Jim Stilson, a lieutenant with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, pulled a black pager up to his face and softly informed the control room staff inside the county jail that the students had arrived for their tour.
A steel door slowly crawled along its tracks and ascended into the ceiling of the sally port Wednesday morning inside the Columbia County Jail. Stilson stepped onto a ramp and briefed a group of area high school students about the rooms they would visit inside the facility.
One student asked if serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was once held at the jail.
No, Stilson said, he was held at the Columbia Correctional Institution, a state prison located elsewhere in Portage.
“People get that mixed up all the time,” Stilson said.
The students followed Stilson inside, where they could hear an inmate singing from inside his cell down the hallway.
The jail tour was part of a daylong event for Future Leaders Active in Government, an academic program open to area high school students. It was coordinated by the University of Wisconsin Extension at Columbia County.
“The FLAG program is about helping students with leadership development,” said Kathleen Haas, community resource development educator for the Extension. “It’s helping students with understanding how government works to protect civil rights, public goods and public services.”
The nine-month program aims to offer students interested in working in government or law enforcement a feel for the challenges and rewards of those jobs, Haas said. The program also touches on how various levels of government work together to serve the public and how students can become engaged citizens after high school.
Stilson said the jail staff is conscientious of ensuring students’ safety and that it is beneficial for young adults interested in pursuing employment with law enforcement to get a hands-on view of that line of work. It also can serve as a deterrent to crime, he added.
“It’s always good to show what really happens behind the scenes … that way, they can see firsthand the importance of having good people in those positions,” Stilson said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces that people don’t even realize.”
Several students expressed interest in visiting the county the jail before Wednesday’s tour, Haas said.
Chris Thomas III, 17, said he had never seen the jail before, and wanted to learn more about the process of how inmates are brought from the squad car into the jail.
“It’s pretty fun,” he said, peering through a set of glass windows into the control room, where jailers monitored inmates using an array of screens. “I’m learning a lot of stuff I didn’t know before.”
Thomas’ great-grandfather was a police officer in Middleton, which sparked his curiosity to learn more.
Grace Murray, 18, said she also enjoyed the jail tour, particularly when Stilson discussed security measures used to keep the jail running smoothly.
“It was cool to see how everything worked,” Murray said.
Murray wants to study elementary education and criminal justice at either UW-Platteville or Ripon College.
Inside the jail, an inmate approached and pressed his face against a glass window separating him from the students touring the facility. A female worker monitoring the cameras ordered him to step away from the glass.
He wanted to eat. The monitor said food would be served shortly.
Just outside the control room, a few girls talked about how interesting it was to finally see the inside of the jail, while an inmate waved at them.
After the jail tour, the group of students returned to the Columbia County Law Enforcement Center on Cook Street for a luncheon, where they interviewed professionals working in law enforcement and local government.
Haas said the teens involved in Future Leaders Active in Government were “top-notch students.”
The program will host its next event Jan. 30 in Madison, where students will discuss law and policy with state legislators at the capitol building.