Ex-jailer Sabbatine named interim director of Fayette detention center

Ray Sabbatine, a former longtime director of the Fayette County Detention Center and a national authority on inmate risk assessment, has been named interim director of the troubled jail.

Mayor Jim Gray, flanked by several city officials, announced Sabbatine's temporary appointment Thursday morning at a news conference outside the jail on Old Frankfort Pike.

Sabbatine, who retired in 2001, will replace Ron Bishop, who announced he will retire Aug. 1 from the post he has held since 2004. Bishop said that the decision to retire was personal and that, at 62, he had planned to retire this year.

Bishop's retirement announcement came a month after two reports showed widespread problems with officer morale and leadership.

Sabbatine said his first tasks as interim jailer will be to "tighten management," learn what resources are available at the jail and get to know the staff and operations.

He said he would promote fiscal responsibility and raising revenue.

"I ran this facility during the best of times — when there was money. Now there's no money," he said. "Nobody wants to spend money on a jail. So you have to have a strong advocacy to say, 'We need this to happen ... and we need some resources to do it."

Gray said Sabbatine, who is widely known for his work at corrections centers in Lexington and across the nation, was selected for his leadership experience and discipline.

"Having this level of competence and talent is a big deal for our city," Gray said.

There is no timetable for selecting a permanent director.

"Transitions like this are not an event; transitions are a process," the mayor said. "So I try to avoid setting a time-specific new placement."

When asked whether he was interested in the permanent job, Sabbatine flatly replied: "No."

He said he came out of retirement to help the staff and officials, whom he called "family," make the transition to new leadership.

Sabbatine began working on criminal justice issues in various state-level positions in the early 1970s. In 1976, he was assistant to the Fayette County jailer. He was elected jailer in 1989. In 1994, the position in Lexington went from an elected post to an appointed one. Sabbatine retired in 2001.

Since retiring, Sabbatine has consulted with jails in many states to create monitoring programs that assess inmate risks and needs.

His programs help jail staff identify and care for inmates who require special attention, such as dangerous inmates who could become violent toward others, or those with special medical or mental health needs.

"It is kind of an electronic management-information process that says, 'We've identified risks; now we timely have to respond to it with a qualified provider so that we can abate the risk,'" he said.

There have been two recent deaths at the Fayette County Detention Center. On July 10, 2010, inmate Dean Ferguson died from a pulmonary embolism hours after being refused medical assessment for shortness of breath and leg pain.

Last month, Anthony Dwayne Davis, 26, was found unresponsive in a cell. Davis had atrial flutter, an abnormal heart rhythm, and required medicine once a day.

Sabbatine said the jail needs to focus on providing "a reasonable degree of protection" to its inmates rather than seeking special accreditations, recognitions and other "pie-in-the-sky things."

As for deaths at the jail, Sabbatine said Davis' death would not be the last.

"We're going to have deaths in jail from this point on. People will always die in jail," he said. "The issue is has this community adequately addressed what the (U.S.) Constitution says we need to do in order to prevent those things from occurring in the facility."

Bishop, the outgoing director, said that the jail would be in good hands and that he could rest easier during his retirement knowing Sabbatine was at the helm of "the solid team" at the jail.

"Ray is a good choice. He is a known commodity, he has a great deal of experience and he knows this facility," Bishop said.

Bishop said he agreed with Sabbatine that assessing the jail's resources and reacquainting himself with the staff and operations should be Sabbatine's first moves in office. Bishop said he has taken several steps to combat declining revenue, including cutting the command staff in half, initiating electronic monitoring for low-risk inmates and cutting $600,000 in overtime costs.

"Those things are in place now. I think what he's going to find is that this is a very different facility than even 10 years ago," he said.