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Undercover 'inmate' exposes jail conditions in Cass, others places

Alexander Reynolds, author of "Convict Land: Undercover in America's Jails," stands behind bars. Reynolds talked his way into different prisons between 2004 and 2009 as part of his research1 / 2
"I couldn't believe a concentration camp could exist in America, until I saw it with my own eyes," Reynolds, right, said after a week in an Arizona prison.2 / 2

FARGO - People usually have a tough time getting out of jail.

But Alexander Reynolds had the opposite problem. He had a tough time getting into some of them, short of committing a crime.

"I did entertain that thought initially, before I started to get in," Reynolds said from his home in Atlanta. "All said the same thing: 'Your safety cannot be guaranteed.' "

Between 2004 and 2009, Reynolds talked his way into jails across the United States as part of research for his book, "Convict Land: Undercover in America's Jails," which comes out May 1.

One of the jails was the Cass County Jail in Fargo.

With the permission of then-Jail Administrator Glenn Ellingsberg, Reynolds was booked in with the knowledge of only a few top-level jail officials.

Jailer Glen Norris wasn't in on the subterfuge, but when he realized Reynolds was a fellow Englishman, he thought there was something not right about the new inmate's story.

"He seemed kind of nervous," Norris said. "I spent the day trying to figure it out, and they couldn't tell me."

Reynolds spent a weekend in the Delta block of the jail, where nonviolent offenders are kept. He calls it a positive experience, as jail stays go.

"It was one of the best-run facilities I'd been to," he said.

Guards were easy to summon via a panic button and came promptly if someone had a medical problem.

That wasn't the case with other jails, where guards at one facility let an inmate cough up blood for a half-hour, telling him "it's part of their punishment," Reynolds said.

Reynolds said he saw no evidence of illicit drug use and trade in the Cass County Jail when he stayed there, although he did ask inmates whether drugs could be obtained.

Several inmates have been charged over the past year with smuggling drugs into the jail.

"That is an alarming development," Reynolds said.

Cass County Capt. Judy Tollefson, who worked at the jail when Reynolds was there and knew he was undercover, said the jail is struggling with more drug smuggling than when Reynolds was there.

"I believe it speaks to the levels of addiction we're seeing," which has increased in the inmate population in the past three or four years, she said.

Reynolds said he wanted to give people a glimpse of jail life as it is, not as films show it.

And he wanted to tell the story from a perspective that wasn't tainted by questions about his personal or legal agenda.

"You don't really believe the guilty," Reynolds pointed out. "People have absolutely no empathy for the convicted."

A case in point might be public reaction to the experience of inmates at the now-famous Maricopa County Jail in Arizona, where inmates wear pink and Reynolds stayed for a week.

"I couldn't believe a concentration camp could exist in America, until I saw it with my own eyes," he said.

Still, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's methods of correction are supported by many in his state, and across the nation, Reynolds said.

Tollefson said she's pleased Reynolds had a decent jail experience in Cass County, and thinks the undercover work he did is important.

"It's intriguing, sure, why not?" she said. "There's so much on TV that is not accurate."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541