Sunday, July 11, 1999

A different kind of jail

At Boone Co., inmates weed rose garden, celebrate GEDs

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BURLINGTON — Geez. Jail inmates who look happy. What gives?

        Twenty of them are sitting in a small room with concrete floors and a grate on the window. They're clapping and smiling. Up front are four men and one woman in caps and gowns.

        While incarcerated at the Boone County Jail, these five earned their General Education Development certificates. Now they're surprised to find them selves the focus of a party, complete with congratulatory cake.

        A county official makes a speech. TV cameras roll. When a black-robed man walks in to share the moment, someone whispers, “There's the judge!”

        Most jails don't do things this way. Then again, John Schickel is no ordinary jailer.

        I think of him as equal parts philosopher, taskmaster and shrink. He doesn't so much lock up people as find ways to release them from bad starts in life.

        Then he alerts the press.

        “Absolutely,” he says. “The jailer is definitely trying to get good public relations. It's good for me, it's good for the county, it's good for the programs.”

        Mr. Schickel, 45, was elected in 1987 and has since turned jail administration into a kind of art. He runs a lockup at the courthouse and a barracks-style “camp” for nonviolent inmates.

        The Schickel touch is everywhere. At the camp, some 60 inmates jog around the building, grow their own vegetables and maintain a rose garden, of all things.

        During the day, they go to regular jobs or work for free on county crews. They pick up trash, plant flowers, dispose of roadkill. At minimum wage, this work would have cost the county $700,000 last year, Mr. Schickel says.

        Cursing is prohibited. Staff members are addressed as “sir” and “ma'am.” The inmates get burr haircuts, stand at attention for bunk inspections and sign an honor code promising to put the group ahead of themselves.

        Then there's the garden.

        The jailer isn't naive. He knows they don't take it seriously. But when we stop by on Thursday, an inmate apologizes for leaving footprints in the mulch. He was picking up rose petals, he says.

        “Inmate fussing with roses,” I write in my notes. Geez.

        Now the jailer is trying to recruit some of the men to paint a time line of U.S. history on the building. History is important to him. If we don't know it, he says, how well do we really know ourselves?

        That's the philosopher talking.

        The taskmaster is another story. Last year, Mr. Schickel decided to ban smoking — a rare prohibition for a Kentucky jail. He also made headlines by declining to turn on the air conditioning in the heat of the summer. It's too expensive, he said, and work-camp inmates shouldn't live more comfortably than law-abiding folks.

        Of the 80 jails in Kentucky, about 10 have “restricted custody facilities” like the camp in Boone County. But the honor code, the rose garden, the GED party — all of these sound like John Schickel initiatives, says Harold Taylor, president of the Kentucky Jailers Association.

        Other jailers don't bother with work camps, he says. That's because they lead to more work for jailers at the same salary.

        It is more work, Mr. Schickel says. Every week, some inmate lets him down. Once, 13 of them tried to get high by drinking an artificial lemon juice with a high alcohol content. He punished the whole work camp for that, because the honor code required other inmates to speak up.

        He looks at it this way: These inmates are strong and healthy. They committed nonviolent crimes. Why should they sit idle on the public's dime? Besides, most are state prisoners. The state pays their expenses, which creates income for the jail.

        The work camp also provides structure for people who grew up without any, Mr. Schickel says. In some ways, it's modeled after his own childhood.

        He was one of 11 children. His father, Cincinnati artist William Schickel, was fair but strict. The kids learned to take responsibility for themselves.

        It was a good way to grow up. The inmates could do worse.

        At Thursday's graduation party, several of them vowed never to screw up again.

        Cecil Marcum, 23, dropped out of school at 15 and was convicted of drunken driving. Now he lives at the camp, does free maintenance work for a Catholic school and looks forward to the future.

        He and the others were surprised by the party.

        “This makes it feel like you accomplished something,” says Harold Farley, 40.

        Jail will never be fun, they say. But this one does help a person get back on track.

        And something else, Mr. Farley says: His mother really admires the roses.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at