By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer
WILLIAMSTOWN - As the Justice Department asks questions about the Grant County Detention Center, officials say it isn't unusual for federal authorities to investigate wrongdoing at rural jails.
The Justice Department received 7,700 letters, 1,000 telephone calls and 17 inquiries from Congress about civil rights abuses in jails in 2001.
That same year federal authorities investigated violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 at 187 facilities in 33 states - including at least two in Kentucky.
If the Justice Department decides to launch a formal investigation of the Grant County jail, other jail officials who have gone through the process say it could become costly to the county but might be the only way to restore public trust.
The Justice Department began gathering information on the Grant County jail this year as allegations of prisoner abuse mounted. Federal officials have contacted the Kentucky Department of Corrections, a county prosecutor and two lawyers, among others.
Four civil rights lawsuits have been filed in U.S. District Court in Covington against the Grant County jail in recent weeks. Two claim prisoners were sodomized by fellow inmates and two claim guards beat inmates before locking them in isolation.
Grant County Jailer Steve Kellam has referred questions concerning jail misconduct to his lawyer, Tom Nienaber, who has repeatedly said the jail is safe.
He has declined to discuss allegations raised the suits or respond to an Enquirer open records request.
In the Eastern Kentucky county of Boyd, a Justice Department investigation led to the conviction of a former deputy jailer involved in an 2001 assault of an inmate who later died.
"The feds coming in here shook up the community," said the newly elected Boyd County Jailer Joe Burchett. "But in my opinion, the federal investigation was needed. It ultimately will help me restore the community's faith back into this jail."
Burchett took office in January after defeating the incumbent jailer, who had presided over the 94-bed facility when the assault happened.
Burchett has fired two deputy jailers and sent his guards to anger management classes. Burchett said he believed it was necessary for federal authorities to step in because local officials were incapable of investigating themselves.
"They tried to blame the boy for his own death," Burchett said. "Security tapes went missing." He said he is still amazed that, even with federal intervention, only one person was ever indicted in connection to the death.
A Justice Department investigation of the western Kentucky county of McCracken jail in 2001 didn't lead to any indictments, but federal authorities forced the jail to adopt costly new policies.
The McCracken jail agreed to improvements in inmate health and psychiatric care, including intake procedures, medication management, infection control and crisis intervention.
Justice Department officials have declined to speak publicly about the Grant County jail.
Pendleton County Attorney Don Wells, one of the officials contacted by the Department of Justice, said it remains unclear if federal authorities will launch a formal investigation of the Grant County jail.
The Department of Justice Web site says the agency prioritizes the thousands of allegations received in a year by focusing on facilities where allegations reveal systemic and serious deficiencies.
In jails the department has placed an emphasis on allegations of abuse, sexual misconduct, adequacy of medical care and psychiatric services and grossly unsanitary or other unsafe conditions, the Web site says.
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