ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Frank Rogers said the practice of disgruntled inmates housed in the Unicoi County Jail stopping up showers and drains and flooding commodes in the jail so that water leaks to the offices below has gone on for years.
But Rogers said two inmates recently took this custom to new extremes earlier this month, resulting in arson and vandalism-related charges.
Jerry D. Blevins Jr., 26, 179 Bart Green Drive, Gray, was charged with aggravated arson and vandalism over $1,000, and Timothy Smith, 28, 1119 Martins Creek Road, was charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated arson and vandalism over $1,000. Both men were charged on March 10 and are scheduled to appear in Unicoi County Sessions Court on Thursday.
Rogers said the events that led to Blevins and Smith being charged started March 8, when he and other Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department officers conducted a “shakedown,” or search, of the jail after receiving reports from jail staff that they could smell smoke from burning paper and plastic.
“At the time of this, we’re housing 73 souls and they don’t have the liberty to leave, we have them locked up,” Rogers said. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. ... With the concern of 73 souls being locked up, we took it very seriously.”
Over the course of a three-day investigation, officials searched areas of the jail and found that inmates were starting fires in a “whole host” of ways, Rogers said, which included tearing electrical conduits from a lighting fixture to spark toilet paper. Rogers said officials also had probable cause to believe inmates were sneaking prohibited ignition devices, such as lighters, into the jail by rectally concealing them.
Rogers said inmates were found to be soaking the water up from jail commodes, and using the aforementioned methods to build fires in the dry commodes. He said inmates would use the fires to heat plastic water bottles filled with water for the purpose of making coffee and preparing noodles.
“Relatively early on, we realized ramen noodles and coffee was the contributing factor to causing them to want to make fire, so we had to stop that from happening,” Rogers said.
To do this, Rogers said coffee and noodles hoarded by the inmates were taken and further introduction of these items was halted. However, this caused a backlash from inmates upset by this new policy. Rogers said the inmates retaliated by flooding commodes and showers, causing water to leak down to the sheriff’s department’s administrative offices located below the jail.
During the investigation, Blevins was established as a suspect responsible for starting at least two separate fires, according to Rogers. Blevins later admitted to not only setting fire to a blanket within a cell block he occupied, but he also fashioned a wick from bedding which he then affixed to the jail sprinkler head in his cell block, followed by him lighting the wick, Rogers said.
“This caused the sprinkler head to activate and distribute a large quantity of water onto the floor of the cell block,” the affidavit of complaint on Blevins states. “The water then flooded the offices downstairs causing damage to all of the ceiling tiles and contributing to the cost of mold cleanup.”
Rogers said Blevins admitted setting off the sprinklers on March 10. Rogers said Smith assisted Blevins in starting the fires, and that Blevins was charged with aggravated arson, a Class A felony, because his actions endangered the lives all those confined in the jail.
Rogers said as a result of the jail fires, the sheriff’s department has implemented new policies prohibiting some items, including a policy that inmates will no longer be allowed to accumulate styrofoam cups, as they can be used a fuel for fires. Rogers also said plastic bottles with replaceable lids capable of holding contents under pressure have been removed from the commissary, as they were not only used in the fires but officers also found that inmates had fashioned baseball bat-like weapons out of the bottles.
While inmates flooding the jail has gone on the past, Rogers said the department intends to begin addressing the issue more harshly.
“There had to come a point where we had to set our foot down and, if we have to meet force with force, then we will,” Rogers said. “We’re not going to stand by and let people set fire to the jail. Furthermore, we can’t pay hostage takers. We can’t just give into their demands over fear that they’ll send water down. It’s a tactic that will no longer work.”
The flooding issue has, in part, led to the planned relocation of the sheriff’s department’s administrative offices to the county’s Jail Annex. At a Monday meeting of the County Commission’s Building and Grounds Committee, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley cited the alleged incident involving Smith and Blevins as the latest example of why it is urgent to relocate these offices. Rogers said it’s not just water, but sewage from the jail that drips down onto secretaries and UCSD employees working below.
“You can’t expect them to sit there and work with sewage dripping on them,” Rogers said.
Rogers said although those who cause flooding will be held criminally responsible, it can continue to happen. He said the most-affected offices are now in the process of relocating to the annex, adding that this relocation could happen as early as next week.
“But there’s a lot of things that can happen to change things, so I don’t know for sure a definite day or definitive time frame,” Rogers said, “but it’s something that’s got to happen.”