· Randy Henderson (b. 1954)
It’s Election night, Tuesday, April 2, 2013, in Hutchinson, Kansas, at Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson’s house. Smiling, new-jail supporters can’t believe the overwhelming success of the ½ cent sales tax vote. Unofficially, the bond issue is passing by an incredible 77.4%.
The result is no miracle; instead, it’s the outcome from many conscientious individuals working together for a single community goal, led by the hard-working, effective, and forward-thinking sheriff.
In 1971, when the new $1 million city-county law enforcement center (LEC) was opened in Hutchinson, the Reno County commissioners and the public were pleased with the building.
No one was happier with a new jail than the jailers who worked for Sheriff Charles Heidebrecht. The cells in the old jail on the fifth floor of the courthouse had become such a security risk that the jailers used extra locks and chains on the doors because of broken locking mechanisms.
Soon, at the LEC, the first jail-design flaw was discovered. It was smelled before it was spotted. Inexplicably, the air vents had been intentionally placed in the floors of the cells, not in the walls. When prisoners decided to create havoc, they would simply clog up the toilet and watch it overflow into the ventilation system, causing unsanitary conditions.
Two other areas that had been overlooked in the planning, was an emergency fire exit, and the need for separation of juveniles from adult inmates.
In 2006, Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson and community leaders attempted to pass a ¼ cent sales tax to build a $20.7 million 208-bed jail, directly north of the courthouse. The proposal failed, 54.2% against and 45.8% in favor.
Henderson learned from the defeat.
If he was still sheriff the next time there was a jail bond issue, he wanted a proposal that answered more questions. Henderson promised himself that he’d make sure the project explained how the main jail and the jail annex would be repurposed and include the remodeling costs in the package.
A year later, Sheriff Henderson was ready to assemble an improved jail task force with an updated plan, but he was forced to wait seven long years until 2013 for another public vote.
“Can you believe it?” asked Randy Henderson who resembled the Cheshire cat who couldn’t stop smiling in Lewis Carroll’s* Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “We did it. It passed.”
“You made it real,” said one woman with a lopsided smile, who resembled a Botox patient or stroke victim. She was just one happy face in a celebratory crowd. “You helped educate the public. A majority of the inmates in the jail have not been convicted of anything.”
“Yes,” agreed the sheriff, “it was difficult to change the narrative. People believe that inmates get what they deserve. We reminded them that many prisoners are awaiting trial; they’re supposed to be presumed innocent until found guilty.
“We also told the public about our dedicated officers. People tend to forget that our staff have to work in the same environment 12 hours a day as the inmates. Officers planning a career as a jail employee are basically sentenced to 25 years behind bars.”
“Sheriff, you’ve come a long way from your days of lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” said a former drug enforcement officer. “What happened to you?”
“I changed the day I became sheriff,” said Henderson. “Now I remind people, ‘not only bad people go to jail, sometimes good people make mistakes and end up behind bars.’ And the jail overcrowding prevents us from offering educational programs, better health care, and work release.”
As people kept arriving, everyone had smiles plastered on their faces, expressing their happiness, using their whole mouth, cheeks, and eyes. A stranger might have questioned the purity of the tap water or if the rib sauce, brownies, and drinks had been spiked with illegal substances.
“It’s ironic that in order to get the public to vote for a future jail, you had to show them all the deficiencies of the old one,” commented a smiling supporter radiating happiness.
“We had to be transparent and admit the flaws of a poorly designed, worn-out, overcrowded jail,” replied Henderson. “Captain Larry Dyer never turned down a request for a public tour.”
“Dyer came through,” said a voice from the other room.
“Only by allowing the citizenry to see the poor living conditions could they grasp the vision of how much better it could become,” said Henderson. “Without the concrete experience of visiting the jail, people didn’t know what was true. I really believe that the tours allowed visitors to develop understanding and empathy for everyone locked up behind bars—the innocent and the guilty.”
“I still can’t believe it passed,” said a generous donor who had helped pay for a brochure’s printing and mailing.
As Henderson looked around the room, he saw beaming, pleased people. “It was an amazing effort; it took all of us. Thank you,” he said
“The blue-ribbon committee worked on this for almost two years,” added Henderson. “Lee Spence was incredibly thorough.” Lee served as chairman of the jail committee that studied the issues and developed a plan for the 250-bed jail and courthouse security, and Steven Becker, a member and former judge, always gave his balanced view.
“We’re lucky Dan returned home to Hutchinson from his security job at Disney World,” said Henderson, as his body faded in the shadows except for his bright Cheshire grin. “The county commissioners, including Chairman Deming and Brad Dillon, promoted the project, preferring a sales tax payment plan over an increase in property taxes.”
“Don’t forget the News,” shouted a reporter.
“The reporting of the Hutchinson News was exceptional,” agreed Henderson, “We’re lucky to have a professional paper. It provided in-depth coverage of the issues, and unlike in 2006, the editor didn’t squabble about the total number of beds. Voters understood that spending $400,000 a year to house Reno County prisoners out-of-county because of overcrowding was throwing away good money.”
It was quite the gathering. Eventually, people would double-check the vote count before calling it a night and going home. Celebrations would continue for days, if not weeks. The results of the vote would impact people for years, even decades.
All the smiles in one place at one time because of one singular event, had caused the release of an enormous amount of the dopamine hormone.
The result was real group happiness.
On the drive home from the winning bond-vote celebration, a 60-something-year-old turns the radio to her favorite oldies-but-goodies music station.
A recognizable psychedelic rock song begins to a familiar marching beat. The driver is transported back to the 1960s in San Francisco. Her laugh-lines deepen as she cranks up the volume and belts out a lyrical line.
Grace Slick of the rock group Jefferson Airplane sings “White Rabbit,” named for a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Slick wrote the song after being raised listening to Carroll’s book being read to her by her parents, and when older, reading it herself.
The singer’s haunting imagery illustrates the effects of taking hallucinogenic drugs.
Her song describes a curious Alice, a hookah-smoking caterpillar, but no smiling Cheshire cat.
*Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), an English writer of children’s fiction and fantasy literature, was better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is commonly known as Alice in Wonderland.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.