The Avenue

Navigating the Rutherford County Criminal Justice System — Part 6: Lower 940

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in The Rutherford County Adult Detention Center (located at 940 New Salem Highway), which doubles as our jail and the headquarters for The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department, has heard that the building with the tiny windows towering over the southwest corner of Murfreesboro is simply referred to as 940 (nine-forty). Because of 940, Murfreesboro has received national, statewide and much local media attention throughout 2016 due to its combination of public relation gaffes, numerous alleged ethics violations committed by the highest-ranking officers of our Sheriff’s Department, issues with overcrowding, the jail’s responsibility in the deaths of four of its inmates and the staff’s failure to correct problems found by The Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) during an unannounced inspection at the end of the summer.

Upon re-inspection in November of 2016, 940 was decertified by TCI’s Board of Control in early December.

With that, local folks might wonder what happens in there on a day-to-day basis.

Once local law enforcement arrests someone within Rutherford County for an alleged offense, the offender is transported and placed into the custody of Sheriff Department’s jailers and held at 940.

From a small drive-through garage on the north side of the building, the handcuffed offender is escorted from a police cruiser into a hallway on the ground floor of the jail through a couple of heavy metal doors that loudly lock shut behind them.

A jailer’s frisk later and it’s into 940’s Booking Division, an active, bustling, fluorescent-lit white and gray room about the size of a tennis court. Among its contents are a long desk in the middle of the room, bolted-down tables with stools attached at the bottom and metal loops on the tabletops to shackle handcuffs, and a few silent jailers standing around keeping an eye over the place. Several more thick metal doors line all four of the walls. Individual holding cells, the drunk tanks for both sexes, small, glass-bisected conference rooms, a janitor’s closet, the nurse’s station, a showering room and an access route to the rest of the jail are behind all of those doors.

The Booking Division is where newly arriving offenders have their mug shots taken, fingerprints scanned and the rest of their personal information collected and filed into the Sheriff’s Office computer system. This is all done before the offender is assigned a mandatory court date by one of the booking officers behind the desk.

Commotion and raucous behavior from incoming belligerent arrestees—as well as from already-situated offenders being moved around the Booking Division from the drunk tanks and solitary holding cells—fill the air, as do the jailers’ responses to these outspoken arrestees’ mix of reasonable questions, nonsensical frustrations and attempts to find humor in such a place.

When I first visited this room in 2007, one of the metal doors to the right of the entrance was the room where mug shots were taken and fingerprints scanned, but they have since moved that out into the booking room beside the desk and installed a massive stone inlay laid into the floor tile depicting The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department emblem with the words “Sheriff Robert F. Arnold,” curved over the top of it in big black letters. This décor was installed sometime between March of 2014, when I turned myself in to serve seven days as punishment for a 2013 DUI charge, and March of 2016 when I turned myself in with two warrants out for my arrest for violating my probation.

“Looks expensive,” I thought when I noticed it in the floor last May.

Anyway, once inside and a part of what can be sensed as chaos, there are a few variables to take into consideration in order to estimate how much time will be spent being “booked” at 940, both systemically and emotionally.

In an ideal situation for everyone involved, if the arrested is well-behaved, not inebriated, can immediately reach someone via phone to bail them out, if the jailers are in a good mood and if the Booking Division isn’t understaffed and/or overwhelmed by incoming offenders, being booked can take only 20 to 30 minutes before the arrested is released to leave 940’s premises. Pretty much everyone in there is trying to get out.

This is the best-case scenario.

When I turned myself in on the afternoon of March 24, 2016, I had walked over to the jail in the rain from the downtown Murfreesboro area with a fish sandwich in my hand and two warrants out for my arrest. I was about to walk into a place where I could very well be locked up for nine months, which was the remaining time of my probation before it was violated. Thus, the fish sandwich. To me, it’s a better quality sandwich than the ones I’d be given in there for perhaps nine months, so I figured I’d eat on the way over during that stressful stroll, but I didn’t. When they let me through the first metal door from the outside, I stepped into the hallway dripping wet and Officer Z. Wooten, my jailer that day, slipped me the spoiler comment while he was patting me down that’d I’d be leaving on R.O.R. for bringing myself in and that I could also keep my sandwich as long as I didn’t eat it in there.

