Jail cells, locked barred doors and jail inmates - the Berks County Prison isn't exactly where one would normally find a Berks County commissioner, but on May 30, Kevin Barnhardt paid the facility a visit.Barnhardt spent the day shadowing first shift staff members to get an inside look of the operations.
The visit was the second day Barnhardt spent shadowing county workers. He spent a day with Children and Youth Services case workers on May 16. "I truly need to see what (county workers) are doing to determine what the commissioners can do to help them with their jobs," Barnhardt said.
He said that he also wanted to see the obstacles the workers experience and if the commissioners could provide additional support so the employees could do their jobs more efficiently.
Barnhardt is chairman of the prison board which oversees the jail with a few exceptions, said Berks County Prison Warden George Wagner.
"He (Barnhardt) is one of my bosses so from that perspective, it's great he's taking an interest in the jail," Wagner said.
Wagner said he hoped the visit would show the commissioner what really goes on inside of the jail.
"He'll get a feel of what it's like for the staff workers on the front lines who right in front of the faces of inmates," he said.
"A lot of people don't understand what jail is like," Wagner said. "TV glamorizes what we do so there is a misunderstanding of what happens in jails."
He cited a reality TV show as an example where fights break out every 15 minutes and inmates are restrained.
"Fights happen here but not every 15 minutes," Wagner said.
Wagner said that another misconception is that the facility is a prison but despite its name, it's actually a jail for short-term detention.
Inmates see several possibilities after arrival, Wagner said.
They are either released on bail, ordered to serve a short-term sentence at the jail or are eventually sent to a state prison for a long sentence.
Wagner said on average, inmates stay at the jail for 14 weeks.
Barnhardt witnessed what breakfast was like at the jail at Unit A and B, the older cells dating back to the 1930s.
He said he saw some inmates help serve the food and nurses distribute medication to the inmates.
"The inmates had to show their identification to get their proper medicine," Barnhardt said.
Barnhardt said he talked with a Chinese man that was incarcerated for being in the U.S. illegally.
"He told a story about the Chinese government taking his family's land," Barnhardt said. "If everything he was saying is true, it's sad. He's miles away from his family."
He watched inmates spend time in indoor and outdoor recreation.
He learned that inmates have four hours of recreation a day and saw inmates engaging in indoor recreation.
Inmates with good behavior, (not getting in trouble for attempted escapes or assaults on other inmates or officers,) are allowed four hours of recreation a day.
Indoor recreation activities include watching television, playing cards, lifting weights or exercising or surfing the Internet.
Outdoor recreation includes basketball.
Correctional Officer Keith Spatz said that inmates are allowed to go to the facility's library and church services in addition to recreation time.
Inmates in the General Population units (units that contain inmates with "good behavior") can also make phone calls and are able to have visits on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Spatz said that the inmates are allowed two half-hour visits each week but the visits can last longer as long as the visitation areas aren't full.
"If the inmates play their cards right, they can be out of their cells for quite some time," Barnhardt said.
Barnhardt said while he was shadowing with Children and Youth Services, that he signed a confidentiality agreement so he couldn't go into the specifics of the entire experience he had with the case workers.
He said that the caseworkers were on phone calls with potential clients and responded to an anonymous complaint of child abuse.
"(The case workers) are true professionals," Barnhardt said. "I was proud to be with them for a day."
According to the Berks County Web site, the mission of Children and Youth Services is to protect children from abuse and neglect.
Barnhardt said in the near future, he plans to shadow workers at the county child detention center.
The commissioner also shadowed an employee in the medical and mental health department.