PAINTSVILLE — The Big Sandy Regional Detention Center, started by Magoffin, Martin, Lawrence and Johnson counties as a way to save money for smaller counties and exemplify regional cooperation, is governed instead by political infighting and squabbles that pit counties against one another, some board members say.
State police and auditors have spent nearly a year investigating the jail, including questions about the death of an inmate. In the past week, the jail's board chairman has resigned, an employee championed by that chairman has been fired because of accusations of sexual misconduct, and the jail is appealing the verdict in a lawsuit over a contract it says the chairman signed without board authorization.
"This is a very poorly set-up system that this regional jail has," acting board chairman Jim Kelly said last week.
The jail has never been audited, Kelly said, and the expenditures were never reviewed heavily during board meetings. Board members were being paid their mileage costs for sometimes daily 100-mile drives to visit the jail, and when the board attorney advised members that they should be paid only for once-a-month meetings, he was temporarily fired.
Three years ago, Kelly said, the state Department of Corrections considered pulling its prisoners from the jail because it employed a felon.
Kentucky State Police detectives are conducting "multi-faceted" investigations, with help from the state auditor's office, said Trooper Mike Goble, spokesman for the Pikeville police post. He said the allegations include financial issues, employee misconduct and treatment of inmates, but the investigation is ongoing, and details could not yet be publicized. Last year state police seized boxes of documents at the jail, and auditor's employees returned earlier this year to look at more records.
Part of what police may be investigating, officials say, are complaints that a corrections officer pulled down his pants and forced an inmate to touch the officer's penis, made vulgar gestures toward inmates and chased Johnson County sheriff's deputies around the jail's booking area, trying to hug them.
Also, the mother and daughter of inmate Sherry McFaddin, who died in March while serving a sentence for theft, sued this month, claiming jail guards and medical staff did not give McFaddin proper care when she came down with a respiratory illness.
And the jail is on the hook for more than $80,000 owed to the Frankfort firm Kenar Architectural and Engineering, which was hired in 2007 to design a $1.5 million expansion. The project was put on hold when the four county judges-executive and board members balked at the cost.
Kelly said the jail's problems center on a "maverick board member" and a jail administrator who "wields a lot of power." He said the regional jail system has broken down into political fights.
Corrections officer fired
On Thursday, the jail authority board voted to fire the corrections officer accused of sexual misconduct.
Internal documents — part of a packet addressed from jail administrator Henry "Butch" Williams to the jail authority in January — included two incident reports signed by shift supervisor Justin Blanton and letters signed by inmate Emeral David May.
May said corrections officer Doug Muncy approached him about 2 a.m., but he didn't remember which day. Muncy told May repeatedly to "close his eyes and hold out his hand," according to a document dated Jan. 5 and signed by May, Williams and Assistant Administrator Rodney Patrick.
At first May refused, but then he complied, and he said Muncy placed his penis in May's hand, the document said.
May said the next day he repeatedly told corrections officers Anthony Allen, Arthur Cole and Ranvil Boggs what happened, and he asked to speak with Williams and Patrick, but May said he was denied. The officers "must have thought he was joking," the document says.
Allen and Cole said May never told them about the incident and didn't ask to speak to administrators, the documents said. Inmate Jason Cooksey said he saw at least part of the incident, though two other inmates denied they saw anything, according to documents.
When told about May's allegations, Muncy said, "This is a crock!," according to jail records dated Jan. 5. When asked if he put his penis in May's hand, Muncy said, "No ... I did drop trouser though," the signed document says. "I dropped my trousers but my shirt hung down below my underwear. I then chased May around CC1, but I have never touched anyone here in any way."
Muncy had been reprimanded before. On Aug. 20, he was reprimanded for "vulgar gestures" toward inmates.
On Jan. 2, Muncy was reprimanded after he "pulled his pants down with underwear showing, started laughing and trying to hug deputies" who were dropping off inmates at the jail. Two other guards were present, the reprimanding supervisor said. Muncy was suspended for three days.
Board members say Muncy sent a letter of resignation on Jan. 14, and then was suspended for 15 days or 30 days — recollections differ, and board meeting minutes are unclear. Either way, Muncy was back at work earlier this month. Board members say that during January's executive session to discuss personnel matters, board chairman John Harmon thought Muncy deserved a second chance.
Muncy is the son of a former longtime county attorney in Martin County, where Harmon is running for election as magistrate. Muncy had a good record and made a mistake, board members say Harmon said during the January meeting.
"'I think we should bring him back,'" Kelly said Harmon told board members.
Harmon, who resigned from the board last week, did not answer phone calls from the Herald-Leader.
