Hamilton County Jail is unique


Special to the Express

LAKE PLEASANT - For most people, 'jail' conjures an image of regimented days, thin tempered neighbors, and bland food. But the Hamilton County Jail, a small stone structure that from a distance looks like a normal old-style home, is a different story.

Sheriff Karl Abrams, the gregarious commander in chief of this six-bed facility, spoke of an attitude of mutual respect with the inmates. He's had coffee with them, and dependable inmates can go outside during the day to do chores like yard work and washing patrol cars. Sometimes Abrams will buy them sodas out of his own pocket.

"A lot of these guys are in for DWI, they have a drinking problem, but they're still good people" he said.

The jail gets its share of drug runners and burglars as well, but even that doesn't necessarily preclude a civil atmosphere.

"We work from the bottom up in escalation," Deputy William Wilt said. He is a 12-year veteran of the force.

"There is the occasional bad seed," Abrams concedes. Problem inmates can see time reduced for good behavior yanked away, as many as 23 hours a day in their cell, or, perhaps worst of all, a stint at a much larger correctional institution where bad jail stereotypes ring truer.

But for the average convict at the Hamilton County Jail the day starts at 7 a.m. with breakfast at the one common table in the recreation room, and then stretches for 16 hours of watching TV, playing cards, reading magazines, or doing outdoor work. Punctuated, of course, with lunchtime around noon and an evening meal that might be steak or hamburgers.

At 11 p.m. inmates are locked in their individual cells for the night.

"Having such a small inmate population, you can't buy food in bulk," Abrams said. That means good food for the prisoners, and it doesn't seem to be overly hurting the sheriff's budget; Abrams only used 72 percent of his in 2012. That may partly explain why he's coasting to a second four-year term election victory, unopposed.

Prisoners are allowed two 10-minute phone calls and two visitors a week in addition to unlimited contact with their legal counsel. In the tedium, many convicts turn towards religion.

The jail, built in 1848 with a 1940 stone addition, is modest, but the state health commissioner praises its cleanliness.

The north half of the first floor consists of a dispatch station and a kitchen that could have come from a residential home.

The cellblock is a thick fire door away on the south side of the building. It is made up of four six- by eight-foot cells on the first floor, two big room cells on the second floor, and the recreation room just inside the fire door.

Female and surplus prisoners are sent to Fulton County Jail for $90 a day.

And then there are the correction officers who are contemporaneous guards, quasi-psychologists, cleaners and bookkeepers. They work an eight-hour shift -- one running from 11 at night to 7 in the morning -- in pairs.

"Helping people is my motivation," both Abrams and Wilt say.

Editor's Note: Max Weinstein is a freelance reporter for the Express as well as several other newspapers in his home state of New Jersey. He spends his summers in Indian Lake, hiking, boating, and relishing being off the grid. Email him with comments at mweinstein@mbs.net.