FARGO – Early Tuesday morning Captain Andrew Frobig seated himself at his office desk, quickly discovering that the jail count was up. About 76 people had been incarcerated over the long Veterans Day weekend bringing the total inmate population at the Cass County Jail up to a number he wasn’t happy with, 305.
Frobig’s overall goal to reduce inmate population and lengths of stays is beginning to work, however, with the implementation of the Cass County Community Supervision Unit last April. The four-member team of sheriff’s deputies – armed and fully licensed – is unique to Cass County. Empowered to oversee burgeoning judicial reform policies by helping inmates break the relentless cycle of fines, bails, and addiction, the squad lends a helping hand instead of locking them away and throwing away the keys.
A demanding job for deputies and staff, Frobig said, especially during the upcoming holidays as families gather around stuffed turkeys or lutefisk and lefsa. Some prison systems “go down to bare bones” during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, but not the Cass County Jail. Shift rotations keep deputies in line for working national holidays once about every five years.
“If you think about it, most people who will be in jail at Christmas time aren’t here yet,” Frobig said. “Do yourself a favor and don’t come to jail.”
Being away from family and friends during Christmas can take an emotional toll on inmates and guards. The common belief that they are more susceptible to depression during the holidays, however, isn’t totally true, Frobig said.
Nationally, prison guards suffer PTSD at more than double the rate of soldiers, and have suicide rates twice as high as the general public, according to analysts. The time of year has little to do with deep depression though.
“There is a common misnomer that suicide rates go up this time of year, but the data doesn’t show it,” Frobig said. Suicide attempts among inmates occur more often within the first 48 hours of being locked up, or after sentences are handed down.
Inmates at the Cass County Jail don’t get lutefisk for Christmas, but during their 20-minute meal time they do eat turkey during Thanksgiving and roast beef with potatoes for Christmas. The menu during holidays is different than their usual ground chicken or turkey patties, Frobig said, and they get double portions. Besides coordinating turkey dinners for inmates and staff, or baking frosted sugar cookies and handing out fruit baskets – which are sometimes discovered to be used in making jail hooch – inmates who fit criteria now have a means to legally escape, be productive members of society, and spend time with family, if they follow the rules.
Eligible arrestees fill out a form asking about criminal convictions, failures to appear, housing information, work status, and more, and if accepted into the jail’s program they’re released, equipped with a GPS monitoring bracelet, and must show up for court and attend mandated classes depending on their physical and mental needs.
And the Community Supervision Unit oversees the transitions. If needed, the four-person squad drives inmates to court, helps addicts into drug rehabilitation, schools, assistance with housing, or holding jobs, or even with insurance eligibility. They may carry badges and guns, but they work from the heart, Frobig said.
Since the Community Supervision Unit began, 88 people have successfully gone through the program. By mid-November, the program has 23 people currently enrolled, and only two people awaiting trial lost their privileges, he said.
“No one has absconded yet,” Frobig said.
Corporal Chad Violet heads up the Community Supervision Unit. He’s a sheriff’s deputy involved in Work Release and the state-mandated sobriety 24 x 7 programs, and said their goal is to keep eligible people productive.
“It’s almost like they are on probation, but they are not on probation,” Violet said. “We want to break the cycle that they are in, we don’t want to do everything for them. We don’t vouch for them, but we help them with stuff.”
Issues such as missing a court date on a misdemeanor charge can quickly spiral into hefty fines and lengthy jail sentences for many people, especially those who are addicts to either alcohol or drugs, Violet said. In the past, a misdemeanor crime with a low bail an inmate couldn’t afford could ensure a lengthy stay behind bars. Now, anyone with a $500 bail or lower is eligible to apply for the jail’s program.
“It’s a leg up for one less thing to worry about,” Ashley Bates, a sheriff’s deputy with the Community Supervision Unit said. “Do the baby steps. There is no cookie cutter solution. Ultimately, the people who are in our program for the holidays is a big win for them.”
Bates’ unit will be on call during the holidays, but will be able to take some time off to be with family.
“Holidays in jail creates depression issues,” Violet said. “So for our participants it will keep them out.”
The Community Supervision Unit works with local hospitals, drug rehabilitation centers, intoxication management centers, Jail Chaplains, United Way, the Salvation Army, housing authorities, the courts and judges from home and other counties if needed to keep program participants out from behind bars. They call or make house calls on a daily basis to ensure inmates are living up to their side of the bargain, Violet said.
Release doesn’t come immediately, the unit works to ensure that inmates will not be homeless once they leave.
“Everything is set up so they can hit the ground running,” Violet said. “Having everything in place so when we place the bracelet on and walk them out the door they will be ready.”
After nearly two decades of working as a sheriff’s deputy, Violet shrugged off the hardships of working during Christmas, adding that he will listen to Bates and Eric Benson, another member of the Community Supervision Unit, on what they would like to do for the people in their care.
Diplomas for certain achievements printed out on fine paper are one of the things Violet has planned.
“I love baking,” Bates said. “We’re thinking of sending out some cookies.”
Bates realizes that the holidays could become a depressing time for some. The holidays can be emotional where addicts could face triggers to entice them to use drugs or drink again.
Between investigating and approving methadone requests and overseeing the jail, Captain Andrew Frobig plans on having a Toy Lift, where those who are incarcerated can write to their children who will also receive toys from the Salvation Army. Pre-stamped holiday cards are also available for inmates to send to loved ones.
The Community Supervision Unit, or CSU, has been active for less than eight months, and it’s still too early to report exact costs for keeping people out of jail. The financial burden of keeping them in, however, is much higher, Frobig said.
The program is unique to North Dakota, Frobig said.
“We’re the only ones doing it this way so far,” Frobig said. “Every community has to do it differently depending on their resources. Overall the length of stay is down, average count is down.”
For those who do not make the Community Supervision Unit’s program, sheriff’s deputies try to keep their own spirits and the inmates’ morale high, especially during the holiday seasons.
“Even though they are still here 24 hours a day, they still have to think about what they’re missing out on,” Frobig said.
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