Prison with a View

Amid the soaring luxury high rises in sunny Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, stands a great hulk of a building that seems out of place. It definitely is. It’s the county jail with room for 1500 prisoners with very narrow windows to keep them from falling or jumping out. The exterior is concrete flat with nothing to catch the eye. In the pardonably outraged words of Sun Sentinel reporter Steve Bouquet, it’s “a soulless monstrosity incongruously plopped down there, of all places, with sleek yachts cruising by.”

The mistake on the part of the city was understandable. Back in the 1970’s the jail – two cramped floors in the courthouse –  couldn’t keep up with the  crime. The sheriff called it the “black hole of Calcutta.” So a desperate city spent $43 million to convert a courthouse parking lot into the jail we see today. But why this location on a scenic river with a stunningly bright future ahead? At the time, little was expected of a run-down desolate area seldom visited – perfectly suitable for a lofty jail.

The rush to Florida proved this wrong. Ft. Lauderdale rapidly expanded in every direction. Today the affluent migrants look on their unsightly neighbor with bewilderment. What’s it doing there? How do we get rid of it? There have been some efforts to do that, but they haven’t succeeded. Removal would be too expensive –  hundreds of millions of dollars. The current location also saves transportation costs. It’s just a short walk to the court.

An attorney emerging from the courthouse says the jail is the only one in the U.S. that can boast a view. Beyond that, there’s not much to be said. Conditions don’t rank with the high rises. A fellow with a DUI ankle brace tells me he spent eight months in the facility. “It was hell and peanut butter sandwiches.”

Many neighbors seems ready to live and let live. A server at the nearby Downtowner restaurant says released inmates come immediately to his place to get some coffee, make some phone calls. They are satisfied customers. One escaped prisoner jumped into the river but was quickly captured. A bartender at another restaurant notes the view from his apartment is partially blocked by the jail. But he’s compensated by the attachment of his building’s power grid to the jail’s. In a hurricane his lights will stay on.

Then too, there’s something appropriate about the current location. It’s true to life. Good and bad, the law and the lawless stand side by side in symbol as they do in reality. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of this as residents run to shops and beaches with a freedom the inmates don’t have.

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