R.O.R., or “released on recognizance,” means I didn’t even have to make a phone call or have another person co-sign for my release (friend, family, bond agent), and I was released on my promise that I would appear at my court date. This option is open to people who turn themselves in, and the best part is, it’s free. I was under my own recognizance to appear at my court date set before they let me loose without having to pay anyone to get out after they got my information, scanned my fingerprints, and took my mug shot. I remained still, quiet and obedient while I was in there for all of 25 minutes.

“If everyone in here acted like you, the world would be a better place,” jailer Wooten eventually said to me over the shouting of a man in a solitary holding cell screaming back and forth with another jailer who seemed to be taunting the captive.

A second scenario before getting out of there happens if the arrested is inebriated or has to call someone to bail them out of jail. They are placed in a gender-specific holding cell with everyone else that is arrested and/or inebriated (the drunk tank), and can remain in there for up to 10 or more hours while sobering up, waiting to be processed and/or until someone comes to bail them out. The drunk tank at a busy time has 20-plus people crammed into it and has nothing but a few phones on the wall next to the door, a metal toilet out in the open on the far side of the room that usually has no toilet paper with it, and a long concrete slab people sit or lie on that extends from beside the toilet down to entrance door, but on the opposite wall. There’s a camera overlooking the whole room just over the entrance door and a floor drain. On a busy night, there are people of all walks of life sitting, standing and lying on the bench and floor. Some keep to themselves while others socialize with one another or try to get the attention of the guards outside the room. When I was there, guards usually covered the small vertical window of the door with a piece of cardboard, though, to thwart anyone from speaking or waving to them for a couple of hours at a time until they had to come in and get someone for processing and put them back in afterwards. The usual question is “Hey, what time is it?” to which the jailers always reply, “It’s 9:40.” If any of the drunk tank’s occupants started screaming because of the negligence, it was into a solitary holding cell with them. If any questions are asked about the jailer’s actions, the response will likely be, “It’s for your safety.”

The few phones in the tank are for those waiting and they may call, collect, one memorized number only twice before having to move on to another number. It can be anyone they know that is willing to bail them out of jail, such as friends, family, or a bonding agent—anyone who is willing to guarantee the offender appears at their court date. For example, if the offense is criminal trespassing and the bail amount is set at $5,000, a friend or family member of the offender can come to the jail with $5,000 and get the offender out of jail after the offender is booked. When the offender appears at their court date, the $5,000 is refunded by the court clerk’s office. If the bail amount cannot be met by a friend or family, a bail bonds agent can be called to post bail. Bond agencies charge 10% of the bail amount, so it costs the offender $500 on a $5,000 bond to get out and that amount is nonrefundable, ever. Their numbers are listed next to the phones.

Though keeping everyone safe from one another is part of the jailer’s/booking officer’s jobs in that room, one of the four deaths at 940 in 2016 was a man who hanged himself on one of the phone cords in the males’ drunk tank.

Consequently, the phone cord was shortened.

The longest I have spent in the drunk tank was around 10 hours. The first time, jailed for public intoxication in 2007, I sat in that packed tank at attention for five or six hours, only talking to someone I happened to recognize from the photography lab on campus. The last time, my spirit was broken and I tried to take a nap on the floor using my flip-flop as a pillow.

How long the stay, the nature of release, and how much money it costs the offender is entirely up to their offense—and it can get expensive.

If no one can be reached and it looks like there’s no money coming to spring the offender, there is a third, worst-case scenario, which is—after being booked and served breakfast in the holding cells around 5:30 a.m.—to “go upstairs.”

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