(Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about Jailer Doug Thomas’ first year in office.)
Madison County Jailer Doug Thomas knew what to expect when he took over the job a year ago.
Before an eight-year stint remodeling houses and doing maintenance for the city of Berea, Thomas had 14 years of experience working at the county jail.
“I didn’t want to be a county judge or sheriff, I wanted to be the jailer of Madison County because I really enjoy this line of work,” Thomas said. “I’m finally here, and I'm thankful.”
Being an elected official had long been his ambition, and his November 2010 election came in his third run for jailer.
“I knew someday I’d be back because this is what I wanted to do and I didn’t give up,” said Thomas, who started his career at the ‘old jail’ when he was 26.
Thomas said he did not expect the ‘different breed’ of residents he has encountered since returning to jail work, he said.
“When I first started this line of work, the residents were different. They still had respect for law enforcement. They still had respect for their parents,” said Thomas, who added that he regularly overhears younger inmates being disrespectful to their parents when they visit.
“They have no respect for themselves, so they’re not going to have respect for us either,” he said.
As the new jailer, Thomas assumed he would be tested by the inmates.
Although he had worked at the jail previously, many of the prisoners had no idea who he was.
“I knew some of them, though, because I had locked up their mom, or dad or grandparents in the past,” Thomas said. He was already acquainted with a few others because they were frequent inmates.
“Some of them are now my age, but they’re not the ones you have to worry about,” he said.
On a Sunday night this past summer, Thomas got a call at home notifying him that a few inmates had flooded the cells by shoving a blanket down a toilet, a common incident in many jails, Thomas said.
At first, Thomas tried talking with the residents to let them know flooding cells was not the way to get things done.
“Basically, I got tired of talking, and I took a different stance,” said Thomas, who along with 12 of his employees and eight state troopers handcuffed several inmates involved. Some were put in isolation afterwards.
A Taser was used on one inmate who “got out of hand,” the jailer said.
Tasers are not pulled unless “absolutely necessary,” Thomas said. But, the electronic disabling devices “are not there for show either,” he added.
“We took care of business and let them know we weren’t going to tolerate this behavior anymore,” Thomas said.
The detention center has not had a similar incident since then.
The detention center operates on an annual budget of about $2 million. It has 38 employees, two office and three kitchen staff members. The rest are officers.
“We want the jail to be self-sufficient, so it doesn’t cost the tax-payers extra money,” said Thomas. To do that, the jail usually houses about 60 state prisoners for which the county is reimbursed. But, the number of inmates often exceeds the jail’s designed capacity of 200 beds.
The jail currently holds 270 inmates, 50 of them women. Although having too many inmates can be problematic, detaining state prisoners draws around $70,000 to $80,000 a month for the jail, Thomas said.
Generally, the jail has five to six officers on each shift, but Thomas would like to have more.
“We’re outnumbered. Anywhere in the prison system, if the inmates decide they want to take over, they could,” he said. “We’re all understaffed versus the population that we’re housing.”
Thomas has found one way to deter inmate disturbances, make sure they have something to do and take an interest in their future outside of jail.
On Saturdays, an instructor visits the jail to conduct a writing skills class for women. Space limitations keep the jail from offering women a work program, so Thomas began the writing class to give them a constructive activity.
Around 20 to 30 women participate, and the instructor has told Thomas that some are very skilled writers.
Inmates who have not graduated high school are offered classes to help them receive a GED (General Educational Development) certificate.
Through Kentucky River Foothills, Thomas also is working on implementing a Responsible Fatherhood Program for inmates. The objective is to improve the economic, financial, parenting and relationship well-being of fathers in this region, including those in jail, he said.
The sessions will cover topics such as “what it means to be a responsible man,” “the role a father should play in a child’s life” and “working with a child’s mother.”
“The residents are still humans. I know they’ve made mistakes, we all do,” Thomas said. “I think if you shut the door on them, you’re not doing a lot for them.”
Thomas said he wants jail residents to know he care about them and what happens to them after they are released.
The opportunity to help people is one of reason he loves his job, he said, and the people he works with keep his job interesting.
“You’re dealing with murderers, thieves, and druggies -- there’s never a dull moment,” Thomas said. “It’s a crazy job, but I enjoy it.”
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-1669, ext. 6696.