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Georgia Sheriffs Illegally Profit From Captive Workforce

by Michael Rigby

The great thing about being a county's top lawman is having a cadre of free labor for your own personal use. Or so many Georgia sheriffs think. Although it is a felony under state law to use prisoner labor for personal gain, no less than six Georgia sheriffs have been implicated in scandals involving just that since 1991.

Jenkins County Sheriff Bobby Womack, 69, improperly profited from prisoner labor for more than a decade, according to a May 2004 article in the Augusta Chronicle. In the course of its two month investigation, 31 prisoners and 2 former deputies related numerous instances of Womack using prisoners from the Jenkins County Jail for his timber business, his rental properties (he owns more than a dozen trailers and several houses), and his personal home.

The prisoners said the sheriff had them running chainsaws in the woods, patching holes in the walls of trailer homes, and laying sod and cutting grass at the sheriff's private residence. State prisoner William Oglesby said he drove a truck for Womack's Red Acres" logging company for more than a month after being convicted of child molestation in September 2002.

Several prisoners worked in exchange for small amounts of cash and the opportunity to leave the jail on weekends. Former prisoner Thomas Bailey said he often bought beer for other prisoners and brought it back to the jail. Tim Sherrod, another former prisoner, said he smoked crack at the jail three or four times. The drugs were provided by a prisoner who went home for the weekend. It's like a drug house," said former prisoner William Maguire, who was in the jail in 2002. It' the damnedest thing you've ever seen.

Despite abundant evidence, the district attorney and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) have been reluctant to pursue the allegations. Former policeman Richard Evans--who was fired in 2001 and has a civil suit pending against the city for wrongful termination, discrimination, and retaliation--said he told a GBI agent that soon after arresting a man on cocaine charges in the summer or fall of 2000, he saw him buying beer at a convenience store when he knew the man had not been released on bond. The GBI did nothing.

Former Jenkins County deputies James Chesser and Leroy Morgan also reported Womack's illegal use of prisoner labor. Chesser said he reported the improprieties to then-district attorney Joe Martin before Womack fired him in 1999. Again nothing was done.

Womack is not new to skirting the law. In 1999 the sheriff was investigated for illegally wiretapping his wife's conversations during divorce proceedings. The sheriff was also accused of lying about where he bought the equipment. Although wiretapping and lying to investigators are both felonies, Martin ordered the investigation dropped.

According to GBI records, Bonnie Womack, the sheriff's wife, told investigators that he had once fired a shotgun at her and her children, slapped her and threatened to kill her, and toyed with a gun in front of their 7-year-old daughter, which Mrs. Womack interpreted as a threat.

Elected sheriff in 1984, Womack has been embroiled in controversy for much of his tenure. In 1984 and 1985 questions arose as to whether the sheriff had lied about having a high school diploma when he ran for office and when he enrolled in the police academy.

In 1990, Womack was again in the spotlight after convicted child molester Luis Penaranda was spotted at an Augusta restaurant when he was supposed to be in jail. That same year Womack's wife shot him in the leg during a domestic dispute.

In 2004, a former janitor at the jail accused the sheriff of placing him in a choke hold and fracturing his neck because Womack was unhappy with the way he had cleaned a courthouse bathroom.

The GBI and FBI eventually decided to look into the allegations. Womack resigned in July 2004 citing health reasons. He remains under investigation.

To be fair, other Georgia Sheriff's are just as corrupt as Womack. In Screven County, which neighbors Jenkins County, Sheriff Mike Kyle also thinks prisoners are his personal flunkies. A three month investigation by the Augusta Chronicle in 2004 found 32 former Screven County prisoners and at least 2 deputies who said that Kile ordered illicit work.

Prisoners contend they worked on Kile's campaign signs and performed tasks at his personal home and at area churches.

In 2001, prisoners say, they labored at the sheriff's home pouring cement for a patio and walkway, demolished a walk in closet, and installed a new shower. Prisoners received little or no compensation for their work. Some prisoners said Kile occasionally gave them small amounts of cash, but never more than $20. Former prisoner Johnny Roundtree said he worked painting the sheriff's campaign signs in 2002 but was paid nothing.

