published Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Jail security debated in Walker County sheriff's race

Security cameras in Tower Two show areas of the Walker County Jail. Equipment has been upgraded in the tower over the last few years.
Security cameras in Tower Two show areas of the Walker County Jail. Equipment has been upgraded in the tower over the last few years.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- Just as medieval scholars debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, two candidates for Walker County sheriff are at odds over what constitutes a serious jailbreak.

They also disagree over whether it makes sense to keep the downtown jail's back gate and the garage doors of the "sally port," the drive-in entrance to the booking area, closed all the time.

Challenger Freddie Roden took aim at incumbent Sheriff Steve Wilson at a June 19 candidates' forum, saying there were documented cases of the jail gate being left open, allowing inmates to escape.

Wilson said that night, "We have never had an escape from inside the jail." His response drew loud applause from the packed room at the Walker County Civic Center.

Wilson since has clarified his rebuttal, allowing that two men, both 32, made a semi-successful escape in May 2003. One made it over only the first razor-wire-topped perimeter fence and gave up while still behind the outermost fence. The other inmate was captured within 24 hours at a residence on Duncan Avenue in Chattanooga after an anonymous tip, according to a news story that Roden links to on his campaign's Facebook page.

"I guess what he was referring to was a case back in 2003. We had two guys that had jimmied a fire escape door," Wilson said Monday. "But then they were recaptured."

"I did not recall that one at the debate," Wilson said.

Roden said he doesn't believe the sheriff simply forgot about the incident.

"Absolutely not," he said Monday. "He was just deceiving the citizens that were there."

Roden says there are other examples that Wilson is overlooking, and he provides links to old news stories on his Facebook page. In 2006, a 19-year-old trusty being held on a probation violation charge walked away from car wash duty. In 2009, a 29-year-old man arrested on a misdemeanor family violence charge bolted through a door in the booking area and was apprehended about 30 minutes later.

"I feel like they probably could have been prevented," Roden said.

If Roden is elected, he says he'll keep the jail's back gate and the sally port closed around the clock.

"I would operate it more safely and efficiently just by operating it the way it's supposed to be operated," Roden said. "It's supposed to be closed at all times."

Wilson said the gate, which recently was replaced during a number of upgrades at the jail, is closed from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. It's also closed, as are the sally port doors, when a dangerous or high-profile prisoner comes in during the day, he said.

But it's not practical to keep everything shut down all the time, the sheriff said.

"We've tried it," Wilson said. "We have [too] much traffic coming and going during the regular work hours."

"That just goes to show [Roden's] lack of experience running a jail," said Wilson, who's been sheriff and jailer since 1997. "He doesn't know how a jail operates on a daily basis."

Improvements have been made at the jail, Wilson said. For example, the walk-through gate near the car washing area that the 19-year-old trusty used to escape no longer exists, he said. Every inch of the jail is now under digital camera surveillance, locks have been upgraded and guards in interior control towers have the latest touch-screen controls to lock and unlock doors, Wilson said during a jail tour Monday. Those and other upgrades were funded through special purpose local option sales taxes, he said.

Challenger Billy D. Mullis, who works as a LaFayette police officer and a school resource officer, declined to comment Monday, because he was on the job.

"I just don't talk politics when I'm on duty," Mullis said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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