Dangerous duty: Fayette Detention Center is a 'microcosm of a city'

jwarren@herald-leader.comOctober 12, 2013 

You could think of the Fayette County Detention Center as a small city that happens to be located in the middle of Lexington.

Indeed, if the jail were a municipality, it would qualify as a fifth-class city in Kentucky, based on its population of about 1,300 inmates.

"It is a microcosm of a city," says Col. Rodney Ballard who, as director of Community Corrections, is the jail's senior officer.

"Basically, we have just about everything that Mayor (Jim) Gray has. We have a police department to enforce the rules. We have a fire safety operation; a food service operation that serves 4,000 meals every day; and an urgent treatment clinic that sees 40 to 50 inmates per day. We have a mental health office and a dental office. We have plumbers, social workers, electricians and 71 acres of grounds that have to be mowed and taken care of."

It costs about $34 million a year to operate the jail, and a key to keeping everything running smoothly is the center's force of sworn community correction officers — about 260 men and women out of a total staff of just over 330.

Corrections officers work directly with the inmates 24 hours a day, enforcing the rules, managing problems, resolving disputes and keeping the peace.

It's a demanding job, and turnover is significant. To keep enough officers on hand, the jail trains a new recruit class about four times per year.

The latest group — Class 1401 — completed its 10 weeks of training and graduated Friday. It was the third class of 2013.

Even as Class 1401 was wrapping up, another class, 1402, started training early last week. The jail is now funded for a total of 263 corrections officers, and the two classes together will bring total strength to almost that level, jail officials said.

Correction officers are the backbone of what the jail does, according to Lt. Scott Colvin, the assistant director.

"The greatest strength we have, I think, is the professional presence of the line officer," Colvin said. "Each officer basically serves as the town sheriff in each housing unit at the jail — one officer per shift, three shifts per day.

"They assume responsibility for what happens in their units. And they know what to do, because we train them well."

The starting salary for a corrections officer is about $30,000 per year. In contrast, Lexington firefighters start at almost $35,000, and Lexington police start at more than $36,000. Starting pay for corrections officers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is about $40,000 annually.

Because of that, more than a few corrections officers leave to work for the federal prison system or other agencies. For example, two jail officers were hired by the Federal Medical Center in Lexington last week.

That's one factor contributing to turnover among corrections officers at the jail. Others include long hours and the stresses of managing sometimes-dangerous inmates who are being incarcerated against their will.

But jail officials also say that plenty of people want to work at the Fayette Detention Center because of its strong reputation.

The Fayette jail opened in 2000. Almost 14 years later, its design is still widely considered state of the art. Other facilities, notably the Kenton County Detention Center, incorporate concepts from the Fayette County jail. Corrections officials from other states, and even some foreign countries, visit the Fayette Detention Center to look for ideas.

The Fayette jail is based around the concept of "direct supervision," in which corrections officers actually work in the housing units right among the inmates. Most of the time, there is no heavy locked door separating the officers from the inmates they manage.

In contrast, older jails use a "linear" design, with cells located along both sides of long corridors. Officers patrol the halls.

"In a linear jail, an officer patrolling the corridor is only in control of the inmates' environment for exactly the few seconds he is passing a cell and has his eyes on those inmates," said Major James Kammer, bureau manager at the Fayette jail.

"Here, with the way our facility is designed, almost anywhere an officer is located in his housing unit he has direct line of sight of most of the inmates in that unit. If he sees an inmate doing something wrong, he can be on the scene right away."

Making the system work, however, depends on having officers trained to be constantly alert to what's going on among the inmates and ready to intervene whenever necessary.

"That's not just a part of doing their job. They understand that their personal safety is tied to it as well," Colvin said. "It's the culture, the training, the tradition.

"You come here to learn the job, and we're going to give you a profession."

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.

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