Whitesburg KY

Jail in crises, court is told

The number of COVID-19-positive prisoners entering the Letcher County Jail is pushing the facility toward making difficult decisions on how to safely house inmates.

At the September meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court, Jailer Bert Slone said that about one in four inmates being brought to the jail is infected with COVID-19. He said the pandemic could force drastic action, including housing inmates in hallways to isolate COVID-infected prisoners.

Slone did not mince words with the court, telling the county’s governing body that he is running out of space in the always-overcrowded jail.

“Even though COVID is going on, people have not stopped committing crimes and they’re being arrested or having warrants issued for them,” Slone told Judge/ Executive Terry Adams and the county’s five magistrates at Monday’s meeting. “… But the numbers of people that’s being brought into the jail that are positive for COVID, the numbers are really high. I would say one in four or one in three people that are coming into our jail now are positive for COVID.”

The jail has a capacity of about 60 inmates, but the population regularly totals between 100 and 110 inmates, and, at times, more. Slone said the facility is utilizing small isolation cells to isolate COVID-positive prisoners once they arrive, but there is simply not enough room to isolate them all. Slone said it is not fair, or just to house a healthy inmate with a COVID-positive inmate, but space to house all the jail’s inmates is at a premium.

“I have no room,” Slone said, adding that he may be forced to place inmates in hallways or try sending some inmates to other facilities throughout the region for holding, a cost the county would have to cover.

Slone said his appearance before the court at Monday’s meeting was ultimately to seek answers. He received none.

The magistrates were complimentary of Slone and his handling of the jail throughout the pandemic, but they, too, were at a loss for how to remedy the problem .

County Attorney Jamie Hatton suggested using federal American Recovery Act funds to construct temporary holding cells for misdemeanor arrests in the basement of the old county health building that now houses the Letcher County Sheriff’s Office. Slone said regulations and requirements for penal facilities would likely make such a project impossible.

Judge-Executive Adams also offered a suggestion.

“The best-case scenario is we build a new jail that’s big enough to accommodate the folks that need to be incarcerated,” Adams said. “But at the same time, every training I’ve ever been to say don’t build jails. But I think we need a new jail, and we need a facility big enough that folks aren’t lying on top of each other just to sleep.”

Slone agreed with Adams. He said a facility that would offer an additional capacity of 150 to 200 more inmates would benefit the county and would also offer enough space for the county to house inmates from other areas of Kentucky, which in turn would generate revenue for the Letcher County Jail from the state Department of Corrections.

No action was taken on the discussion about the overcrowding at the jail. Slone also asked the court to consider giving pay raises to supervisors at the jail, but the members of the court said they would consider such action later.

In other business at Monday’s meeting, the court voted unanimously to commit $200,000 toward a transitional housing facility planned by Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation on the former Whitesburg High School campus. MCHC CEO L.M. “Mike” Caudill told the court the facility, which will provide transitional housing for those finishing drug abuse treatment and preparing to re-enter society, would be in the former WHS English building.

The transitional housing will feature 22 efficiency apartments in which residents may live for between six months and a year while they complete their drug treatment. Caudill said the project is estimated to create seven new jobs.

Caudill said the cost of the project has drastically increased because the skyrocketing costs of materials caused by the pandemic. He said the project’s price tag inflated from about $2.1 million to as much as $2.8 million. He told the court that MCHC is eligible for a $1.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the project if the organization can provide $600,000 in matching funds.

Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton said the county may be receiving money soon as part of a settlement in a massive lawsuit filed against prescription opioid manufacturers. Those funds, Hatton said, are specifically earmarked for drug abuse treatment and prevention. Caudill said all MCHC needed on Monday was a commitment from the court for the $200,000 and will likely not need the promised funding until the end of the year or early next year.

Also during Monday’s meeting, the court unanimously accepted a request for proposal submitted by Zoom Broadband Services in Lexington for the installation of a far-reaching broadband network in the county.

Letcher County Broadband Board Chairman Harry Collins told the court the board was recommending the county government accept Zoom’s proposal for a $12 million “hybrid” broadband network that would include fiber optic and wireless delivery to the county’s residents. The court first took the proposal under consideration in August before handing it off to the broadband board for its examination and recommendation.

Collins said the project will be a public-private partnership, which the county had been seeking for some time but could never find an appropriate partner.

“We have found that (partner) now,” Collins said.

County Attorney Hatton told the court that he is in communication with attorneys for Zoom Broadband Services to hash out details of the contract between the company and the county, including some issues which are of concern of Hatton, Collins, and the Broadband Board. Hatton spoke confidently, saying he believes the issues, which he did not discuss in detail, will be resolved.

In other business at Monday’s meeting, the fiscal court:

• approved several resolutions paving the way for the establishment of a program to assist county residents who are in arrears on utility bills because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The program will provide $184,000 for the project, funded through a Community Development Block Grant administered by the Kentucky River Area Development District.

• approved upgrading the telephone systems for several county offices. The project will be completed by Eastern Telephone and Technology in Pikeville at a cost of $695.40 for the installation of 18 “communication devices” which will operate over a voice-over-IP network. Letcher County Treasurer D.J. Frazier said the new system will save the county approximately $1,000 per year on its phone system.

• declared surplus several old voting machines that will be returned to their manufacturer for credit toward the purchase of new machines. Judge/Executive Adams said he was not sure how many of the old machines would be declared surplus — a “tractor-trailer load,” he said — but the machines are no longer useful. The new voting machines, of which the county already has several, would be needed for future elections, he said.

• approved the honoring of a pair of local veterans by naming a stretch of Ky. 805 from near Neon Junction to near the Cromona Post Office as the “Tech 5 Verlon ‘Red’ Hall Highway” and adding the name of U.S. Army Pvt. Dennis Breeding to the Blackey Memorial Board on Main Street in Blackey. Hall also served in the Army.

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