CATLETTSBURG, Ky. (KT) – Bill Hensley still gets emotional when talking about it.
He’s firm in the belief that his calling to become jailer in Boyd County was God’s calling on his life. A tear wells up in the corner of his eye as he talks about it four months into the job.
“I get emotional when I talk about this and I never used to be emotional at all. I’d heard people talk about being convicted by God, but I’d never experienced it,” Hensley said. “It was kind of weird and it was real.”
Before Hensley’s arrival, the problems that were mounting at the Boyd County Detention Center were real, too.
Two years ago, Hensley was the acting chief of police for the Ashland Police Department when a riot broke out in the jail, drawing 150 first responders from agencies throughout northeastern Kentucky.
Ten maximum security inmates incited a riot, fought off two guards and then started a fire that severely damaged the inside of the jail and forced a widespread evacuation. The fires were extinguished and deputy jailers were able to corral the inmates to the recreation yard. The community was paralyzed with fear for a few hours. The inmates, some of the most dangerous housed, said the riot was because of the poor living conditions inside the jail.
It was a scary night and one of several issues for outgoing jailer Joe Burchett, who had already announced he was not running for re-election.
“I remember that night well and thinking that something needed to be done,” Hensley said. "The deputy jailers were out there but they didn't have any direction. They weren't sure what to do. A lot of people were scared."
The problems continued for the jail. Two inmates died in custody of drug overdoses, there were two separate instances of mistaken releases, nine escapes in an eight-month stretch from 2017 in 2018 and multiple overdoses.
Five deputy jailers were arrested and charged in the death of an inmate last winter, drawing even more negative attention to a jail that had plenty of it.
Even with the sketchy jail history, the idea of running for jailer kept being coming back to Hensley’s mind. God was speaking and he knew it. Hensley had risen to the ranks of major in the Ashland Police Department and had never considered running for public office and may have been the next in line to be the chief of police.
“God wasn’t letting me forget it,” he said of the jailer position. “I had never talked about it with anybody.”
Then the Kentucky Baptist began having dreams about running for jailer. The divine messages were beginning to be received.
“It really hit me and I told my wife (Heather) ‘I really think I’m supposed to run for jailer.’ She just laughed at me, thinking I was kidding, because I do that a lot. I told her, ‘No, really, I think God wants me to run for jailer.’’’
During a Sunday School lesson, he read in the Bible about God putting Joseph in charge of the prison. He has Genesis 39:23 on his business card: “The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand because the Lord was with him, and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper.”
Still, even friends were telling him that running for jailer would be futile because he would never win anyway.
“Robert Prichard, a good friend, told me ‘You’re a Republican and a City boy. Why waste your time?’’’
But Hensley decided to take the leap of faith. He retired from the Ashland police force at the first of September last year after a 25-year career. If he did not win the jailer election, Hensley was going to be out of a job. “I had to trust God,” he said. “If God wanted me to have it, nobody was going to stop me. If it didn’t happen, He would have something else for me.”
His wife got behind him, saying, “If God wants you to do it, then who am I to say no?” So, she didn’t. And the family who had never dreamed of running for public office suddenly found themselves in the middle of the most talked about race in northeastern Kentucky.
He entered with the idea of his name being as good at the end of the race as it was in the beginning. Hensley won the election in a close race with Dean Akers, and both men acted with integrity.
Hensley was elected in November and was scheduled to take over in January. However, Burchett resigned after a rash of incidents, including the deputy jailers being charged with the death of the inmate, and Hensley was named interim jailer at the first of December.
Hensley was originally scheduled to retire from the APD in October, but a series of incidents led him to retire earlier on Sept. 1. “If I hadn’t retired then, when Joe resigned, I couldn’t have taken the job,” he said.
It was another God moment.
Hensley’s administrative and organizational skills have the jail working better than it has in years. He looked at medical and food contracts and made changes to both and began the task of cleaning up a jail littered with trash, even convincing the inmates to help clean their living space.
He instituted a competition among cells with the winners getting $10 apiece in commissary money. The inmates took it seriously and the cleanup was so good that Hensley bought pizza for all the inmates. He has a full jail of 305 inmates even though any number over 205 means many sleep on the floor.
During a tour of the jail on Wednesday, Hensley and a reporter walked into the cells and he commanded immediate attention. He has earned the respect not only of the deputy jailers and others who work for him, but also with the inmates, who know Hensley is treating them fairly.
One inmate, who was there three months before Hensley started and finished his term with Hensley as jailer, thanked him for the difference. “He said he was starving to death, eating cardboard just to stay alive,” Hensley said.
On Hensley’s first day on the job in December, eight deputy jailers were supposed to be there and only two showed up. He has 43 deputy jailers in total although the Department of Justice recommends 57.
“I didn’t leave for 53 hours the first day I started. I slept on that cot over there in the corner,” he said. “(Boyd County Commissioner) Larry Brown ordered me to go home.”
Hensley has found the job to be 24/7 but he tries to carve out time for his family and church. It’s hard sometimes, he said, but getting better although his wife may not agree. When away, Hensley is never far from his lifeline, the cellphone, which dings and rings nearly nonstop.
He has made many positive changes, including three hot meals a day for the inmates and upping the salary for the deputy jailers who were making between $10.75 and $11.25 per hour. Sergeants now make $19.50 and deputies range from $11.50 to $17.50, depending on years of service. “And they’re still underpaid,” Hensley said. “But this makes them more accountable.”
The Boyd County Fiscal Court has worked closely with Hensley and try to get him what he needs. They are currently considering a $2.1 million grant for jail upgrades and energy efficient upgrades to county buildings.
“Bill has done a fantastic job of communicating with the fiscal court,” said Boyd Judge-Executive Eric Chaney. “He’s rebuilt it from the ground up. Bill is the right man in the right job at the right time.”
Hensley says God knew that all along.