Leader Blues

Friday, October 31, 2008

TOP STORY > >Violations could put jail on hold

Leader senior staff writer

If Lonoke County officials were counting on Act 309 inmates to provide skilled labor—as they had said—to help affordably build the planned new county lockup, they need a good Plan B.

Sheriff Jim Roberson has sent all the 309s back to state prison following the revelation that one trustee had engaged in sex with two female prisoners and that another had gone with the sheriff to his home to assess or fix a personal car belonging to the sheriff’s daughter.

In a close vote, county residents in a May 20 referendum approved a one-year, one-cent countywide sales tax to pay for a new $5.5 million, 140-bed prison. One of the factors in holding down the cost and in selling the idea to voters was that the new jail would be built primarily by prisoners.

Collection of that tax begins this month by the state and will begin being returned to the county in December, according to County Judge Charlie Troutman.

Roberson said he’d still have prisoners tolabor on the project, just not necessarily skilled labor.

County Judge Charlie Troutman agreed. “We have people that can do the labor,” he said. “I’ve had a program that a certified deputy works people in the road department one day a week,” he said by way of example. “It’s worked out good.”

In the wake of the sexual incidents at the jail, Roberson said one employee had been fired and two reprimanded.

Many residents are wondering how Lonoke County could have violated the terms of the Act 309 agreement with the state so soon after somewhat similar transgressions at the city jail not only ended the city’s access to 309 inmates from the state Correction Department, but also led to the resignation, trial, conviction and imprisonment of former Lonoke Police Chief Jay Campbell and his wife Kelly.

That investigation revealed a sprawling pattern of sex, theft, drugs, conspiracy to manufacture drugs and Jay Campbell was convicted on several charges including being the kingpin of a continuing criminal enterprise. He is serving a 40-year sentence, pending appeal. Kelly Campbell is serving 10 years.

Campbell reportedly had inmates build a sidewalk at his home and work on a boat motor and then Lonoke Mayor Thomas Privett had them hang Christmas decorations at his home.

By contrast, Roberson reported his problems with Lonoke County 309s quickly and voluntarily ended the program.

But an equally daunting problem may be how to build the new county jail without counting on Act 309 inmates to provide some skilled labor.

“The sheriff came to me and said he had to send one back for a sexual encounter,” Troutman said. “Then (Act 309 Program Director) Bill Terry came by. Then the sheriff told him, ‘When you leave take the other three with you,’ and I agreed,” Troutman said.

Prosecutor Lona McCastlain said she wasn’t considering prosecution of Roberson or anyone in regards to the incident.

She said the matter had not been forwarded to the State Police for investigation and that she believed there was no further action pending by the state Correction Department.

Correction Department spokesman Dina Tyler was out of the office and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Roberson said the matter came to light now because it had just been discussed at the state Correction Department board meeting, but added that he thought the timing might be political.

Roberson faces former deputy Steve Rich in Tuesday’s general election.

“The race just got a little closer than he anticipated,” Rich said this week.

He declined to comment other than to say, “If elected, I’ll try to get the 309s back. It’s free labor.”