The prisoners also worked at area churches in 2002 and 2003 paving driveways, cleaning up, sheet rocking, tiling floors, and installing sinks and commodes, among other things. The prisoners were not typically paid, they said, unless church members slipped them something.

On May 14, 2003, while working on a brick laying crew at the Hurst Baptist Church, prisoners Bo Hagan and Will Barrs took advantage of lax security and escaped. They were later captured and charged, but no action was taken against Kile. Reverend Scott Krug, the church's pastor, said Kile personally approved sending prisoners to his church and that it was common knowledge in Screven County that churches could use jail labor.

Former deputies also say the sheriff improperly used prisoners. Former Screven deputy Wayne Blackburn, who was fired in July 2004, said that when the heater at his home broke, the sheriff lent him a prisoner to fix it. Former deputy Gayla Reffner said it was generally known that prisoners worked at the sheriff's residence. She also said that the sheriff had twice allowed her to use a prisoner at her home, once when her air conditioner broke and again when she had to move a freezer. Reffner resigned in June 2004.

The worst consequence of Kile's work policy came in June 2004. While working at the Arnett Enrichment and Education Center cutting grass and clearing limbs, prisoner Harold Cannon escaped. Cannon made his way to the home of Richard Weaver and hacked him nearly to death with a machete. Months earlier, Weaver said, he'd had Cannon arrested for probation violation. Weaver suffered slashes to his back, arms, head, and legs, three broken ribs, and a punctured lung. He required roughly four hours of emergency surgery. Cannon was captured two days later.

Kile refused to hear the results of the investigation and accused a reporter of being unfair. I think you're a complete (sic) biased, and I don't think you did it right, and I don't have any comment on your story," Kile said. I think you're a racist and biased.

In a Savannah television interview on September 22, 2004, Kile denied that the work performed on churches and private property was illegal and said he had been using the labor for 12 years. Kile later admitted using prisoners at his house but said it was okay because he paid them for their work. But even if he had it was still illegal, said Richmond County District Attorney Danny Craig.

Craig said that if sheriffs Womack and Kile had been in his county, he would seek felony indictments for each time the sheriffs used prisoners for private gain. He also said he would pursue felony charges for aiding an escape in instances where prisoners were let out of jail unsupervised, and possibly racketeering charges. Craig noted that because the prisoners weren't in an equal bargaining position, the sheriffs violated their civil rights each time they were used on personal projects.

Like Womack, it appears Kile may not pay for his crimes. In a classic case of fox guarding the hen house, a review panel set up by the Georgia Sheriff's Association recommended that Kile be reprimanded but not suspended. In a November 8, 2004, letter to Governor Sonny Perdue, the three panel members--state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Ben Hill County Sheriff Thurman Ellis, and Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers--wrote that [Kile] appeared concerned about the allegations that have been made, and expressed regret for his past actions. He stated that he did not know that his past actions with respect to inmate labor violated state law.

Kile was reelected to a fourth term in November 2004. The GBI and the FBI are still investigating.

Apparently, the attitude that prisoners are the personal property of their keepers is rampant throughout the state. A number of other Georgia sheriffs have also come under scrutiny in recent years for allegedly using prisoner labor for their own benefit.

Currently, Coffee County Sheriff Rob Smith is being investigated by the state Ethics Commission for allegedly using prisoners to work on his campaign signs.

In 2003, the GBI investigated Early County Sheriff Jimmie Murkerson for using prisoner labor at a paint and body shop and on a building he owned. A grand jury declined to indict him.

In 2002, former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey was indicted on 19 charges, including plotting the murder of his elected successor, racketeering, and illegally using prisoners. Dorsey was sentenced to life in prison.

In 1991, Camden County Sheriff Bill Smith was investigated for, among other things, unlawfully using prisoner labor, theft, and falsifying documents. The investigation was launched after a prisoner escaped while washing a deputy's personal vehicle, got in a wreck while drinking, and injured two marines. Although Smith was indicted in 1992, the state Attorney General's Office dismissed the case citing a technicality--the grand jury wasn't sworn in again after a recess. Smith remains in office.

Source: Augusta Chronicle

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