'It's war' — Gangs, drugs strain Sullivan jail staff

Rain Smith • Oct 5, 2019 at 9:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — As the population of Sullivan County’s packed jail continues to grow, the facility’s staff faces an increasingly dire struggle to protect both inmates and themselves.

“We’ve had eight inmate-officer assaults this year, which is unprecedented,” said Capt. Brian Dillard. “Usually, you might have a couple officer-related assaults — where an inmate assaults an officer — within five years. So the violence is increasing. It’s war.”

Simply housing and feeding the sheer number of inmates (1,045 on Thursday) is a big enough task. But the overcrowding is also spawning more crime within its confines — specifically, a proliferation of gang activity and drug smuggling.

Anxious allegiances

Jail officials estimate approximately 150 current inmates are gang members. The two most prominent groups are the Vice Lords and Aryans.

Very few inmates are gang members when they arrive. Authorities say they are typically just young and scared about their first stint in jail, seeking what Dillard calls “an alliance for survivability.”

Benefits of gang affiliation are a sense of protection and belonging. There’s also pooling of resources to horde the jail’s form of currency: commissary items. For instance, inmates are estimated to spend up to $1 million per year on Pop-Tarts, with stockpiling of the pastries triggering gambling and violence.

Violence is the centerpiece of gang initiation. That can entail attacking someone who has “wronged” the gang you’re joining or allowing yourself to be “jumped in” by current members.

In the latter, the initiate stands defenseless for about 15 minutes, allowing gang members to take turns inflicting blows.

“They’ll have one person start, then they’ll call for ‘fresh hands’ and another will come in,” said Dillard. “They continue it, then call for ‘fresh hands’ and another will come. They are constantly rotating so no one gets tired.”

For gang members who move on into the prison system, allegiances remain the same. They are now an Aryan or Vice Lord in the state penitentiary.

Meanwhile, of the gang members who serve their sentences in Sullivan County, few continue those affiliations upon release. But by that time, according to Jail Administrator Lee Carswell, most are permanently branded by their jailhouse decisions.

“They got these tattoos on their face and now they regret it. They say, ‘At the time I was stupid, and I was scared and felt like I had to be a part of something.’ ”

“Crazy for days”

Corrections Officer Josh Adams works with classification of inmates. He attempts to segregate the population based on several criteria, including their proclivity for violence, drugs and gangs.

As of late, he has seen a new trend. Rival gangs are occasionally working together for a common goal: getting drugs, often via drug mules.

“The gangs themselves will bond someone out with the specific purpose of them going out and getting drugs, then getting their bond taken out (and booked back into jail),” said Adams.

Meth and pills are smuggled inside body cavities. Capt. Melissa Copas said that running everyone in booking through a mobile X-ray scan is too expensive, costing up to $80 a pop.

So corrections officers must use past knowledge of offenders being booked in, and work off visual cues, to determine if an individual is “holding” narcotics.

Through September of this year, corrections officers have made 62 substantial drug interceptions. But many more drugs have escaped detection and found their way into the cells.

It’s easy to tell when there’s been a breach, said Copas, as groups of inmates simultaneously go “crazy for days.”

“They have no idea where they are,” Copas said of meth users. “People try to climb the walls, crawl in the floor, take off their clothes and scream. They’re paranoid, think we’re killing them.”

“They’re beasts,” Dillard chimed in.

Taking a toll

The jail was built for 619 inmates in 1987, but this year’s average daily headcount is 996. The average in 2014 was 599.

Some cells are now crammed with nearly 50 people, many inmates without a bed and sprawled across the floor.

For the staff, ideal inmate placement has become a pipe dream.

“I spent the first four hours this morning working with the supervisors, trying to find places for just two or three inmates who are key (gang ) players,” said Dillard.

Adams added: “They have their ways of working into the cells they want to, saying they have enemies and can’t live in certain places. They manipulate the system.”

Though the Sullivan County Commission is eyeing proposals for an expanded or new jail, those working inside the current one have trouble believing an end is in sight. They are too consumed with staying afloat and safe on an hourly basis.

“How on your toes you have to be all the time is mentally stressful, which ends up being physically stressful,” added Adams. “It just wears you down.”

2019 jail incidents through September

— Officer/inmate physical altercations: 169

— Female inmate assaults: 41

— Male inmate assaults: 327

— Cell searches: 270

— Narcotics confiscations: 62

-—Weapon confiscations: 8

— Transports to hospital: 21

— Suicide attempts: 6