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While families give thanks, Thanksgiving is business as usual at St. Lawrence County jail

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CANTON — While the inner workings of the St. Lawrence County jail remained the same on Thanksgiving for inmates and officers alike, a taste of the holiday was served inside the tall walls of the lockup.

Inmates received turkey dinner at lunchtime courtesy of state surplus food. As for the corrections officers, they couldn’t eat together because of staggered break times, and their family celebrations could come only on a day off.

“Things don’t quit happening. It’s business as usual,” Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said. “If anything, there is a slight increase in domestics on holidays and things like that,” he added, referring to jail bookings for domestic violence.

Sgt. Andrew J. Kroeger has been working as a corrections officer for just over 25 years. For him and his family, holidays have always meant the possibility that he would have to work. His family had their Thanksgiving on Tuesday.

“We work however the schedule falls,” he said as he walked the halls of the jail Thursday. “It is a product of this line of work.”

Sgt. Kroeger agreed with Sheriff Wells that holidays in the jail are business as usual, except when it comes to dinner.

“We don’t see a whole lot of difference, although the inmates do look forward to the holiday meal,” Sgt. Kroeger said.

But the way the inmates are fed has changed over the years, he said.

“About 50 years ago when the jail was still behind the county courthouse, the sheriff’s wife used to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the inmates,” Sgt. Kroeger said.

The jail was much smaller then, holding only about two dozen inmates, with a residence for the sheriff, he added.

The new jail, which opened in May 2009 on Commerce Lane, houses a maximum of 186 inmates. On this Thanksgiving Day, there were 155 inmates, and their dinner was made by Tracy L. Van Atter, a hired cook who was assisted by four inmates, or “trustees,” as she said they are called.

Stirring a homemade turkey gravy in her industrial-sized kitchen, the smell of desserts in the oven filling the air, Mrs. Van Atter said the holiday menu consisted of items that were provided by the state at no cost to the jail.

That $600 worth of surplus came in the form of 10 boneless turkey breasts, two cases of sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, instant mashed potatoes and a pumpkin cake with frosting. Inmates also were served milk, bread and a homemade stuffing.

Ms. Van Atter said preparations started on Tuesday and the help of the trustees was invaluable.

“They are very helpful, and they have to do a lot to be down here,” Mrs. Van Atter said. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a resident here, so I try to make it as pleasing as I can for them.”

After the food is cooked and sent off on trays, Mrs. Van Atter sat with her helpers to eat dinner.

“I don’t think of myself as better than anyone here,” she said. “They are all human —someone’s brother or sister.”

Officer Kevin J. LaBier dined with three of his co-workers before they delivered meals to the inmates. This is his fifth year on the job and the first Thanksgiving he has had to work, but working holidays was familiar enough.

“When I grew up farming, we did holidays on odd hours,” Mr. LaBier said. “It’s nothing new; you work with what you get.”

Scheduled to work 16-hour shifts on Thanksgiving and today, Mr. LaBier said he will celebrate the holiday with his wife and child over the weekend.

Mr. LaBier said he has worked several Christmases at the jail, and that is a time he sees a difference in the inmates.

“A couple of the guys that come in closer to the holiday seem to be more impacted by it, but for the ones that have been here a while, it’s business as usual,” he said.

Inmates also tend to spend more time on the phone with family members on holidays, as visits are limited to weekends.

Officer Robert M. Rusaw, who works at the intake desk where arriving inmates are processed, said Thanksgiving is a very different day for him because it is quiet.

“It’s nice to be home, but we all just group together and joke around,” Mr. Rusaw said. “We just watched the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”

“It’s like night and day since there is no court. We just get caught up on paperwork, because come Monday morning, this place is going to be a zoo again with court being in full swing.”



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