Looking Beyond Good or Bad

By Brad McEwen

To say that Chief Jailer John Ostrander has had an important impact on the evolution of the Dougherty County Jail likely goes without saying.

While the county-funded facility that is overseen by the office of Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul came about through the efforts of several people, the fact is very few of them have been able to leave quite the stamp John Ostrander has put on the place during his more than 30 years working at the facility.

But where it might be easy to see his influence on life at the county jail, I had to dig a little deeper to learn how that influence—driven by a true passion to serve others—has radiated throughout our community.

Of course before that impact can be understood it’s important to know a little about where and when it began—long before the first cell of our Evelyn Avenue jail was even built.

As John explained to me during a recent Beyond the Bank interview, almost immediately upon arriving in Albany—having taken a job with the Sheriff’s Office in his wife’s hometown—he was charged with helping to formulate a plan for running what was then going to be the county’s new jail.

“After a couple of years working in the (old) jail we started a project to build this new facility that we’re in today,” John explained. “We were moving out of a jail that was designed to hold 200 and moving into a jail that was designed to hold over 800—which has since been expanded to over 1,200.

“Well I was assigned to a team called the ‘Transition Team’ and our job was to walk this property during the construction phase to become completely familiar with everything out here, the complete layout, and to determine how we were going to run it, to develop the processes that we were going to use, to commit those to paper and from that, develop policies and procedures so that by the time we opened we would have the manual to use on how to run this place.”

And in addition to basically inventing the policies and procedures, John also ended up having to handle the training needed to fully staff the new facility once it was completed—a turn of events that would set him on a career path he says could not have been more rewarding.

“We hired a guy from Fulton County Sheriff’s Office and brought him down here as a Captain,” John said. “He had a training background and we wanted him to train all of our new employees because we were going to go to from a staff of 35 up to a staff of 113—a big jump. A Lot of training needed to be done.

“In the middle of the course he resigned. He left to seek another opportunity, so we were stuck. And then the Sheriff, he appointed me to take over that function.

“So I developed the training for this. And then, as we moved forward, we ended up developing our own training unit, a full-time training unit in the jail, which I worked in. And then in 1996, I got promoted to the rank of Captain and I was the Director of Training. I did that for 14 years.”

John didn’t say it flat out, but he certainly alluded to the fact that because of opportunities like those—chances that early on during his time with the Sheriff’s Office—that ultimately led to a life-long career as a jailer, something he really had no idea was going to happen when he was first hired by then-Sheriff Jamil Saba.

“In the Sheriff’s Office, as in most Sheriff’s Offices around the country—because sheriffs run the jail—that’s normally where the hiring is done,” John said. “So everybody starts in the jail. So I knew coming in I would have to begin there, pay my dues, and then if I wanted to branch out into other areas, either working on the road or doing investigations or whatever, that would come down the road. But I had to get my foot in the door and pay my dues.

“I had no idea that 30 years later I would still be in the jail and not willing to trade it.”

That he wouldn’t have imagined spending his career working in the jail makes sense considering John came to the Sheriff’s Office following two stints in the military—the second of which was spent chasing down drug traffickers on the high seas.

But after spending more than hour discussing the New York state native’s background and his love of working at the jail, it was pretty easy to understand why that change of pace has been so rewarding for him both personally and professionally.

“I did two tours in two different branches,” John said of his military background. “My first tour was in the Army. I was a criminal justice student in college. I joined the army in the Military Police Corps and did a tour with that.

“Then I saw the commercial on TV and they showed the Coast Guard doing some drug enforcement and that just looked like it’d be a blast, so I had to give it a try.

“So when I reenlisted, I reenlisted into the Coast Guard and did drug enforcement.”

John said the excitement offered by the Coast Guard had a powerful impact on him as a young man, but the private, family man added that he learned pretty quickly that the lifestyle he was living at that point was not going to jibe with his desire to start a family.

“The Military lifestyle, which I loved, I absolutely loved it, it’s not conducive to raising a family,” he said. “And I felt like that was another calling that I had to devote more time and attention to. I had to find a way to make both things fit.

