MARSHALL COUNTY, Ala. - Records reveal dangerous conditions, and videos and photos sent to WHNT News 19 depict bad inmate behavior inside the Marshall County Jail.
On Tuesday, we aired portions of our Taking Action investigation into the Marshall County Jail that brought to light disturbing images from inside the jail. They depicted fights, drug use and other bad behavior in the jail – all captured by inmate cell phone videos and uploaded to social media.
The disturbing footage begs questions like, "Where are the jail guards? How does the staff let things like this go on in the jail?"
The situation was heightened on Wednesday during a situation inside the jail. Authorities said a shakedown led to a multiple-agency response. The Marshall County Sheriff's Office says a group of inmates physically engaged jail staff and deputies. No one was injured during the disturbance.
Eventually, officers received the all clear. The sheriff's office says all of the inmates were searched before going back into their cells. Sheriff Scott Walls blamed the disturbance on overcrowding, a lack of funding, and low pay leading to a high turnover rate for jail staff.
He said in a statement from his office:
"This morning a group of inmates physically engaged deputies and jail staff during a shakedown. The group became more aggressive during the conflict. We asked for assistance from every law enforcement group in the county, and each city overwhelmingly responded to the call. During the conflict neither law enforcement officers nor inmates were injured. We are currently in the process of searching and securing each prisoner back into cells.
In the past two years, we have requested additional funding and to increase the starting pay for jailers. That request has been denied numerous times by Chairman James Hutcheson. At the last commission meeting, the commission chose to defund a jail supervisor position. This is a result of prison reform putting more state inmates back into county jails that are already overcrowded. When you start placing state inmates back into county jails you start housing more dangerous individuals. All across Alabama and this country, jails are having more violence against staff, which is suffering from low pay which results in contraband being introduced by corrections officers in some cases. Also, inaccurate reporting by media outlets can contribute to situations such as this today. We have had a retention issue due to pay for quite sometime. We are hopeful that this is an eye opener for the county commission and that maybe he will help us find a resolution."
Inmates and Contraband
Fighting isn't the only apparent issue. A viewer sent us a video that we believe an inmate recorded on the social media app Snapchat. Other people have received social media messages with pictures and videos showing inmates wearing Marshall County sweatpants standing next to another wearing a pair of expensive tennis shoes, while other inmates are shown doing drugs.
One local person, who's watched the videos and is familiar with the jail environment spoke with us on the condition of anonymity. We asked how and why inmates have contraband, cell phones, marijuana and possibly more.
"They're reaching out and getting more drugs back into the jail and more cell phones back into the jail," said the anonymous individual.
The inmates clearly seem to be unsupervised, and that may not be a coincidence. WHNT News 19`s investigation uncovered records showing the jail is understaffed with inexperienced guards.
They currently have 18 jailers supervising 274 inmates. There are nine unfilled positions. One of those belonged to Jonathan Foster who was arrested on July 9.
Our investigation reveals that vacant positions are not a new problem.
"We have a personnel department next door that continuously interviews people and tries to fill these slots," explained Commission Chairman James Hutcheson.
Records show 10 of the 18 jailers have been on the job less than six months. They are paid between $10 and $23 per hour, with the jailers starting out on the low end of that range.
"It's a tough job and they have a hard time of getting people to stay in the jail with the amount of pay they get," said Hutcheson.
WHNT News 19 has spoken with both area law enforcement and elected officials who share similar stories. Officers said the environment in the county jail is chaotic. They explained the residents of Marshall County are worried about what's happening in the jail, and what their tax dollars are paying for.
Some are worried that the conditions depicted in these photos are breeding a culture of gang violence.
Chairman Hutcheson provided records showing Marshall County residents have paid nearly one million dollars in overtime for jailers in the past five years. They've already paid about $250,000 this year, but it still doesn't seem like the job is getting done.
"We try to provide all the financial resources he needs to do the job." Money for a jail that appears to be a breeding ground for violence and a dumping ground for your tax dollars.
Waiting for a Response
WHNT News 19 has repeatedly reached out to Sheriff Scott Walls for an interview, but until Wednesday he had never responded. He refused an interview citing a lack of time.
We will not stop pushing for answers about these issues our investigation uncovered. We want to get you answers about what's going on in the Marshall County Jail.