediately.

SWAT teams are also cool. Fresh from a recent bust, the team made of officers from several agencies, proudly showed off its war chest of guns and battering rams and an armored vehicle. 

Cool command center: While touring the 911 center and overheard one dispatcher capably assist a caller whose mother was not responding, cool and collectedly giving counsel until emergency help arrived. It was breathtaking to hear the drama play out and observe the professional handling by the dispatcher.  Bravo to her.

Judge Watson’s youth court works.  Sitting with my classmates in the city of Lockport courtroom, Judge William Watson told us that when he was a prosecutor he hated specialty courts.  Now, the judge runs a program that is changing lives. He takes the time each week to mentor youth court defendants towards diplomas, jobs and clean living.

We watched as the judge met with the youthful offenders, joking with some, stern with others, but always pushing for advances from the participants who, if they successfully complete a year in his program, will have their charges dropped. I was struck by his insight and devotion to the task of making these young lives better. 

How do I know the program works? One of my Leadership Niagara classmates is a former addict who went through the program and told me the judge saved her life. With his stable oversight, she got off drugs, found a job, and came back to reality. She recently spoke to 4,000 people about her recovery at a convention of speciality court leaders. 

There was far too much to report here. I have pages of notes that included our an impressive talk by Sheriff James Voutour and the men of the Homeland Security Joint Terrorism Task Force, who work to keep us all safe using the expertise of so many different local, state and national agencies to create what security experts call a force multiplier. 

Leadership Niagara alumni are everywhere. The most interesting part of my day is how many officers and leaders we met who are enthusiastic alumni of the 20-plus year-old leadership program. Makes me think Leadership Niagara is a pretty effective force multiplier.  

Michele DeLuca is features editor for the Niagara Gazette and a member of the Leadership Niagara 2012 class. To contact her phone 282-2311, ext. 2263.