Search for missing keys sparks 'disturbance' at Sullivan jail

Rain Smith • Apr 30, 2007 at 11:57 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - Where a pack of Bugler tobacco can net you $60, the key to potential freedom can create quite a stir.

That's what happened at the Sullivan County Jail Sunday morning, when a key ring fell from a correctional officer's belt and was kicked by a hall trusty into a cell block on the second floor.

Two shakedowns and a pepper spraying later, the key was located and "disturbance" quelled.

"In my opinion if you have a riot you have people beating on each other, they take hostages and try to burn the place down and those types of things," Sheriff Wayne Anderson said of the incident. "None of that occurred."

According to Anderson, a handcuff key and key fob - used to electronically open doors within the facility - fell from the belt of an officer between 5 and 6 a.m. Sunday. Cameras within the jail then caught a hall trusty, who could now face felony charges of facilitating escape, kick the keys under the bars to one of the cell blocks.

"You can't see it, but I'm sure people were saying, ‘Kick that over here to us,' and that sort of thing," Anderson said. "But he didn't have to do that. He could have walked on by."

Within minutes of discovering the keys were missing, the fob key was deactivated by computer, rendering it useless. Anderson said they later learned it was flushed down a commode.

But when Sullivan County Sheriff's Office personnel began conducting shakedowns to find the handcuff key, sometime before noon, inmates became unruly.

"They started yelling and screaming, cussing the officers that work in the jail, so we started taking privileges away," Anderson said. "There's three basic privileges we can take away from them - that's television, telephone and visitation. Usually if you start in that order and take the television, that's all it takes."

But this time those efforts were not successful.

"I know people out there will read this in the paper and be concerned about why do they have TVs in jail," Anderson said. "Yesterday was a good example. Generally when they get rowdy you take that television out, and that's the end of it. You don't have to resort to what we finally resorted to, which is pepper spray."

Visitation privileges for inmates were then taken away, but no key was located. Later Sunday afternoon, the jail staff conducted a second shakedown, further inciting the inmates. Anderson said they dumped garbage pans, broke sprinkler heads and flipped over mattresses.

"It took about 20 minutes to really quell everything, and they shot pepper spray everywhere," Anderson said of the incident's close. "I got here within about 20 minutes, and everybody on the second floor was laying on the floor with wet towels over their face, and that was to protect them from the spray.

"I had a dose of it myself," Anderson continued. "I went in and didn't have a mask. I went in and coughed, and I'm still coughing. So it didn't hurt them any worse than it hurt me."

Anderson said investigators came into the jail, and after several interviews were able to locate the handcuff key by 10 p.m. He would not release additional details for fear of inmate safety.

Twenty-five to 30 officers, including three Tennessee Highway Patrolmen who happened to be at the jail booking suspects, assisted in getting the situation under control. Anderson said of the 300 inmates housed on the second floor, about 100 were really causing problems, and 20 were removed from the cell blocks.

Anderson said he has never been as proud of his correctional staff as he was Sunday, watching them successfully handle a volatile situation.

"It went very orderly," Anderson said. "I tell you, within 20 minutes of spraying that pepper spray in there, that's all it took. (Inmates) were like little children after that."

Through the course of the day the handcuff key passed through several hands, Anderson said. However, with a little more staffing, as he seeks at the new jail facility, perhaps the key would have been located sooner - even before the trusty kicked it into a cell block.

"We have 150 cameras, and there's no way one person can watch all those cameras," Anderson said. "So we've got them all digitally recorded. They try to watch as much as they can, but they're also sitting there with two computers in front of them. If you call and say, ‘I need cell block B open,' they take their finger and hit that to open it up. And then the telephone will ring, and they've got to close this over there and open that."

When asked if he had enough personnel at the current jail, Anderson quickly replied, "Never has been. We've asked for 25 more people when we open the new jail up, and that's going to help a lot."

Anderson added that keys have never fallen from officers' belts in the past, and they are looking for ways to ensure it doesn't happen again.

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