JEFFERSON-The nascent administration of Ashe County Sheriff Terry Buchanan hasn’t been without its bumps in the road.
Appointed in January by the five-member Ashe County Board of Commissioners, Buchanan has set about righting a county department he believes was left in disarray by the previous administration, helmed by former Sheriff James Williams and Chief Deputy Bucky Absher.
In past interviews, Buchanan has said he’s focused his efforts on revamping the department’s training standards, mapping out common sense mutual aid agreements with surrounding law enforcement agencies like the West Jefferson Police Department and debuting new transparency initiatives like his monthly “Coffee With A Cop,” sit downs and a brand new online community crime map.
But he’s also come under scrutiny for the way in which he’s handled his transition as the county’s top lawman, most recently from both public officials and at least one former ACSO employee.
Everything from allegations by Buchanan of political sabotage by his predecessor to claims of an unstructured and dangerous atmosphere within the jail by a former jailer have painted two different viewpoints of the inner workings of one of the county’s largest departments.
In April, Buchanan took issue with a public records request from a Charlotte-based television station. He accused the previous administration of masterminding a “political fishing expedition.”
He’s also off to a contentious start in working with Ashe Schools Superintendent Phyllis Yates, who said Buchanan didn’t follow proper protocol in approaching the school system multiple times about the re-implementation of the DARE education program and another initiative to send home congratulatory letters to Honor Roll students, which is an expense that would’ve been footed by the school system.
There’s also the exodus of many long-time jailers and deputies to consider.
Although it is unclear how many employees have been terminated or resigned following Buchanan’s ascension to the office of sheriff, some former staff members estimate as many as 20 people have left since the beginning of the year. Currently, there are at least 10 part-time deputy positions available on N.C. Works Online.
Problems in the jail?
Kim Miller is one of those former employees. She spoke to The Jefferson Post ahead of Monday’s board of commissioners meeting where she said she plans to voice her concerns regarding the jail’s operations.
At the beginning of May, Miller said she was told her services were no longer needed as a jailer and she was terminated.
In terms of perceived safety violations, Miller said the number of trustees on hand at the jail was concerning to her. Prior to her departure, Miller said the number of trustees – or trusted inmates that receive special privileges and liberties – swelled to 11.
“We had more trustees running around than people working there,” said Miller. “We have three inmates that are out to 2 a.m. doing laundry. Jailer goes out with them to smoke. That’s not safe in the middle of the night.”
Miller said there is also special privileges extended to one inmate who is allowed to go into the breezeway to have person-to-person contact with his significant other.
“They are out at hours at a time,” said Miller of the trustees. “When you go up in the evening there are at least four in the booking area. You don’t any have room for when a prisoner comes in. Trustees can watch movies; they can even be on a computer in the breathalyzer room. It’s pure chaos. It’s not safe for a jailer to be in there.”
Miller said tobacco products were also prevalent within the jail, even though the county has a strict anti-tobacco policy in place.
Moreover, Miller said she plans to brief commissioners Monday that she believes Buchanan’s new policies are costing the county money.
When the jail was first constructed, then Sheriff James Williams approached surrounding counties about the possibility of contracting with those jails to house inmates from those facilities. Those counties temporarily solved their overcrowding problems while Ashe turned a profit on housing those inmates per day.
Prior to Williams’ departure, Miller said the county was housing at least 40 female inmates. At the standard rate of $40 per day, 40 inmates are worth some $1600 per day.
After Buchanan took over, Miller said that number dropped to six.
“The sheriff said we would no longer take females unless they are from Ashe or Alleghany,” she said.
When reached for comment on Miller’s allegations, Buchanan said she is “attempting to stir up controversy where none exists.” He also said Miller was terminated for insubordination and job performance.
“In response to her allegations regarding the condition of the detention center, I can provide you with some information and background, which will clearly show these allegations are based out of personal animosity from the termination of her employment,” said Buchanan. “All jails and detention centers in North Carolina are regulated by the North Carolina Commission for Public Health. Ashe County has received no complaints from the State inspectors regarding the allegations put forth by Ms. Miller.”
Buchanan also took issue with Miller’s comments concerning the trustee system. He said state law gives each county sheriff the authority to designate certain inmates as trustees, those offenders being held on certain non-violent crimes who are determined to not be a danger to themselves, staff or other inmates.
State law allows trustees to be given work release (work inside or outside the detention center) or “weekend liberties” (time unsupervised by the detention center), he said.
“I do not allow ‘weekend liberties’ or work release, other than work inside the detention center,” said Buchanan. “These inmates are assigned cleaning, laundry, or kitchen tasks within the detention center, similar to those tasks performed by certain inmates in the state system. This system helps reduce the costs of operating the detention center, which in turn saves the citizens of Ashe County money which can be used for other needs.”
Consistent with State jail regulations, Ashe County may have up to 13 inmates working as trustees in the detention center: four general workers, two kitchen workers, and one custodial trustee per pod cleaning inside their own pod, said the sheriff.
“One of the changes I made upon being appointed as sheriff was to insure all inmates are guarded at all times while working on these duties,” said Buchanan. “North Carolina law also requires that male and female inmates be separated from each other while in custody. One of the first changes I made in the detention center was to prohibit inmates of the opposite sex from co-habitating with each other or working together as trustees.”
Buchanan denied Miller’s allegation about tobacco use. He said he has prohibited tobacco use by the inmates. He said he’s also discontinued the sale of e-cigarettes which were sold in the canteen by the previous administration.
He also went over other new policies implemented at the jail.
“I have established policies to maintain both ‘sight and sound’ separation of male and female inmates, in accordance with State law,” said Buchanan. “I have brought the detention center into compliance with the maximum number of male and female inmates approved by the state for our facility. I have prohibited physical contact between inmates in our detention center with outside individuals. I have begun the process of implementing a comprehensive policy manual to establish best practices for our detention center, which will include compliance with state law, the North Carolina Administrative Code, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), and establish the level of professionalism which I expect of my office. Previously, the former administration had no written policies in place to address these issues.”
Buchanan also addressed the county’s participation in the State Misdemeanor Confinement program of housing inmates from outside the county.
“This provides an additional source of revenue to the county and allows us to assist other facilities in the state with over-crowding,” said Buchanan. “With this being said, our detention center is only rated to hold twenty female prisoners at a time. In order to comply with the state regulations and ensure sufficient space for our needs, I have limited our intake of female prisoners to Ashe and Alleghany Counties. While we are reimbursed by the State based upon the number of inmates which we house in our facility, the safety of my staff and the inmates in our custody is of paramount concern. This policy strikes the proper balance of maximizing revenue to the county under the Misdemeanor Confinement Program, meet the needs of Ashe County, and provide for a safe and orderly operation of our facility.”
Reach Jesse Campbell at (336) 489-3063.