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Branchville won't house men serving long stays

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Rules change comes in wake of escapes; public invited to April 11 meeting at school

By Vince Luecke

BRANCHVILLE - A community meeting April 11 will give the public a chance to ask questions about Branchville Correctional Facility and to learn about the steps to improve security since the March 20 escapes by three men.

Among the changes announced Tuesday is a rule change that will keep offenders serving long sentences from being sent to the medium-security facility.   

Gil Peters, superintendent of the facility, said the 9 a.m. gathering at Perry Central Community School will allow him to share information about the facility, field questions and solicit input from the prison's neighbors and others concerned about the facility. Opened in 1982, Branchville Correctional Facility houses about 1,300 men.

The public meeting will be held in the elementary cafeteria-gymnasium.

"We think a meeting is a good idea and we encourage everyone who is interested to attend," Peters said. The meeting was one of the suggestions contained in a News editorial published Monday that addressed community concerns about the escapes of Jerry Sargent, Christopher Marshall and Bobby Cockerell.

The change in rules about who can be housed at Branchville are effective immediately and will keep out offenders with more than eight years yet to serve. That limit had been 15 years and escapes last month and in 2008 involved men who had more than a decade to serve or who had pending charges against them that would have likely kept them in prison longer.

About 80 men now at Branchville with more than eight years to serve will be transferred to other correctional facilities, Peters told The News. Until they are moved, those men are being housed together and are under extra supervision. They are also eating meals and taking part in recreational programs separately from other offenders.

For many years, only men serving 10 or fewer years were placed at Branchville, meaning men serving time for violent crimes, including murder, were still eligible to finish their sentences there.

That will still be the case, but Branchville offenders will only have eight or fewer years left on their sentences.

The number of years an offender could serve at Branchville increased about three years ago to 15 years. That meant men with more time to serve began being sent to the facility.

Offenders with fewer years to serve, even those convicted of violent crimes, generally pose less of an escape risk, than those with lengthier sentences. When caught, escapees face extra charges that can keep them in prison years  and even decades longer.

The Department of Correction classifies offenders based on several factors, including the crimes they committed and length of sentences.

A review of guidelines about who should be housed at Branchville was already under way before last month's escapes, Peters said, but the incident last month prompted the decision to allow only offenders with shorter sentences to be placed there.

Sargent, Marshall and Cockerell face decades in prison because they injured maintenance employee Mike Hubert and three Kentucky brothers, stole weapons and led police in Nebraska on a pursuit that stretched more than 60 miles.

Sargent, who was serving 50- and 20-year sentences for criminal confinement and armed robbery, had nearly 14 years to serve before he could have been released. Marshall, serving 50 years on a conviction for dealing in cocaine, had 12 years yet to serve. Cockerell had only seven years to serve for burglary but Peters said the man faced other charges.

It was a year ago yesterday when two other Branchville offenders, Conan Helsley and Kent Day, scaled the prison's fences at night, eluded a police search and stole a pickup truck.  The two men were later captured in Warrick County.

Day was serving a 60-year sentence for a 1985 murder conviction in Lake County and was scheduled for release in Indiana in 2014 but faced a lengthy prison sentence for the 1984 rape and murder of a Madisonville, Ky., woman.

Charges in Kentucky should have kept Day from being sent to Branchville, The News was told last year, and his misclassification prompted a review of other offenders.

Helsley was serving an eight-year sentence for armed robbery in Vanderburgh and Warrick counties and was scheduled for release in about four years. Both men face extra time in prison because of their escapes.

Sargent, Marshall and Cockerell were captured March 26 in northwest Nebraska. Sargent, who had been at Branchville only a few months, is accused of viciously attacking Hubert the morning of March 20.

Sargent, Marshall and Cockerell were assigned to a maintenance team that was supposed to help Hubert clean air filters in a welding room in the facility's education building. Marshall had been working with prison staff for more than three years while Cockerell had been at Branchville for only a few months.

That Friday was his first day on the maintenance team.

Peters said Hubert was beaten in the head until he was unconscious, tied up and gagged. The men then had access to Hubert's toolbox and used items from it to cut through the fence. A search began that morning but the men eluded dozens of police, dogs and a state-police helicopter. They stole a truck near St. Croix before dawn March 22 and drove into Kentucky.

They abandoned the truck after its fuel tank ran dry and allegedly attacked three brothers near Sanders, Ky., Monday morning, stealing another truck, guns and cash. They then fled west.

Hubert, who was hit in the head with a heavy, blunt object and who was flown from the scene, was released from a Louisville, Ky., hospital this week.

Lighting Coming Soon

Department of Correction officials are eyeing improvements, such as adding razor wire, to the prison's main security fence. Improvements to the prison's surveillance cameras are also being considered. Most of the trees within the prison's perimeter were cut down late last year to improve visibility.

New high-powered lighting announced more than a year ago is still coming to the facility, Peters said, and a team of superintendents and other officials from DOC facilities was due to visit this week and could suggest other changes to improve security.

A proposed stun fence discussed more than a year ago won't be installed due to the system's cost, Peters said.  Major expenditures at prisons have to be approved by state officials.

The facility remains under a partial lockdown and visits that have been canceled since the escape could resume by Friday.