Smoke signals from jail

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   Fortunately for Carter County Jail inmates, the old adage "where there's smoke, there's fire" didn't hold true Tuesday.
   Members of Elizabethton Fire Department, along with Elizabethton Police Department, responded to a fire alarm at the jail around 10 a.m.
   Carter County Sheriff John Henson said that after investigation it was determined that inmates in F Block "lit a piece of toilet paper and put it in the air vent," causing it to carry the smell of smoke out into several other areas.
   "But we were on top of it. It didn't actually burn anything. No damage done," Henson said.
   "Inmates are going to be inmates -- that's about all you can say about it.
   "The fire department got over here and we checked it out and found out what the problem was. Needless to say, they'll (inmates) probably have some restrictions taken," the sheriff said.
   Setting fire to tissue and flooding the jail are a natural response that usually occurs when you have too many inmates and not enough jail space, according to the sheriff.
   "A lot of it's due to the overcrowding. When you've got too many inmates, everybody's uptight; everybody wants to tear up something, everybody wants to destroy something. It's just the routine stuff at the jail," Henson said.
   There were 165 inmates incarcerated this morning in the county jail, which is designed to hold 112. However, there were only 12 inmates in F Block when the incident occurred. F Block is set up for nine inmates -- eight in cells and one in a separate area called the "hole," where those who become a discipline problem are held.
   "You really couldn't tell where the smoke was coming from until we got in and checked it out," the sheriff said. "We thought it might have been something overloading, but come to find out, it was actually a piece of toilet paper stuck in the vent."
   No evacuation was necessary. "It was more or less smell -- you could just smell something burning," Henson said.
   "Until we get the overcrowding taken care of and some other things done, stuff like this is going to continue. It's nothing new.
   "I remember when they used to pile their toilet paper up in the corner and set it on fire. That goes back as far as the '80s when we first came over here. The flooding and stuff like that, it's always been here and it will continue. Anytime you have more people, you're going to have more problems," he said.
   Tuesday's prank by inmates is just one of many the sheriff's department is having to deal with in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist incidents in New York and Washington, D.C., and nationwide anthrax scares.
   Although the possibility of anyone in this area being an anthrax target is remote, the jitters have set. The report of false alarms in the Tri-Cities have residents' nerves on edge, and this area which once appeared insulated from the rest of the world is now a microcosm for the rest of the nation.
   "We're getting some calls about letters with powder on them," Sheriff Henson said. "A lot of pranks are being played -- people putting baby powder on letters and mailing them. I knew that was going to happen.
   "I've had a lot of calls from different people in the county that are worried and concerned about Halloween. It really concerns me, too, with the (present) terrorism."
   The sheriff said County Commissioners were asked Monday to put a curfew on after-dark trick-or-treating, however, commissioners were unsure whether they had the authority to institute a curfew, he said.
   "I'm all for the kids getting out and doing their trick-or-treating before dark. After dark, it's not safe for them to be out anyway. A lot of people are concerned with all of the other things that we have going on this year, and really, truthfully, I don't think they should observe Halloween.
   "We have enough problems the way it is on a regular basis. With all of this other stuff going on, a lot of people are terrified about it, which, they have a reason to be," the sheriff said.
   He advised parents to have their children do their trick-or-treating in daylight hours in the accompaniment of an adult.
   "All of the merchants set up in town on Halloween afternoon and let the kids come through and do the trick-or-treating. They shut down at 5 o'clock. It's good for the kids.
   "Later, up in the night, is when you have all of your mischief. After 11 p.m., I think it should shut down," Henson said.
   Though county commissioners didn't feel they had the authority to regulate trick-or-treating, the sheriff asked who would be in a better position to do so.
   "They are our county government. They make our rules and regulations for Carter County," he said.
   As part of heightened security, Henson said his department has been advised to watch for abandoned vehicles parked around such facilities as the post office.
   "We've been keeping a close watch on the dam -- that's our biggest worry. We've been advised to keep an eye on the bridges and make sure that no trucks or vans -- anything that could have explosives -- are abandoned on bridges.
   "We haven't found anything or seen anything out of the way, but we are on the lookout and will continue to be," the sheriff said. "So far, so good -- knock on wood."