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Jackson Sheriff’s Office cleaning up jail operations

law enforcementWhen inmates of the Jackson County Detention Center committed suicide on Nov. 21, 2014, and March 13 of this year, the same two male jailers were on duty both days. One of those jailers has taken a voluntary demotion.

Brian Wellmon, who been a detention sergeant, now holds the title of Detention Officer-Justice Center Security. The new position came with the creation of a secure entrance at the Jackson County Justice Center and entails screening people who enter the building. Wellmon took a $3,400 salary cut with the job. 

“He (Wellmon) submitted a letter of interest (for the position), and based on his letter and everything, the sheriff made the decision that if he wished to transfer, he could,” said John Buchanan, jail captain for the sheriff’s office. 

Both Wellmon and Mark Leamon, who had been supervising the male inmates on Nov. 21, 2014, and March 13 of this year — inmate Charles “Chuckie” Moose was found dead on Nov. 21 and Steve Ross on March 13 — were given five days of leave without pay in April, but afterward they returned to their positions with no change in title or salary. Sheriff Chip Hall would not comment on the decision, citing privacy laws relating to personnel decisions. 

According to reports completed by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, lax inspection was at play in the suicides. Detention officers are required to check on all inmates in their care at least twice per hour, with frequency increased for inmates who are suicidal, intoxicated or aggressive, among other conditions. 

According to the jail log from March 13, nobody had checked on Ross for 85 minutes at the point he was found hanging from a bedsheet, with intervals for the rest of the day ranging from 20 to 106 minutes. On Nov. 21, Moose hadn’t been checked for 33 minutes before his body was discovered, with gaps earlier in the day as large as 53 minutes, according to a report from DHHS. After the body was discovered and 911 called at 3:49 p.m., the next recorded checking of inmates wasn’t conducted until 6:09 p.m., a gap of two hours and 20 minutes, the report said. 

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After Moose’s death, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office requested an investigation by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, but the SBI declined. However, the agency launched a probe into Ross’ death, with the report landing on the desk of District Attorney Ashley Welch in June. Welch then requested that the SBI expand the scope of the investigation to include Moose’s death. She just received the final report last week and is now reviewing the lengthy document before deciding how to proceed. 

The two deaths came at a time of transition for the sheriff’s office, with Hall elected last November after his predecessor, Jimmy Ashe, decided not to run for re-election. At the time of Moose’s death, Hall — who before becoming sheriff was chief deputy — had been elected but had not yet taken office. When Ross died, Hall was four months into his tenure as sheriff. During the campaign, he’d acknowledged there were issues in the jail and had discussed his plans to improve the operation there. However, those ideas had not yet been implemented at the time of Ross’ death. 

Improvements are now on the horizon, said Buchanan, whose position Hall had discussed creating during his campaign but could not fill until after Ross’s death. The county has contracted with Statesboro, Georgia-based Transform Health Correctional Services to provide health care for inmates, an agreement that includes a weekly physician’s visit and bi-weekly rounds from a mental health doctor. 

“That is running just as smooth as I figured it would,” Buchanan said. “Every other jail administrator I spoke with just spoke highly of them, and it was definitely worth it to me.”

Buchanan is also in the midst of working with Hall to develop an updated policy and procedure manual.

In addition, the sheriff’s department is embarking on an overhaul of the detention center. They’re working on repainting, upgrading floors and purchasing some new equipment, including security equipment such as camera systems, door locks and electronic cell check equipment. 

“We’re trying to organize,” Buchanan said. “We’re talking with several different companies, getting quotes.”  

It’s hard to say how long the overhaul will take, as that will largely depend on pricing and feedback from the companies. But Buchanan’s hopeful of fixing the gaps that put the sheriff’s department in the middle of this SBI investigation in the first place.

“We’re definitely making changes,” he said.

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