Time for change at Fayette jail

Something is wrong at the Fayette County jail.

There's ample evidence of this in the public record, replete with lawsuits alleging sexual harassment of employees, retribution against whistle-blowers and mistreatment of inmates.

Now we can add to that picture two reports, one by Sheriff Kathy Witt and one by Deputy Police Chief David Boggs that were commissioned earlier this year by Mayor Jim Gray.

Nothing spoke so loudly in reporter Beverly Fortune's news story Wednesday about their findings as a fact near the end: Despite repeated requests, Community Corrections Director Ron Bishop, who oversees the jail, never found time to meet with the team from the sheriff's office that spent five months inspecting the jail's operations.

So, what was he doing? Both reports suggest he wasn't engaged with staff. Both studies discovered serious, related problems with staff morale and communication at the jail.

Boggs, who reviewed jail leadership and management, told the Urban County Council that communication with employees was a major issue. "Repeatedly, the answer boiled down to improving communications to make the employees feel more valued."

The sheriff's report said employees repeatedly expressed "a perceived lack of leadership."

Likewise, it doesn't seem like too much time was devoted to overseeing inmates. The sheriff's report pointed to extensive graffiti, including a detailed etching of marijuana on glass, as indications that the inmates have plenty of time without close supervision.

The council, after hearing the reports, directed its public safety committee to study the question of who should run the jail and, specifically, whether it should be placed under Witt's office.

Speaking to the council, Bishop, who has been in his job seven years this month, said he'd begun working on some of the issues that have been identified.

Bishop said he was holding more staff meetings to improve communications. Staff meetings have their place in the world of management but, as any fan of the Dilbert comic strip about the nightmares of bureaucracy knows, meetings are rarely the answer to morale problems.

It's far from clear where, administratively, the jail should land. On the face of it, it's problematic that Witt's office investigated an agency that it might be in line to take over.

But, after seven years, a raft of lawsuits, at least one significant settlement, the two critical reports, his limpid response to the issues raised and inability to find time to meet with an inspection team requested by the mayor, Bishop's very, very close to running out of opportunities to prove he can do the job.

In corrections it may be essential to believe that inmates deserve another chance, that they can right things that have been wrong for a long time. However, it's not a smart approach to management.