Martin County Judge-Executive Kelly Callaham said he had no problems with Harmon's performance on the board. Concerning Harmon's support of Muncy, Callaham said: "I think basically he was just trying to support someone from Martin County."
Callaham appointed a security guard and former deputy sheriff to replace Harmon on the board.
The jail's financial difficulties include a lawsuit filed in 2008 by architectural firm Kenar over a contract Harmon signed. The firm was hired in 2007 to take over designing a new jail wing that would include a kitchen and cost about $1.5 million to build, according to court records. But after the designs were completed, the jail authority questioned whether it could afford the expansion, and work was halted.
The jail authority did not pay invoices totaling $80,388 for the design work already completed, Kenar sued, and a Franklin Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of Kenar.
The jail board appealed the ruling, saying it did not authorize its then-chairman, Harmon, to sign a contract for so expensive a project. The state Court of Appeals rejected that argument on Feb. 5.
The board authorized its attorney, Nelson Sparks, last week to go ahead with the appeal.
"You can go through the minutes and turn them inside out, and you won't find anything about $1.5 million," Sparks said.
He said questions about the cost of the project were brought before the board by the judges-executive from Martin, Magoffin, Lawrence and Johnson counties.
Why a regional jail?
Martin County spends about $18 per prisoner per day at the jail, Callaham said, and that's low compared with averages across the state of $23 to $25 a day, said Kentucky Jailers Association President Bobby Waits, jailer at Shelby County.
Lower costs to small counties might sometimes be an advantage of the regional jail system, but it's one of few, Waits said.
"In my opinion, there's a lot fewer positive things coming out of the regional jails than negative," Waits said Friday.
When regional jails are set up, which county gets the contracts and who gets to run the jails become political questions, instead of fiscal responsibility questions, Waits said.
The system for governing regional jails was established in Kentucky law in the early 1980s: Counties that band together to form regional jails appoint two board members each, except the most populous county, which appoints three.
The Big Sandy jail, the state's first regional jail, was built in 1984. The biggest county is Johnson, which also has its jailer on the board, giving it four seats, board members say. Magoffin and Martin counties vote as a bloc, they say.
"I'm over here to represent Martin County," said board member Garland Muncy at Thursday's meeting, in arguing that Martin County should retain the chairmanship of the board since Harmon resigned.
The question of chairmanship was tabled.
"I feel that we send money over, but there's no money being spent back in Martin County" in the form of purchases at Martin County businesses, jobs going to Martin County citizens and power on the board, Muncy said after the meeting.
He pointed out that the board's attorney and recording secretary are from Lawrence County, and he said the Martin County bloc was right to defend employees from Martin County and seek to keep the chairmanship.
Big Sandy is one of three jails governed by a regional jail authority. The other two are Kentucky River Regional Jail in Hazard, governed by Perry and Knott counties, and the Three Forks Regional Detention Center in Beattyville, governed by Lee, Owsley and Wolfe counties.
Waits said a statewide study by the Kentucky Jailers Association, the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky showed that overall, the usual single-county jail system, with contracts for housing prisoners from other counties that do not have jails, costs taxpayers less in the end.
The regional jail system "probably wasn't thought through real well," Waits said.
Nicholas County hopes that won't be the case as it establishes a regional jail authority with Bourbon County to oversee the jail in Paris. Nicholas County Judge-Executive Larry Tincher said he hopes to save about $7 a day in prisoner housing in the first year: The county's current contract with Montgomery County was going to increase to $35 a day, whereas the county will pay $28 a day at Bourbon County, with the cost increasing over five years.
Bourbon Judge-Executive Donnie Foley said state officials recommended the regional jail system as a way to avoid problems the county has had with its elected jailer, Tony Horn, who is scheduled to go on trial next month on charges of official misconduct and tampering with records relating to the death of an inmate. Under a regional jail authority, a hired jail administrator, not an elected jailer, oversees the jail's operations.
Foley said the Bourbon fiscal court voted this month to go ahead with the regional jail plan. The Nicholas fiscal court has yet to vote.
At the Big Sandy jail, state Department of Corrections officials said they had no real oversight authority, except to monitor whether state prisoners needed to be removed. Spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said the department is monitoring the state police investigation and will step in if any action is needed.
Kelly said state officials told him they had no authority over internal jail matters. "There doesn't seem to be a supervising authority that has any authority. I thought the fiscal courts did, and I was advised that they didn't," Kelly said. "The next echelon of authority needs to get involved in it."
Staff writer Josh Kegley contributed to this report. Dori Hjalmarson covers Eastern Kentucky for the Herald-Leader. Reach her in the Pikeville bureau at (606) 653-2111.