Fayette County

Was Thanksgiving jail food a meal or a snack?

There was no turkey and dressing for employees working in the prisoner intake area of the Fayette County Detention Center on Thanksgiving Day 2008, just brownies, cookies and other desserts, and a tray of cheese cubes and carrots, Justin Crawford says.

The food and its consumption in that area of the local jail on the holiday could play a major role in the outcome of a federal court case being considered by a jury this week.

Crawford, a sergeant at the jail, sued the Urban County Government in federal court in Lexington last year, saying he had been retaliated against at work for being the lead plaintiff in a 2006 lawsuit against the local government. In the 2006 lawsuit, 340 current and former employees accused the government of violating labor laws by not paying for overtime and depriving workers of meal and rest periods. In October 2008, the employees and the city reached a settlement in which the employees were to receive $1,150,000.

But since the settlement, Crawford claims, he has been punished several times in retaliation for his role in the 2006 lawsuit.

"He is the face of the (2006) lawsuit," Crawford's attorney, Thomas Miller, told the jury of six women and two men Monday during opening arguments of the trial.

Disciplinary actions against jail employees increased dramatically, and free meals for employees in the jail's dining room stopped after the previous lawsuit was settled, Miller said.

Crawford, in particular, has been singled out since the settlement, he said. Other jail employees who have committed similar or even more serious rule violations than those Crawford has been alleged to have committed have not been disciplined as harshly as Crawford has, according to Miller.

But, said local government attorney Tracy Jones of disciplinary actions taken against Crawford, "This wasn't about retaliation. This was about making sure the rules were followed."

Crawford received a verbal warning for allowing intake unit employees to eat in their work areas on Thanksgiving Day 2008. There was a rule at the jail that no food was to be eaten at work stations, but supervisors had been allowing workers to eat snacks in their work areas, according to testimony and opening arguments Monday.

Whether the food that was consumed that day constituted a snack or a meal is one of the key issues in the case.

Crawford maintained that he shouldn't have been disciplined for insubordination for allowing the food to be eaten at intake unit work stations.

Because the jail has a "progressive" disciplinary system in which each subsequent violation of a similar nature carries a stiffer penalty, Crawford was suspended from his job without pay for a week the next time he was accused of insubordination. That time, he said, he had taken a part-time job at Collins Bowling Center on Southland Drive — an approved off-duty work site for jail employees — without first turning in a written request for permission from his bosses to take the second job.

Crawford admitted that he did not make sure he had been approved to take the off-duty job but maintained his punishment was too harsh.

"It was a paperwork mistake," he said.

Crawford told the jury that he has stayed "stressed out all the time" and has been having heartburn and headaches because of how he has been treated at work since the first lawsuit was settled.

"I feel like they're just looking for a reason to fire me now," he said. "I have to second- or third-guess every decision I make."

Crawford maintained that supervisors have been following his movements at work with the jail's security cameras.

Jones asked Crawford whether the cameras weren't in place to protect jail employees from dangerous prisoners.

"When it's (a security camera) pointed at those areas, yes," Crawford replied.

Crawford is seeking compensation, including punitive damages, and the removal of disciplinary documents from his personnel file.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader