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EXCLUSIVE: Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith speaks on jail death investigation

Sheriff Smith defends jail operations, citing improvements during his tenure. (ABC 3340){p}{/p}
Sheriff Smith defends jail operations, citing improvements during his tenure. (ABC 3340)

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For the first time since a video surfaced of an inmate being taken out of the Walker County jail near death, Sheriff Nick Smith agreed to an interview with ABC 33/40. It is his only media interview to date.

Smith said he would not be able to speak directly about the facts of the Anthony Mitchell death case as it remains under investigation by the FBI and ALEA.

The sheriff's office has faced intense backlash since Mitchell's death and videos of the inmate's care while in the jail were aired in news reports.

READ MORE: Graphic video at center of Walker County jail federal lawsuit

"We want the facts to be out whatever they may be," said Smith. He said the investigation could take months and the outside agencies would bring charges if there was any wrongdoing.

"We ask that people be patient and not be so quick to judgement," remarked Smith.

He explained with a hundred cameras in the jail, investigators have a full picture of what happened in the days and weeks leading up to Mitchell's death.

"Something happens, there's outrage then you find out it's not like they portrayed," said Smith.

He said he is frustrated, but must wait until the investigation is complete to give a full response.

The sheriff strongly defended jail operations under his tenure. He claims that overall, the jail is safer today and in better condition than when he took over as sheriff. He also said there is a greater emphasis on medical and mental health care than ever before. He provided county budgets to show the growth in spending in those areas.

He addressed Monday's report on the history of deaths in the Walker County Jail since 2015. Despite attempts to reach county leaders, Smith, the district attorney and the coroner did not respond before the story aired.

SEE ALSO: History of Walker County Jail Deaths

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Three of the deaths were under Smith's watch. "No one wants to see anyone die," remarked Smith. He pointed out the numbers were much smaller than his predecessor. "Even though three is three too many, it's better than what it's been for two decades," said Smith of the jail deaths.

Nine deaths were recorded under Sheriff Jim Underwood. Smith explained the Alabama Bureau of Investigation investigates all in-custody jail deaths.

One case was the beating death of inmate Mindy Tidwell in 2019. Court records show two inmates attacked Tidwell. We questioned why they were only charged with misdemeanors. Smith said the state investigated the case and sent their findings to District Attorney Bill Adair who would have taken the case to a grand jury for indictments. Adair has not responded to our calls.

"You're always attentive; anytime something happens you regroup what can we do so this doesn't happen again," said Smith. While there is a jail operations manager, the sheriff manages that employee.

Smith pointed to several improvements in the jail that he says he prioritized since taking office. He says medical care is a top priority. A new medical care provider was secured by the county.

We asked if he was satisfied with the provider in light of Anthony Mitchell's death. Smith said all the facts were not in yet.

He explained the jail's in-house medical care is now available 16 hours a day up from just eight. There is also in-house mental health care. Smith and other sheriffs say they have struggled caring for mentally ill inmates which often sit for months and years in county jails.

"They're making county jails house them; this is not an appropriate place to be," remarked Smith. Other sheriffs ABC 3340 spoke with agree they are not equipped to deal with severe mental cases, along with extreme health issues and addictions which they see today.

The sheriff showed us a list of around 30 inmates who were "basically stuck in the jail" when he took office. Their cases had lingered for years; some over 2,000 days. He claims he pushed the courts to move their cases which they did.

One inmate accused of making a terrorist threat has been in the Walker County Jail since 2019. He's now on a 16-month waiting list for state mental evaluation.

On average, 3,000 inmates come through the Walker County jail every year. Smith said under his administration the jail is no longer overcrowded.

When he took office there were 373 inmates in a facility with 280 beds. The average is now down to 250 according to Smith. Since the Mitchell death investigation was announced, federal inmates have been moved out which Smith says is standard procedure.

Smith said pay for correctional officers continues to be an issue. Officers make $13 per hour which amounts to about $26,000 a year. He said many don't make it six months before they quit.

Smith also points to a renovated jail as progress, showing pictures of what it looked like when he took office.

Walker County funded a surveillance camera system that includes 100 cameras. The sheriff said only ten were operational before.

"My administration has made strides righting the wrongs of the last two decades," said Smith.

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