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Ice storm caught prisons off guard

CENTRAL CITY — Sam Duff didn't long for hot water, television or even a hot meal when a deadly snow and ice storm struck Kentucky and knocked out power across the state.

Instead, Duff and his fellow inmates at Green River Correctional Complex wanted caffeine, cigarettes and accurate information.

"Tobacco and coffee is like gold around here," said the 55-year-old Duff, who is serving 19 years for manslaughter in Lexington.

Those little things proved invaluable during the storm for Green River warden Nancy Doom and her staff of 250 — along with the wardens and staff at the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex and the Kentucky State Penitentiary, home to the state's three dozen Death Row inmates.

All three prisons in Western Kentucky lost power and phone service during the Jan. 27 storm, thrusting nearly 3,000 inmates and a third as many staff into cold and darkness with little ability to contact the outside world.

"It's probably the first time we found where the staff had a life-or-death situation here," Doom said.

Now Kentucky Justice Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown is looking for funding for satellite phones, more portable generators and extra supplies should another such event take place.

"We're going to have to find a way to have adequate backup," Brown told The Associated Press. "These places have got to remain secure even in light of a natural disaster."

When the storm hit, wardens suddenly had to figure out how to keep inmates warm, occupied and fed without power, as well as provide the small things that help keep order, such as coffee and cigarettes.

The 250-acre Green River complex had only small backup generators to keep things running, including the locks on cell doors and fences that kept inmates inside.

The generators provided a bare minimum of light for a control center near Doom's office. For several days, the prison had no phones, save for one staff member's working cell phone.

Kerosene heaters kept cell blocks warm enough — the coldest they got was 56 degrees, while outside wind chills rendered temperatures in the single digits. Food service consisting of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bologna and other no-heat-necessary meals for the inmates and staff continued throughout the more than week-long outage.

Inmates aren't allowed to have matches or butane cigarette lighters for safety reasons. Instead, the prison uses electric lighters — which didn't work when the power went out. One staff member brought a lighter in, which was used under supervision.

"You'd get one lit and pass it around," Duff said.

Coffee proved a bit easier, as staff used a heater to boil water each day and made enough coffee to keep everyone happy.

Inmates working on crews clearing debris were able to bring word from the world outside the prison.

By the time power came back, inmate Jerry Duhon said prisoners and staff had accepted the cold as a part of life.

"We all was in this one together," said Duhon.