Former Grainger County jailer blames understaffing for problems

Former Grainger County jailer says understaffing kept him from doing his job

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Changes are in the works to make the Grainger County Jail more secure. Locks will soon be repaired and more security cameras will be added. Changes are in the works to make the Grainger County Jail more secure. Locks will soon be repaired and more security cameras will be added.
During a visit Thursday, 6 News spotted inmates on security camera walking in and out of their cells, which are supposed to be locked. During a visit Thursday, 6 News spotted inmates on security camera walking in and out of their cells, which are supposed to be locked.
Former jailer Bobby Owens says he couldn't follow the policies and procedures all the time because the jail was understaffed. Former jailer Bobby Owens says he couldn't follow the policies and procedures all the time because the jail was understaffed.
"We are funded to have the five personnel per shift, so if they can keep them and have trained and competent employees, it will probably work with that amount," said County Mayor Mark Hipsher. "We are funded to have the five personnel per shift, so if they can keep them and have trained and competent employees, it will probably work with that amount," said County Mayor Mark Hipsher.

By STEPHANIE BEECKEN
6 News Reporter

RUTLEDGE (WATE) - A former Grainger County jailer spoke with 6 News Friday, saying though he was forced to resign, he couldn't properly do his job because the jail is understaffed.

Escaped Grainger County inmate David Valentine has been on the run for a week. He and two others escaped from the jail last Friday.

Dennis Rucker and Shane Farrow were arrested Wednesday night in Pigeon Forge. They remained in the Sevier County Jail Friday.

Local state and federal authorities continue to search for Valentine.

Originally, officials said three jailers were fired due to negligence, but now 6 News is learning two jailers were fired and one resigned.

Changes are in the works to make the jail more secure. Locks will soon be repaired and more security cameras will be added.

The jailer who was asked to resign says these improvements were needed years ago.

After the Grainger County Jail was put on lockdown and jailers began getting interviewed by multiple law enforcement agencies, Bobby Owens said he was asked to resign or be terminated.

Owens didn't want to go on camera because the district attorney's investigation is ongoing, but he told 6 News he couldn't follow the policies and procedures all the time because the jail was understaffed.

Owens says he did nothing wrong intentionally. He says there was often only three jailers per shift and they had to monitor over 100 inmates.

Owens says the inmates with court dates have to be gathered and shackled for court, and then they have to try to do a head count which takes 45 minutes.

Jailers also have to feed the inmates three times a day, give out the medications and log all the activities.

County Mayor Mark Hipsher says there should be five jailers per shift, which should be enough to keep the jail secure.

"We are funded to have the five personnel per shift, so if they can keep them and have trained and competent employees, it will probably work with that amount," said Hipsher.

Chief Deputy Charles Biddle said in a news conference Thursday he would also prefer more jailers because sometimes one is off or sick, and the shifts aren't fully staffed.

For the past three years the mayor says vandalism by the inmates, like jamming locks, has been a major problem. Officials are planning to make improvements to the jail to reduce the chance of another escape.

"We are looking at new security cameras for the rec area, putting in new locks, putting a security fence around the perimeter," said Hipsher.

The cost for all the upgrades will be $150,000, according to the mayor. He is confident the funds for the improvements will be approved.

Hipsher says the problems in the jail started three years ago and continued to get worse as inmates continued to vandalize the jail.

"We'd repair locks, and lights, and speakers and so on, and they'd just be torn up again in a few days," he said.

The mayor will discuss the improvements plans with the county commission on Nov. 25. The commission will vote during the next meeting in December.

Former jailer Bobby Owens says he gave a 100 percent effort in his job. He emphasizes he did nothing to deserve being terminated because he just didn't have the tools or manpower to do his job.

Meanwhile, Grainger County residents say they were surprised to learn of the security problems at the jail.

Lifelong Grainger County resident Penny Morgan lives six miles from the jail.

She was shocked to learn door wouldn't lock and security cameras were not installed where the prisoners escaped.

"They should have had the cameras in the rec yard before all this happened. Then they could have seen who was going in and out and who wasn't," said Morgan.

Anyone who has information on missing inmate David Valentine is asked to call the Grainger County Sheriff's Department at (865) 828-3613 or Grainger County Central Dispatch at (865) 828-3337.

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