‘Peanut butter’ jail break no laughing matter

Posted 8/2/17

I had planned to write about other things, possibly the Trump administration. (Thank God, starting this week we have a responsible adult in the West Wing!) But now we have a new topic with the great …

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‘Peanut butter’ jail break no laughing matter


I had planned to write about other things, possibly the Trump administration. (Thank God, starting this week we have a responsible adult in the West Wing!) But now we have a new topic with the great escape.

(Stage directions: Cue the Desi Arnaz Orchestra to play the “Peanut Vendor Song.”) 

I know, I know. Be thankful I didn’t use the headline, “Inmates get out in a Jiffy.”

In fact, it is a serious matter. Very serious.

The truth is, the county government has been on edge as it is with the Aug. 15 sales tax vote approaching. No one wants to bring up many specific topics as they are campaigning heavy for the passage of the tax. They are nervous that many topics — even things I would take to be positive — could be taken certain ways. So the status quo is supposed to be the order of the day for the next two weeks.

And then 12 people broke out of jail. Count ‘em, 12. So much for the status quo.

I have to say here, as for the young jailer, I made my share of blunders. It sounds like the prisoners thought up a pretty nifty plan, by their standards. I would hope we wouldn’t be too harsh on the jailer in the end. And I also think we should be thankful for great law enforcement that an round up 11 prisoners, including the worst, within a 12-hour period or less, and the 12th by like 48 hours with help from officials in Florida. We are all real proud of them and thank them, including those in Florida.

But right off the bat, questions emerge. First, a better way to notify the public would be in order, such as a robo call system, interrupting cable TV, notifying media, etc. Truthfully, I am sure many rural counties don’t have a system in place, but they should. Considering the county jail is practically downtown where people are now there day and night, yeah, we could use more than Facebook posts. I know younger people who don’t do Facebook anymore.

Second, the public seems to have gotten the word at between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Yet when it was discovered at 6:30 p.m., they had to do a bed check first. So then Jasper police were notified at 7:45 p.m., which indicates to me they had their ducks in a row. Yet the public didn’t see anything from either department until a little after 9 p.m., when two people jailed for attempted murder had already been running loose possibly for more than three hours. And it was well over an hour after Jasper police had been notified. People were upset about that, on top of having 12 escaping from the jail.

Everyone was relieved to get most of the inmates rounded up, and I asked about how the Sheriff’s Department wanted to handle getting the information, knowing media trucks were already likely set up in the parking lot. I was texted there would be a press release. Did you mean a press conference? A while later, the text came to say, press conference. And then in the meantime the department gave on-the-record details to a Birmingham area newspaper. More power to them, and that paper did fine — but the same reporter was seen at the press conference later, so it could have waited. I think giving the interview early crossed a line in journalism circles, especially considering we are the local newspaper.

Then Sheriff Jim Underwood started his press conference. He started well, in fact, but a number of us noted things faltered at times. He kept talking about the arrests near Love’s Truck Stop, when it was really Flying J’s. Asked about the three-hour delay on Facebook, he said there was not a three-hour delay on the department’s website. I later found nothing on the website, and who would look at the website for that these days? I asked when it was posted on the website, and he said it was posted about the time that it was posted on Facebook.

One answer to a question (I think it was about locks at the jail) I didn’t understand at all, as he seemed to refer to people or situations unexplained. He also said that everything worked well at the jail, but later talked of needs such as cameras and then he needed $300,000 to make necessary changes that would help prevent future escapes. Maybe cameras are that expensive, but it certainly surprised people without more details.

(I wondered if one need could be a wall, because the inmates are not afraid to climb a chain link fence and go over barbed wire. I will note he said he didn’t know he would ever get the $300,000, which may also be a reflection of the fact the county commission will be charged on how the proposed 1-cent sales tax’s public safety funds are spent, and some of that is said to be for courthouse security.) 

And then there was the fact they left a young, brand new entry level person in charge of all those prisoners. The sheriff said many join the jail so that they can later become deputies. I would have thought it is the other way around, that you learn to be a deputy and then you can be a jailer. It sounds like the whole system is upside down. At the very least, more experienced people need to be overseeing inmates to start with, which is why I can’t put too much blame on the young guy to start with.

But, of course, the peanut butter remark was what caught everyone off guard. The image alone of simply taking peanut butte, smearing it over numbers and letters and fooling a guard to open up the wrong door--well, it is plausible but it doesn’t look good. Perhaps he could have just said a substance was placed over the letters that was the same color as the walls. Then again, we would have asked what was substance. And at least he was upfront about it. But we all thought, “Walker County looks foolish, once again.” The fact it happened was bad enough.

I’m not sure I wouldn’t have done the same thing, as he was being truthful, but since the state media (representing the networks, too, it turned out) were watching, mentioning the peanut butter was like setting a gallon of milk in front of a cat. “Criminals fool cops using peanut butter” could be the headline. Some reporters were asking after the press conference if they misunderstood, as one lower level guy said he didn’t want NBC to come back and complain he had it wrong. (Sure enough, ABC and NBC I know had reports in their evening newscasts.)

In all, many people saw the press conference, because some TV stations streamed it live. (We considered it, but I had a tape recorder in one hand and notes on my phone on the other; old dogs haven’t learned all the new tricks yet.) Some in the office have told me they were not impressed with Underwood’s performance. I don’t mean to be cruel and I note he did try to be informative — but it was not on par with what you would expect from a former deputy U.S. Marshal when you need one in front of state media. Mind you, he drove back from South Alabama that morning, and maybe he was tired, and I’ve seen much worse. Still, he didn’t seem at times at the top of his game and he sometimes raised more questions in the process — which he will have plenty of time to answer, as the sheriff’s race is less than a year away.

In the end, I don’t know it would affect the sales tax vote that much, although it could have some effect. I think it could have a major effect on next year’s sheriff’s race, although anything could happen between now and then. Even then, I don’t know how we will overcome the image of the peanut butter incident.

All we can do is wait for the Ostrich to do the lampoon and put it away in Walker County lore.

I think this one will be remembered for a while — although I hope we also address some real issues that have arisen, which deserve more than just a chuckle.