“And the way to do that was to settle down and serve a local community.”

That he would want to find a job being a community servant makes sense, given the fact that John’s known he wanted a career in law enforcement since he was in high school.

Not long into our discussion he shared that as a kid he had been a little bit of a troublemaker, which isn’t really the best way to begin contact with the local police officers charged with protecting the community. But fortunately a chance encounter changed his initial perception.

“I wasn’t the best kid,” John told me with just a hint of a smile. “I had had a few skirmishes with the local police, but nothing serious.

“One day, at the police department, it was a Saturday, and they were doing a public event. They had a lot of contraband that they had recovered and stuff on display, and the public could come in and tour. It was like an open house for the police department.

“And they were having free coffee and donuts of course. I lived within walking distance, so I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll go over there and get a couple of free donuts and a cup of coffee.’ So I did.”

And what happened next had such an impact on the young man that it subsequently shaped the rest of his life.

“When I got there, one of the officers that knew me, because we had interacted, said, ‘Grab you a cup of coffee and come on in here,’” John continued. “He called me back to their muster room. So I walked back there, didn’t know what all that was about.

“But a couple of the cops were sitting around and we sat and started talking, and shooting the breeze about stuff, and they were talking to me like I was one of them. I mean, like this was just normal.

“Well it was weird to me. But they were talking about what it’s like in law enforcement and what it’s like doing that job and stuff.

“I didn’t realize at the time that they were actually recruiting me. I had never thought about anything like that until that day.

“When I went home and thought about it, I thought, ‘You know, that might not be a bad career choice.’ So I decided I was going to pursue that.”

John said that from then on he went from a 16 year-old kid who “really didn’t have any direction and didn’t apply” himself much, to an A student who eventually had a chance to go to college.

Although he said he was pretty committed from that point on, John did offer that not long after he set his mind on law enforcement things just sort of fell in place, reaffirming he had made the right choice with his life’s path.

“My mother was opposed,” John said of the reaction he got when he first announced his intentions. “Her father had been a police officer and was grievously injured in the line of duty, so she had no love for law enforcement, didn’t want me to go into it.

“But after that day (at the station), and going forward, nothing swayed me. Nothing else was interesting to me.

“From then on it was just a series of things that reinforced in me that this was the right decision. And criminal justice, the classes I took in college were compelling to me, very, very interesting. The people that I found myself around, we got along, we clicked.

“Once I got in the military and going through the military’s police academy, I was at the top of my class. Not the top, but I think I was fourth. I was up there. But it’s just everything that I did in furtherance of this, it just seemed like the right thing. Everything clicked. It kept compounding my interest.

“I just knew I was on the right track.”

And the notion that he was on the right path only continued, long after he joined the Sheriff’s Office and landed in the role of Director of Training, a position that not only fulfilled his passion for law enforcement, but also his newfound love of creating the best possible jail environment for staff and inmates.

Additionally, that move exposed John to the larger world of jails, as he began working with the Georgia Jail Association to look at training throughout the state jail system.

“I loved it,” John said of the time he spent heading up training at the jail. “I loved it. But I also recognized that any time you’re in a position like that, you’ve got to look both inside and outside. We had inside this agency and what our needs were, and how could we best address those, but I also wanted to look outside and say, ‘I’m in the business of doing jail training. So what is the status of jail training in the state of Georgia? How can we impact that for the better?’

“We ended up partnering with the Georgia Jail Association and we pushed to improve jail training throughout the state of Georgia. We updated and improved curriculum for the basic jail officer certification course. We helped implement a jail training officer program and other initiatives.

“We actually conducted jail officer certification training here, using this facility as a training site, and we were doing that quarterly before the state of Georgia even mandated it.

“We became known as the leading jail training center in the state of Georgia.”

Since that time, John said the Dougherty County Jail has continued to be a leader in the state, thanks to a variety of innovative programs like the one the Sheriff’s Office has devised to deal with income disparities among inmates awaiting trial.

