By James Cook, Times Editor
Being caught by surprise is an understatement for the inmates at the Powell County Detention Center. Last Tuesday evening a surprise shakedown of the facility helped jail staff, local law enforcement and the state’s Department of Corrections to find items they did not expect. Drug testing also provided some disturbing results. The nearly five hour search has led Powell County Jailer Melvin Rogers to follow the state’s recommendation and lockdown the inmates for up to 60 days.
According to a jail supervisor, Tina Haddix, the state went even further. On Monday, the state reportedly moved 15 inmates out of the Powell County facility. Some reportedly went to the Three Forks Correctional Facility in Beattyville. All of them tested positive during the drug test last week. The move could cause a shortfall of near $185,000 in the jail budget.
Rogers, who was appointed as the jailer on April 1 after the retirement of long time jailer Ted Lacy, said he received a tip and initiated the search. He called on local law enforcement and the state to assist with the search and drug testing. In days leading up to the search, at least two inmates were caught with contraband items in the facility. Contraband items are considered to be anything that is either illegal or is not allowed in the jail. In some facilities, if it was not issued by the jail then it is considered contraband.
During the search items like cell phones, cell phone chargers, tobacco, syringes and two finger nail files that could have been used as weapons, known as shanks, were found. Canine units were used to search the outer grounds and jail vehicles for items. However, they did not find any contraband items. The syringes reportedly belonged to an inmate who takes insulin shots, but is not supposed to have the needles in his cell where they were found.
“I figured it was about time for a search and we got some information. So that sort of set it off,” Rogers said. “I called in help from the local law enforcement and the DOC. We didn’t find any drugs, but we found other items.” Rogers did not want to “pin-point” where the information came from for the time being. “I don’t want to do that until we are sure and we don’t want to hinder the investigation,” he said.
As for the drug testing issue, rumors have surfaced over the past few years that like many other jails across the state, drugs were available in the jail. Despite no illegal drugs being found during the search, still several inmates tested positive. The Powell County facility reportedly holds 147 inmates, with near 40 being on the work-release/community service program. The positive results were surprising.
“I’m not sure if the tests were random and I know some refused and I think they may have included those in the positive ranks,” Powell County Judge Executive Darren Farmer told the Times in an interview late last week. “They (DOC) have told me that 54 percent of the state inmates tested positive and 36 percent of those on the secured side also tested positive.”
Farmer was asked how the high number of positive results of state inmates will affect the county.
At a special meeting of the Powell Fiscal Court on Monday, as inmates were being removed by the DOC, Farmer was asked how losing state inmates would affect the county’s budget. “We are on a 60 day lockdown,” Farmer answered. “Fifteen inmates will be moved today . This will adversly affect the jail fund of our budget by reducing revenues between $12,000-$15,000 per month.” That would mean a ,oss of state revenue for holding those inamtes of up to $185,000.
“We are following the recommendations of the DOC and trying to take corrective actions as they suggested to help solve some of these problems,” Farmer reported as he answered questions last week. “I know they (inmates) have been put on a 60 day lockdown. And I believe the DOC will be back periodically to readminister drug testing in those 60 days.”
During the ingterview the day after the shakedown, Farmer was asked if there was a drug testing policy for jail staff as well. “Well, we have a random policy in place, but there really has not been any money to implement it,” Farmer said. “As you know with the budget situations we’ve had, we’ve struggled just to keep the lights on. We will do it when the budget allows for it though.”
Rogers confirmed that the inmates, including work-release inmates, had been “pulled” until further investigation. “We are following the DOC suggestions and they will be locked down, no one leaving the building, until the investigation is completed,” Rogers said.
Last Saturday Rogers called the Times to report that the lockdown was still continuing and that someone had been charged on Thursday for trying to place cigarettes near a back door during visitation. However, a check of the citations Monday afternoon at the Powell Circuit Court Clerk’s Office did not reveal any new arrests. “They may still have the citations at the jail,” clerk staffers told the Times. Rogers called the Times on Monday evening and said that gail Pearson had been charged with trying to bring contraband into the facility. “She left it by the door where the kitchen was, it’s a hallway now to the men’s cells,” Rogers said. Tobacco items are considered contraband at most jail and detention facilities across the state.
“As you know, people just keep trying and it is difficult to keep everything out,” Rogers added. “But we try.”
The state Department of Corrections, as well as county officials, are continuing the investigation.