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County jailer’s race shaping up

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By Randy Patrick

The 2018 race for Nelson County jailer is so far a three-way chase for the Democratic nomination.

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Incumbent Dorcas Figg is running again and is challenged by Michael P. Johnson, a former state prison employee who ran against her as a write-in four years ago, and John “Buck” Snellen, a local sheriff’s deputy who transports inmates to and from the local lockup.

Dorcas Figg

Jailer Dorcas Figg, who is seeking her fifth term, thought about not running for re-election, but changed her mind.

“I thought, ‘I’m not ready to retire,’ ” she said. “What would I do?”

Figg said she lives alone and doesn’t watch TV. She gets up at 3:30 or 4 a.m. to get ready for work, works until about 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon, then comes back and stays until late at night.

“I’d just rather be here and around people,” she said.

She seldom goes out of town because she’s afraid something might happen and she would be needed.

Figg, 67, has been jailer for almost 15 years but has worked for the jail since 1969. Other than driving a school bus, it’s the only thing she’s ever done.

“It’s been my life. … It’s all I know,” she said, adding that she enjoys every aspect of it.

Rehabilitation isn’t really a big part of incarceration, but she tries to do what she can for the inmates, and believes it makes a difference.

“I feel if I can help one person, I’ve done a lot,” she said. When she meets former inmates on the street, she said, they thank her. “That means a lot.”

The jail offers GED classes so inmates can get their high school equivalency diplomas, and has had parenting classes for inmates. Figg has been talking with an official with the Department of Corrections about beginning new parenting classes, job skills training and other re-entry programs next year. Churches and chaplains offer worship services nearly every day or night of the week, and she goes to United to Recovery meetings to learn more about addiction and treatment.

Figg would like to do more with community service workers, but doesn’t currently have inmates who qualify. The County Road Department and landfill no longer use inmates because they’re too great a risk. So mostly inmates mow and pick up trash.

One of the biggest problems the jail faces is overcrowding, but she doesn’t know what more she can do about it.

“All of us have tried to find beds, but the jails are full; the prisons are full,” she said.

Eventually, she said, Nelson County is going to have to build a new jail

“It took us a while to get this jail, and it’s just too small,” she said. “The population has really increased.”

She’s also seen big changes that have been for the better, including standards and better pay.

Figg was reluctant to say she would be a better choice for jailer than the men running against her, but she believes her long experience counts for something.

“I enjoy what I do, and I think I’ve made a difference,” she said.

Michael P. Johnson

Michael Johnson of Bardstown is a 52-year-old Marine veteran whose experience includes working for a prison and a halfway house.

Johnson is a graduate of Eastern High School in Louisville and studied health administration at National Business College. He was in the Marines from 1983 to 1988, and served as a tow gunner and recruiter. For the past five years, he has been employed as a production tech for Flowers Baking Company in Bardstown.

Johnson worked at the Roederer Correctional Complex, a minimum- and medium-security state prison in Oldham County near the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. He also worked for Dismas Charities in Louisville, a private company that operates federal and state re-entry programs for inmates. Johnson described it as a Catholic “halfway house” where former prisoners transition into jobs and become “acclimated to the public.”

Johnson said he is running for jailer because he likes working in corrections.

“I enjoy working with people. I believe people make mistakes,” he said, but with the “right training and education,” it is possible that “they can get a second chance and be successful citizens.”

As jailer, he said, he would put an emphasis on helping inmates get GEDs, job skills and substance abuse treatment.

“I’m a hands-on type of individual,” Johnson said. “I think I’ve got some good ideas for working on improvement of the jail.” He believes in having inmates work in the community, saving taxpayers money.

He wants to improve the jail’s image and work with county officials to ease jail overcrowding.

“We most definitely need a new jail,” Johnson said.

He knows firsthand that overcrowding causes problems.

“It’s stressful on the inmates and it’s stressful on the staff,” he said, and it makes conditions worse. “Even if you’re locked up, you’ve got rights, and I think it’s kind of bad when you’ve got inmates sleeping on the floor,” he said.

As a member of the Kentucky Jailers Association, he would advocate for hazardous-duty pay for jailers and their staffs and more state funding for county jails.

Johnson said he can be tough with inmates, but he doesn’t try to be confrontational.

He said he tells them: “You’re here to serve time. We’re here to watch you. I’m not here to make your life miserable. I hope you’re not here to make my life miserable. If you do, there is consequences.”

John ‘Buck’ Snellen

John “Buck” Snellen, 60, worked for the Nelson County Jail 30 years ago, for former Jailer Austin Weller, and Figg was his captain. He considers her a friend.

“I started there and would like to go back, he said.

A retired city police officer, he now works as a bailiff for the Sheriff’s Office and transports inmates.

Snellen was “born and raised” in Samuels, where he attended St. Gregory Catholic School, then went to Old Kentucky Home Junior High and Nelson County High School. He was trained at the police academy at Eastern Kentucky University.

After four years as a jail employee, Snellen was a Bardstown Police officer for 24 years and retired in October 2014. The following January, he went to work for the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office doing what he does now. It was working with inmates as a bailiff that made him want to be jailer.

He said he doesn’t know whether he would be a better jailer than Figg or Johnson, but he thinks his law enforcement and corrections background makes him qualified.

“I think I could bring some new ideas to the jail,” he said. But he hesitated to say what those were.

“You really can’t make a big change until you see what’s happening,” he said.

However, he thinks there needs to be more emphasis in working low-risk prisoners outside the jail.

As someone who travels to jails around the state, Snellen knows overcrowding isn’t only a Nelson County problem.

“Every one I go to says, ‘Can you take a few more with you?’” he said.

Snellen believes Nelson County needs a new, bigger jail.

“I think it needs to be right beside the courthouse,” he added.

He remembers one morning having to transport 39 inmates to court by 9 a.m., and that’s difficult to do because of the rush hour traffic, including traffic to and from nearby St. Joseph Elementary School. If the jail were beside the courthouse, bailiffs could walk the inmates over, possibly through an enclosed breezeway or tunnel, he said.

“It would be more efficient,” he said.