While that might not seem like such a huge issue at first blush—especially considering society has sort of programmed us to believe that everyone in jail deserves to be there—John explained that it really is a major issue that he believes has exponentially negative impact on the community.

To illustrate his point, John shared a hypothetical scenario—that sadly is occurring every day in our criminal justice system—and explained how he sees his transition from training director to his current role as Chief Jailer has given him greater opportunity to help more people.

“Before I took this job, I thought that I had the best job on the planet,” John began. “Now I realize I was wrong. This is actually the best job on the planet.

“I have an opportunity to have greater impact on the clients that we serve here. And again, I approach this job the same way I did the other position I held. You look at the internals and you’ve got to look at the external. And I saw that there were some serious injustices—not necessarily things that we or anybody was doing wrong specifically, but there were just problems in the system. Let me give you an example.

“You and I committed the exact same crime and we were both arrested and brought to jail, but you are affluent and I am indigent. A bond amount gets set by a judge and we may get the exact same bond amount. But you, because you’re affluent, can pay your bond. So you go home, sleep in your own bed. You continue to work your job, you raise your children, you pay your taxes.

“Me, on the other hand, because I’m indigent, I stay in jail. I can’t go to work, so I lose my job. I’m not there for my kids. The only difference is money. “That’s an injustice there. I don’t know how to fix it entirely, but I know that ain’t right.

“The only thing that I could think of that we could do to change that paradigm was, I looked at how the Department of Community Supervision operated. If a person is convicted of crime, you can either send them to prison, or you can put them on probation. If they’re on probation, they get to go home and work and raise their kids. But they live under certain conditions. They’re supervised in the community by a probation officer.

“And I thought, ‘What the heck, why don’t we do that? But instead of that being their sentence, let’s do it in front of the trial while they’re in a pretrial status and I’ll have a deputy sheriff check up on them.’”

John said the Sheriff backed the idea, so he began looking around the state to see if other communities were doing anything similar. Turns out Muskogee County was doing a pretrial program, so John said Dougherty County took a few ideas “from their playbook” and then sent designated deputies to the state probation office to have them trained on how to do the things associated with community supervision.

“This is different than pretrial intervention like a lot of district attorney’s offices do,” he clarified. “That may be something like, ‘If I got a domestic violence charge, if I go through anger management classes and all, and they’ll end up dismissing the case against me.’ That’s different.”

Of course true to his nature, John went on to explain that while he was very excited about starting the pretrial program to allow folks who have not yet been convicted of a crime to be at home and be productive members of society while awaiting trial, he also felt like the jail team really could do even more.

“I wanted to do more than just keep an eye on folks,” John said. “Because when you turn somebody loose, they have needs. I mean, they’ve got to put a life together somehow, and so many folks don’t know how to do that.

“So we spend a lot of time helping people to create for themselves a good, sustainable life. We help them get jobs. We teach them how to interview.

“I’ve had deputies go buy them clothes to wear—out of their own pocket now, because we don’t have a budget for that—but we’ll buy them clothes. We’ll help set them up in apartments, get furniture for them, move them in. My own furniture out of my living room is now in an apartment over off Slappey for a young lady that just didn’t have anything. She got out of jail and needed furniture.

“We make sure they get the substance abuse treatment that they need, the mental health treatment that they need,” he continued. “We’ve taken them around to job interviews in the back of a patrol car.

“We do everything we can to try to help people and the result has been phenomenal. Not only has it, in my opinion, built a stronger, safer community—because we’re taking folks who would otherwise continue to break the law and become recidivists—but now they’ve got a life that they can be proud of. They’re able to raise their own children. They can work a job and pay taxes. They’re productive. And they don’t want to lose that.”

John went on to say that currently about 15% of the jail’s pretrial population is being supervised in the community, rather than in jail, which he points out is a significant savings to taxpayers, as those individuals are not having to be fed by the jail or go to doctor’s visits on the jail’s nickel.

“It’s a real win, win,” John said. “Well, it’s actually a win, win, win. Because we win, the individual wins and the community wins. So it’s been a great paradigm shift.

