Security at county jail a serious crisis

Published 2:08 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2017

It is time for state and/or federal authorities to step in and take over the Boyd County Detention Center.

We said months ago the jail is in need of an intervention. It is, unfortunately, time to say it again. The community knows it. The state apparently knows it. Everyone knows it, but at this point, little has been done to take control of the detention center.

The unraveling of security and safety at the jail is, without question, a systemic crisis. It is also, without question, a very serious problem that puts public safety at risk. This complex conundrum has to be fixed with new leadership and, just as importantly, money, to protect the residents of Catlettsburg, Boyd County and the Tri-State.

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Our assessment should not in any way be considered a personal attack on Jailer Joe Burchett, but the number of incidents and problems at the jail makes for overwhelming evidence of the need for state or federal authorities to step in.

How many reasons do they need? A riot at the jail that shut down the facility. Multiple overdoses, raising repeated questions about how inmates are getting drugs in and out of the facility. Multiple escapes. The most recent one, involving Phillip Tolliver, wasn’t even known about at the jail until Catlettsburg police called the jail to report it. A deputy jailer was arrested on an allegation of trafficking and possession charges. Add to this a $75,000 financial settlement from a lawsuit against the jail and it is no wonder the state decided to stop housing state prisoners there, putting an already strapped county budget some $700,000 in the hole this fiscal year.

This is yet another no-win situation for area residents. Federal authorities, when presented with such scenarios in other parts of the country, have stepped in repeatedly and quickly to protect the public. It is a surprise this hasn’t already happened here, raising questions about the federal government’s involvement in anything in eastern Kentucky. Are our federal legislators doing anything about this? Apparently not.

But there is no sugar coating the fact if the crisis continues to be neglected, the state or feds will step in and take over the Boyd County jail, and this will translate into a very sizable load of misery for county tax payers. What usually happens in these situations is the feds file complaints against the county, which enters into a consent decree with local governments mandating the problems be fixed, and the taxpayer gets out his or her checkbook.

The troubling series of episodes at the county jail is also emblematic of larger, chronic problems found in pretty much every state in America. They are problems of federal and state neglect of infrastructure, corrections, public safety and public education that go underfunded because of mismanagement combined with a void of political leadership. It is a product of our ideologically divided nation where no one compromises because of ideology.

In regard to corrections, the Kentucky system of electing local jailers makes no sense whatsoever. It is a flawed, broken system that invites these types of problems, handcuffing local leaders at the county building about what they can do. Instead of electing county jailers, local county governments should either have the ability to hire experienced corrections professionals to run their jails, or an alternative would be to put management of county jails under the jurisdictions of local sheriffs.

Boyd County needs to embark on a long-term plan to fix problems. It may include construction of a state-of-the-art regional jail. Multiple counties could benefit from this. It also involves making corrections jobs attractive financially. A huge part of the problem here and across the nation is what employees at corrections institutions are paid. Few want to work in a county jail, surrounded by accused killers, drug dealers and violent offenders for compensation levels ridiculously low considering the nature of the job. The compensation of jail employees has to be attractive enough for people to put up with the misery of working in a jail.

If the pay is not adequate for front-line staffers, we will never fix this problem because of constant turnover and vacancies.

Make no mistake about it. This is a full-fledged crisis. What will it take to prompt a long-term fix?

A public-safety catastrophe, apparently.

The Independent