HAZARD—Minutes from an emergency called meeting of the Kentucky River Regional Jail (KRRJ) Board in July may shed more light on what led up to the death on an inmate at the jail earlier this year and how the incident was handled.
Larry J. Trent, 54, was found unresponsive in a holding cell at the jail on the morning of July 9 after allegedly being involved in an altercation with guards earlier that morning. Trent was then transported to the Hazard ARH where he was pronounced dead; an autopsy report from the state medical examiner’s office lists his death as the result of a “jail beating.”
Two former guards at the jail, Damon W. Hickman, 36, of Hazard, and William C. Howell, 56, of Estill, Ky., were both indicted and charged in August with one count each of first-degree manslaughter.
According to minutes from the emergency called meeting of the jail’s board of directors on July 11, just two days after Trent’s death, Board Chairman and Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble had received phone calls days before the incident happened about concerns that Hickman may hurt someone.
“The concerns were that Damon Hickman was putting inmates in the holding cell for no reason,” the minutes read. “(Noble) noted the day before the incident he received a call with the concern that Damon was going to hurt someone, to please do something about him.”
Noble declined to comment this week, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation into the case.
The minutes also reflect that jail administrator Tim Kilburn noted that when Hickman’s personnel records were pulled “he was put on suspension for hitting someone one time, and he was also fired for hitting someone one time” and had been given one verbal and one written warning for his behavior. Howell had one verbal warning.
Video footage of the incident taken from a camera in the jail was played for the board at the meeting in which Hickman and Howell are both identified as the individuals opening the cell door where Trent was being held. Kilburn noted that jail policy is to not open cell doors unless the inmate is considered harmful to themselves or others.
After Knott County Jailer Ricky Prater asked if Trent had become a danger to anyone, Kilburn said he had been “taking a running go and hitting the cell door, and he had been doing it all through the morning.”
Kilburn said once Trent walked out of the cell the incident occurs; he noted that in the footage viewers could see Trent “laying (sic) in the hallway with a live Taser underneath him.”
“Tim (Kilburn) also noted, this incident happened because employee/guard Damon Hickman opened the inmate’s door,” the minutes read.
According to the minutes, Kilburn “noted that the Taser involved in the incident has a 9 percent charge” and compared it to “sticking your tongue to a 9-volt battery” which would not be capable of knocking the inmate to the ground.
Noble asked why the Tasers were not charged to the level that they should be according to policy.
“Tim (Kilburn) noted he thought the employees evidently are probably playing around with the Tasers, like a toy,” the minutes read. Kilburn said the guards did not have the pepper spray issued to them because they preferred to use the Tasers.
When asked if the jail nurse had checked on Trent after the incident per jail policy, Kilburn said she did not.
“The employee/guards involved are both supervisors and she was told by them that the inmate was alright, not to check him,” he said.
Noble said he was told by a medical professional that “if the inmate had been checked, he may have been saved because it may have stopped the inmate from bleeding out because of his injuries.”
The video footage was slightly obscured due to stacks of files placed on the filing cabinet beneath it, but board member Randy Bailey said he had seen another tape which showed another guard who was in the area at the time of the incident and was “shaking his head, and walking backwards, as if he did not want to get involved.”
Kilburn noted this guard later resigned.
Out of the 48 cameras in the jail, Kilburn said it was never brought to his attention that any were not working, though Noble said he believed the only working camera was at the booking desk.
After voting to suspend Howell and Hickman without pay, board members continued their discussion on how things could have been handled differently so an incident like this would not happen again.
Kilburn noted many things were done wrong according to procedure, including the cell door being opened if the inmate wasn’t a danger to himself, the inmate not being restrained against the counter, and hitting being used initially instead of the Taser.
“The policy plainly says no hitting,” Kilburn said.
Board members then voted to give the elected jailers Jeanette Miller Hughes of Perry County and Ricky Prater of Knott County full supervisory authority.