The shooting of two deputies by an inmate inside Coffee County Courthouse in neighboring Manchester is serving as a reminder to local officers that a situation can arise in the blink of an eye.
“There are some days where we will transport upwards of 70 inmates to circuit court,” said Sheriff Jackie Matheny of the large numbers of inmates, ranging from drunk drivers to murderers, who are escorted to and from the courthouse. “There’s always a risk when you are transporting inmates from the jail to the courthouse and back.”
Matheny said he spoke to the Coffee County sheriff shortly after the incident and offered any help needed. Matheny said it appears the inmate, Michael Bell, overpowered the single guard who was trying to bring him down from a holding cell on the third floor. He then shot the deputy and opened fire and wounded another deputy as he fled the courthouse. Bell committed suicide minutes later.
“We always try to have more than one officer when we are escorting a prisoner to and from court,” Matheny said. “Inmates are also supposed to be shackled.”
Matheny said that does not always work out as one inmate, years ago, was able to pick the lock of his shackles with a paperclip and escape.
He is one of a handful who have made a dash from the courthouse, all of whom have been taken back into custody within hours. Officers are yet to lose a firearm to an inmate.
“Our training is thorough and it stresses protecting your gun,” Matheny said. “Our training staff is very proactive here.”
Matheny said there are some incidents where the road is blocked off around the courthouse and the inmate is escorted by multiple officers.
“In some high-profile cases, or in cases where threats have been made, we will block the streets during loading and unloading,” Matheny said.
The sheriff noted the only way to avoid exposing officers and inmates during court trips would be to construct a justice center where the jail and courtrooms are in the same building. In the case of most justice center buildings, the inmates are led up a secured hall from the jail for their hearings are held inside a secure courtroom.
The idea of constructing a justice center was discussed and dismissed by county leaders several years ago due to the high expense it would take to build such a facility.