CHESTERFIELD — A county employee’s attempt to avoid letting history repeat itself led to an investigation of inmate labor in Chesterfield County.
In a letter to S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, Chesterfield Detention Center Administrator Sheila Gillespie said she wanted clarification and some direction on how to handle a situation.
She went on to explain that after returning from vacation on Oct. 26, she learned 10 inmates had been taken from the detention center to the home of Brent Nicholson in Pageland.
Nicholson had been arrested a few days before when sheriff’s deputies found thousands of guns on his property, many of which were presumed stolen.
Gillespie was under the impression the inmates were taken there to help retrieve the weapons and ammunition found at the home.
Once her staff verified the inmates were taken to the property, she contacted Chesterfield County Administrator Denise Douglass.
Gillespie informed Douglass she would be contacting Blake Taylor with the S.C. Department of Corrections, Inspections and Compliance Department to address the matter immediately.
In the letter, Gillespie also wrote that she contacted County Attorney Heath Ruffiner, who she said responded that everything was fine.
She was not satisfied with the response she received from Taylor, so she contacted several people, eventually writing her letter to Wilson.
Douglass issued a Nov. 11 release, writing that the county learned on Oct. 26 that inmate labor had been used to move items at the scene of an unusually large property seizure led by the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office Oct. 24 and 25 in the Pageland area.
“As soon as this issue was discovered by the county, the use of the inmate labor at the scene was discontinued and the county administrator personally had contact with the sheriff’s department about the issue with use of the inmates in this manner,” Douglass said in the release. “The matter was then self-reported by the sheriff’s department to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the South Carolina Association of Counties. The county administrator was informed of these self-reports by the sheriff’s department.”
As many as 100 law enforcement officers — including Chesterfield County deputies, SLED agents and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents — were present at Nicholson’s home during the seizure.
The inmates were under supervision at all times when they were at the home moving the materials, according to Douglass. Officials said the inmates were searched before they arrived at the home and after they returned to the detention center.
SLED agents contacted the Fourth Circuit Solicitor’s Office regarding the inmate work. Sheriff Jay Brooks and the county has assured both agencies the matter is being addressed administratively.
Brooks said he immediately put the brakes on use of inmate labor for property seizures and said his office is reviewing protocol to ensure similar issues don’t occur in the future.
The county also provided Gillespie’s letter to the attorney general’s office. Douglass said county administration is reviewing the matter but does not anticipate any additional significant findings.
Gillespie’s concern stems from Sam Parker’s removal from office as Chesterfield County sheriff and conviction on public corruption charges, the basis of which included improper duties and privileges given to county jail inmates.
Following a two-week trial, Parker was convicted in April 2014 on five counts of misconduct in office, two counts of furnishing contraband to an inmate and one count of embezzlement. He had served as sheriff from 2003 until his March 2013 arrest.
The former sheriff was found guilty of letting inmates live outside the jail unsupervised and awarding various privileges in exchange for performing work within the sheriff’s office and at Parker’s home. The inmates were allowed to target-practice with guns at the Parker home and even attended church with his family, according to trial testimony.
Parker also was found guilty of taking property intended for the sheriff’s office to use for himself, in addition to giving uniforms and weapons to civilians.
In her letter to the attorney general, Gillespie wrote that she reported the issues to avoid ending up in a similar situation and said she was afraid ignoring her concerns could affect her livelihood and possibly her freedom.
Reach Maria D. Grandy at 843-537-5261.