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Feeling Good About Yourself

Have you ever noticed that the guards in police dramas are frequently depicted as the strong silent type, a bit scary, and always carrying a big stick, while the inmates are always vicious and intimidating. Yes, a few movies are exceptions – Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption for example – but kind officers with genuine empathy for inmates are rarely portrayed. But we have our own exception: our own Flathead County Detention Center. Not everything is rosy and tranquil in the jail, but it won't fit your preconception of a detention center after binge-watching NYPD Blue.

When touring the Flathead County Detention Center, you might hear inmates and deputies chat about everything from ‘how’s the weather,’ to ‘who won the game.’ No agenda. No yelling. Just a conversation between two people. Deputies stop at different cells just to check in with a ‘how are you doing?’ 

“We’re not here to judge,” commented detention center Commander Root. “These people are members of our community, and it’s not up to us to decide if they are innocent or guilty. So, we treat them respectfully, and they usually act respectfully with us."

Part of treating people with respect involves personal hygiene. “Feeling good about yourself in here isn’t easy,” explained Corporal Gerdes. “If they’ve been in here for a while waiting for their trial, or have been out on the streets, they might not have had a haircut. That’s one way I can help them.” This is especially important for inmates with signs of mental illness as they may not have the capacity to take care of themselves.

Today, it’s a haircut for a man who exhibits mental illness signs. In the hallway, Corporal Gerdes has a chair, a few towels, and a hair trimmer with colorful attachments. Another guard escorts a young man from a cell to the chair, while Corporal Gerdes carefully places towels around his shoulders and asks, "What number do we want?"

“Gone, I want it gone,” the young man says timidly. He seemed a little uncomfortable at first.

“What do we always say to each other?” Corporal Gerdes asks.

“We can do it,” responds the inmate.

“That’s right, man. We can do it.”

His hair was just past his shoulders and matted. Carefully, Corporal Gerdes cut small handfuls of hair, each time, patting the man on his shoulders. “You doin' OK?” he would ask. His voice is calm and reassuring. “Our friend here asked for a haircut today. I’m no stylist, but it’s something I can do to help them feel better. Feeling better about how you look on the outside makes a difference in how you feel inside. When you feel better about yourself, you’re in a better mood, and it makes it easier for everyone else.”

“Feel better?” the corporal asked when he finished the haircut.

“Yes, much better,” said the young man, rubbing his hand across his new #2 cut.