Insiders: A Look Behind the Bars at the Leon County Jail

Leon County Jail
Posted at 11:00 PM, Jun 02, 2016
and last updated 2017-12-13 05:24:01-05

TALLAHASSEE, FL (WTXL) -- The Leon County Jail houses more than a thousand inmates every day. Some are there until they can pay their fees. Others wait for their day in court.

Though the jail is fully staffed, watching over the inmates comes with its challenges.

Around 1,100 inmates are at the jail at any given time. Supervising them is a staff of 285. A correctional officer may have monitor up to 92 inmates -- alone.

"Our job is to be unseen," said jail director Major Kimberley Petersen, "to make sure that the criminals that are arrested -- that have done bad things in the community -- are out of sight and out of mind."

But just because they've committed crimes doesn't mean they're treated poorly.

"If this was your mother here, your brother here, your father, your grandparent, your sister, your brother, your child -- how would you want them to be treated?" said Petersen. "That's the way we run at the Leon County Jail."

It starts when the inmates are brought in. An officer swipes anything that could harm themselves or others.

"Razor blades, drugs. Mostly, I would say, drugs. Pocket knives," said corrections officer Deidra Bateman.

But weapons aren't the only thing to worry about.

"They could have highs, they could have lows, and the biggest hazard for me is not knowing how they're going to act, or how they're going to react when they get here," Bateman said.

"Always one or two that say they're going to kill themselves, and you don't know if they're telling the truth, or if they just want attention," said Edward Lee, captain of jail operations. "You've got to treat it like they're telling the truth and take precautions."

Lee says the inmate population is growing, but staff is always keeping tabs on all of them.

"Constantly doing head counts," he said, "and we have competent people working our central control who have cameras all over the facility."

At central control, staffers keep an eye on 700 doors and 182 cameras. Hallways and entryways have multiple doors and locks to prevent inmates from trying to escape.

"These inmates are milling around," Petersen said. "They're out, they're talking with other inmates, they're watching TV, they're playing games."

That's because this is a direct supervision jail. Officers are surrounded by the inmates, but rely on a digital system as the extra eyes of what's called a "pod."

"An officer goes into a pod, and he'll have his radio, he'll have a man down, he'll his OC spray," Petersen said. "And then, do you know what his biggest tool is? It's the communication skills."

In one confinement pod, 23 inmates are being housed. Right next door, a maximum security pod also has 23 inmates. Only one officer supervises both of them.

"Takes a person with thick skin," said pod officer Deputy James McClendon. "You see just about everything and anything on a day to day basis. no day is the same."

That's why having a full staff becomes a priority. The jail reached that level at the start of 2016 -- but for the seven years prior, mandatory overtime was often needed.

"You need to make sure that you have enough people here," Petersen said, "that if something does go wrong, we have enough people to respond."

The jail focused on local recruitment under the direction of Sheriff Mike Wood, who previously served as a major at the jail.

"Put a team together to go out to the colleges and to the academy to recruit," Petersen said. "He just placed a class through. He put five officers, civilians, through a class for corrections."

For a team working 12-hour shifts and dealing with often-rowdy individuals, mental stamina becomes a key.

"We just try to make it through every day," McClendon said. "One day at a time. It's challenging, but you just have to have a great deal of patience in dealing with them."

"Our prime purpose is 'Care, custody and control,'" Petersen said, "but the correctional officer is the unsung hero, the gatekeeper."

The maximum inmate capacity at the jail is 1,271. The jail offers alternatives like the jail work program to keep the numbers manageable.

**If you have a story idea for "The Insiders," email us at, Attention: "The Insiders."