“Now nobody does it to the scope of what we’re doing, nobody that we know of, so we’re at a point where we’re sharing information with other sheriff’s offices around the state and inviting them to, ‘come take a look at what we’re doing, see if it would work for you in your community.’ We’re trying to be a model for them.

“So if there was one thing that I’ve accomplished in this position that I am most proud of, that would be it.”

While it might seem strange to some that John would feel so strongly about that program—considering it has such direct benefit on individuals many view as criminals not worth the effort—in point of fact, I learned through talking with John that like many people, I was looking at the men and women spending time in the jail entirely in the wrong light.

As we spoke, John was quick to let me know that he had learned early on in his career not to make assumptions about people and how they ended up in jail.

“I give this speech to every new employee we hire,” John began. “When I grew up, I was taught there are two kinds of people in this world—there are good guys and bad guys. And guess where all the bad guys end up? In jail.

“But it didn’t take me very long working in a jail to realize there’s actually very, very few bad people. Now, there are people that grew up in bad circumstances, folks that had bad role models, hung around bad crowds, made bad decisions. But that doesn’t make them bad people.

“Usually, people are unwilling to change until they realize that they’re vulnerable. They have to have that rock bottom experience. Well, for a lot of people, this is rock bottom.”

And when they get to that bottom, John said, they are more often than not more open to hearing a different message, which is one of the reasons he, and a lot of the other long-time employees of the Dougherty County Jail, see their profession as much more than a job.

“So they may now, for the first time in their life, actually be willing to make a change,” John continued. “They just need somebody to show them how. They need a good role model.

“Every day, when I came to work I knew that I might be the first positive role model some of these people may have ever seen at that point in their life. And when they need one. So I’ve had an opportunity, every day that I come to work in a jail, to change somebody’s life for the better.

“So that gets you out of bed in the morning. That’s what makes these people come to work for 12 hour days in miserable working conditions, frankly. But they do it day after day. They come in on overtime and then do it some more. It sure isn’t for the money.

“It takes this career and it changes it from just a job and it elevates it to a calling.”

Throughout our interview John returned repeatedly to the notion of a calling and how he, like the two sheriffs he’s served under and countless other deputies and staffers he’s worked with over the years, views himself as a true public servant.

While he certainly has his own private motivations like providing a certain lifestyle for his family, it was apparent to me that John is very much fueled by an earnest desire to make a difference in his community. And he’s not content to simply sit back and wait for something better to happen.

“We understand if don’t like something the way it is, then work to change it,” John said. “And it might change and it might not. But even if it doesn’t, at least you know you spent the effort that was required. So we do that. We try to change things for the better. We implement programs, we push legislation, we try to be actively involved.”

And while the change he enacts on the community comes mainly through his professional endeavors, John said on a personal level he could not be more proud of the community where he’s settled and raised his family—the Albany community he calls home.

“In my time, and I’ve been here a little over 30 years, Albany has experienced some significant setbacks,” John said. “But Albany has also demonstrated to me its resilience. We’ve seen it in the face of natural disasters that we’ve been hit with. I have seen it in the generosity of the people in this community through initiatives.

“We raise money every year for Special Olympics and I’ve seen people that didn’t have two dimes to rub together give to a cause because here, that’s just their spirit.

“And that kind of spirit always wins the day.

“Albany has a brilliant future. The challenges we’re facing now, we will be able to grow out of. It’ll take smart leadership, but we have some pretty smart leaders in place. And we have plenty of other folks getting ready to grow into those positions.

“So I see the future of Albany as bright and I absolutely believe that the best days are ahead of us.”

If indeed John’s prediction is to come true—and I’m firmly in the camp that believes he’s absolutely correct—then I must say, that while he sees one of the main reasons for that as being the intelligence and capabilities of future generations, I see things a little differently.

Yes, John is correct that our future is bright in part because of the generation of young people coming into their own and the capabilities of the generation at their heels, but our future is also bright because of the hard work and guidance of people like John Ostrander—people whose passion drives them to impact positive change in even the toughest of circumstances.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

Click here to catch up on previous Beyond the Bank Features