Sheriff hopes charges against inmates sends message

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   As a result of the Sept. 5 vandalism and flooding incident at Carter County Jail, six inmates will now face felony vandalism charges. Carter County Sheriff John Henson said he is "not going to put up with some childish, stupid behavior" and hopes the charges will send a message to inmates.
   "They're going to learn one thing here: We're not going to tolerate it and they might as well settle down and pull their time. They feel like if they go up there and raise a big ruckus, they'll get what they want. But that ain't the way it's going to work," he said. "They haven't had any benefits since this happened and I'll decide when they do get them back."
   Tony Reed Hildebrand, 26, 608 Trudy St., John P. Logan, 26, 1300 Bluefield Ave., Jose Luis Gonzalez Cruz, 29, China Grove, N.C., Kyle Edward Brooks, 40, 164 Swimming Pool Road, Hampton, Willie Joe Whitson, 24, 6405 Elm St., Erwin, and Timothy Lee Blackwell, 31, P.O. Box 9, Roan Mountain, all face charges of vandalism over $5,000. Cruz has a hearing set for Oct. 9, while the remaining cases are set for Oct. 16 -- all in General Sessions Court.
   According to the complaint, on the night of Sept. 5, Deputy Brad Proffitt, a jailer at the facility, was asked to come back to C-Block around 11:40 p.m. by Deputy Janice Mitchell. When Proffitt arrived, jailers found the doors to B and C blocks had been tied shut from the inside and that the large day windows had been covered by inmates with messages saying, "We want our cigarettes and coffee back."
   After cutting the blankets which inmates had used to secure the doors, it was discovered that inmates were flooding the blocks. The chain of command was notified and water to the cellblocks turned off.
   Around 2 a.m., jailers heard glass shatter and found that inmates had broken out the dayroom windows in B and C blocks. Work gang inmates who were mopping water in the hallway were told to return to their cells and the area was secured by locking the hallway door to prevent an escape.
   Elizabethton City Police were called to secure the outside perimeter of the jail around 3:40 a.m., and Carter County's S.W.A.T. team was dispatched to the jail to quell the disturbance. S.W.A.T. secured the inmates and transported them to the detox cell for holding.
   Extensive water damage was done to the sheriff's office, the jail kitchen and General Sessions courtroom.
   Henson said that after investigation it was determined that six of the inmates were "ringleaders" in the incident. Charges were levied against those six and one or two others could be charged, he said.
   "They're the ones that started the incident and got everything going. The other inmates were just there because they had to be there. They didn't actually take any part in the vandalism and flooding," the sheriff said.
   Henson said the inmates should realize they're in jail to pull their time and the smart thing to do is to pull it the easiest way they can.
   "If they go up there and go to breaking and tearing up light fixtures and jerking the vents out of the ceiling, then they know they're going to get punished.
   "Why not make the best out of it? Anybody with any common sense would make the best out of a bad situation," Henson said. "These people are not in here for just talking out of turn in Sunday school or getting up out of their seats in school. They're inmates. And as long as you've got inmates, from time to time you're going to have problems."
   The sheriff instituted a "no smoking" policy at the jail more than a year ago after an inmate set fire to his mattress and forced an evacuation. The ban on coffee purchases was instituted because inmates made "stingers" to heat the water, or removed light fixtures and created a fire hazard by placing containers near the source to absorb the heat.
   The sheriff has no plans to reverse those decisions.
   "When I make a decision, that decision is going to stay in effect. I don't make decisions that I take back," he said.
   A cashless commissary is in the jail's future and the sheriff said instituting that measure "will be better for the inmates, it will be better for the jailers that work here, and I know for a fact it will be a whole lot safer. Safety is our main concern here -- the safety and well-being of the employees and the inmates."
   As with any decision that affects the jail, Henson said, "Some of the inmates are going to be against it, and some are going to be for it. That's the way it's always been; that's the way it always will be. Everybody's not going to be happy with the decisions I make. But you've got to do what's best for the citizens and taxpayers of this county and save them as much money as possible. That's exactly what I'm doing, and that's exactly what I'm going to do.
   "The inmates are just going to have to learn that there are rules and regulations that they're going to have to go by. They think they're the overseer, but they're not," he said.
   There are plans to clean up the jail, according to the sheriff, and the Carter County Commission "is going to look at the water situation and the drain system and we'll probably be getting that fixed."
   Many of the problems could have been prevented through changes in design when the jail was built. However, because they were not, Henson inherited a host of problems when he became sheriff, and as of late, those problems have prompted cries for a new jail.
   "I know we need a new jail; everybody knows we need a new jail -- but we cannot afford a new jail right now, so we're just going to have to make do with what we've got to do with until we can do better," he said. "The people of this county cannot afford another tax increase to build a new facility."