New Fayette County jail director brings enthusiasm, optimism to job

Rodney Ballard is working to address problems of low morale, lawsuits and charges of inmate abuse at the Fayette County jail.
Rodney Ballard is working to address problems of low morale, lawsuits and charges of inmate abuse at the Fayette County jail. Lexington Herald-Leader

Two weeks ago when city officials were devising a plan to deal with celebrations of University of Kentucky victories in the NCAA Final Four and championship games, corrections officers were part of the conversation.

Lexington police arrested people on the streets, and corrections officers booked them at the scene so police did not have to drive to jail.

Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason said that's just one example of how things are being done differently at the jail — and Rodney Ballard, the new director of the Fayette County Detention Center, played a key role in that.

"His take on that was we'll do whatever it takes," Mason said of Ballard. "One of my major themes was to get these people all working together better. Fire, police and corrections are now sitting down together planning events ... it's one big team. His people are ecstatic to go out and be a part of something like this."

Such a boost is welcome at the jail, which has had issues with low morale.

Problems at the jail have been well-documented: There have been numerous discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits, and an FBI investigation into inmate abuse eventually led to the convictions of five corrections officers. And, before he took office last year, Mayor Jim Gray had a transition team look into issues at the jail.

Former corrections chief Ron Bishop announced his retirement last year about a month after two reports showed widespread problems at the jail.

Ray Sabbatine, a former longtime director of the Fayette County Detention Center who retired in 2001, was brought in as interim director. A national authority on inmate risk assessment, Sabbatine got the ball rolling on some changes. But the baton has been passed to Ballard, whom the city hired last month. His appointment was approved by the Urban County Council on March 8.

Mason says Ballard, a longtime lawman with experience overseeing jails across the state, "has been a perfect person in a tough place at a needed time."

"I think we struck gold with Rodney Ballard coming in at the time that he's coming, because he has the capacity and the background and the personality to address things in a positive way that will help take care of all of the things that we have seen that have been documented as systemic problems there," Mason said.

When Gray introduced Ballard at a news conference, Ballard promised to come in with "boots on the ground" and make changes to improve critical issues such as budget overruns and officer and inmate safety.

Ballard and Sabbatine recently outlined some of those changes in more detail, changes they think will have the added benefit of improving much-discussed issues of employee morale, turnover and liability.

"The glass here at community corrections is half full, not half empty," Ballard said.

During Sabbatine's tenure, he put protocols in place to protect inmates and officers and reduce liability, he said. During the past five years, the city has spent more than $3.5 million to defend or settle lawsuits against the facility.

Among the new protocols were changes in inmate housing. About 450 inmates were moved to new housing units to separate inmates charged with non-violent and violent crimes.

"If you had an inmate who was a non-violent offender get hurt by a violent offender, you had some liability," Sabbatine said. "If we have an event now, it's going to be between two violent offenders or two non-violent offenders, which makes it much more defensible if we should have litigation."

Most use-of-force issues happen as inmates are being booked. Sabbatine altered intake processes, which he said has led to a reduction in the need to use physical force to control inmates. For example, police officers and inmates are now separated during booking, which reduces conflicts between two people who might be irritated with each other. And handcuffs are kept on inmates until jail staff can assess their behavior and determine whether they need to be placed in a holdover cell to calm down.

The jail also has been sued over in-custody deaths. The two most recent deaths were related to inmates' existing medical conditions.

Sabbatine said the jail has renewed its focus on inmate health. Administrators are in the process of getting a new doctor and medical staff members from Corizon, the company with which the Division of Corrections contracts for medical care.

Inmates who are diabetic now face restrictions on the type of food they may order in the commissary, Sabbatine said.

One of the first changes Ballard made when he took over was to ban tobacco use by inmate workers.

Tobacco has been prohibited inside the facility for years, but "trustees" — inmates trusted to work outside or off-campus — were allowed to smoke or take chewing tobacco outside. Ballard said that resulted in tobacco being smuggled inside.

"If you tell inmates you can't have cigarettes inside the facility and then you give them cigarettes on the outside, what do you think they try to do with those cigarettes?" Ballard said. "Cigarettes in a jail are a form of currency."

He said he intended to continue the policies set forth under Sabbatine's tenure and implement new policies.

Ballard said reducing turnover might be as simple as improving communication. He said many new corrections officers are surprised when their take-home pay is less than what they thought it would be.

Ballard said new recruits will be told not only their hourly rate but what they can expect their take-home pay to be after taxes, health insurance and other deductions.

"We have to make sure we communicate that to them so they understand," he said. "We'll do more interviews with them before they accept the job to make sure they truly understand what they're getting into."

Ballard outlined several other plans, such as improving the energy efficiency of the jail's heating and cooling systems, seeking grants to fund inmate re-entry programs and reopening an officer's dining room that was closed years ago.

He said there always will be in-custody deaths, lawsuits and high turnover at jails, but he hopes to make lasting improvements.

"It needs to be tweaked. We've got some things we need to work on," he said. "But we take our jobs seriously. The community should be proud of the men and women who come here every day and work."

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