GAFFNEY, S.C. — Like plenty of fathers, Kevin Bell took his young daughter to Chuck E. Cheese's for her birthday. He just had to get a ride from his jail cell to do it.
While serving his final six years for cocaine trafficking, Bell left jail for more than the party in 2006, state investigators say. In fact, his daughter was conceived after Cherokee County jail officials sprung him to attend a holiday dinner nearly three years earlier.
He had a $20,000 bank account — and deposited money into it by selling items on eBay for deputies, jailers and even the sheriff, according to a state investigation. It's a good thing that Bell was earning money, though. After all, he had to pay his cell phone bill and needed money for his planned wedding to one of his jailers.
The bizarre prison term of Bell, who was released last year, has prompted a state criminal probe and outraged people in this former mill town about 50 miles south of Charlotte, N.C. While behind bars, Bell became so trusted that he ran a business washing county cars, was driven by an officer to shop at Wal-Mart and was allowed to eat dinner at his parents' house.
"Everyone at the jail knew of Kevin's relationship and other activities. It was overlooked," Robin Murphy, a jail employee, told state prison investigators.
Bell's privileges resemble those enjoyed by inmates at the so-called "Animal House" jail in rural Montague, Texas, who were allowed to bring in recliners, chat on cell phones and have sex with their jailers, according to an indictment this year against the sheriff there and 16 others.
Unlike the Texas case, though, it appears Cherokee County officials gave preferential treatment to just one man. And while other jails in South Carolina and around the United States allow inmates known as "trusties" to serve as mechanics, groundskeepers or other laborers, those jobs don't come with the perks Bell received.
"I've been doing this a long time, and I've never heard of this much flexibility" for a trusty, said Ed Bales, managing director of Federal Prison Consultants, a group that supplies expert witnesses for trials and sentencing hearings.
Bending the rules
Bell, 42, went to prison after being caught selling drugs in 1996. He pleaded guilty to trafficking cocaine and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He has no other criminal record in the state.
In 2002, Cherokee County officials requested Bell be sent to their jail to serve out his state prison sentence. He's from Greer, which is one county away, but why he ended up in the jail remains unclear: Bell rebuffed repeated requests for an interview and Sheriff Bill Blanton won't discuss specifics of the report.
"We've made changes and are in the process of doing things," said Blanton, who won re-election to a four-year term in 2006. "We don't want to comment on it until they get through."
Nearly three dozen county and city jails across South Carolina take inmates from the state prison system. The prisoners usually have family nearby and are requested by local officials to become trusties. Jails sign agreements to follow state prison policies, which forbid most conveniences Bell enjoyed, said state Corrections Department spokesman Josh Gelinas.
It wasn't long after Bell's arrival that the rules started to bend. He left jail dozens, if not hundreds, of times, according to the prison report issued late last year. One jailer let Bell go unaccompanied to the bank, while another took him to McDonald's. Another deputy drove his own wife, two children and Bell to the Chuck E. Cheese party. The mother of Bell's daughter told investigators the deputy supported his child, too — giving the woman more than $1,000.
'Good, normal life'
When state investigators searched Bell's cell, they found an invitation to his wedding to a female guard with whom Bell admitted having sex in the jail, according to the report. The nuptials — later called off — were scheduled for the day after Bell's release.
A guest list included about two dozen jail employees, deputies, Gaffney police officers and other law-enforcement workers. The woman was later fired from the jail. It's against state law for guards to have sex with inmates.
Bell works at a Gaffney body shop owned by County Councilman Tim Spencer. Spencer said Bell is doing excellent work and has stayed out of trouble. The councilman credits nice treatment in jail for Bell's rehabilitation, saying he was allowed to be more than a faceless number in a prison uniform.
"How can I hold something over his head that happened 10 years ago, you know?" Spencer said. "All I did out of the goodness of my heart was give him a job where he could get on with a good, normal life."
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