A Kentucky jail employee was among those killed when a candle factory collapsed during Friday night’s tornadoes, the jail said, as reports emerged of inmates helping rescue workers from the devastation.
“He did his job honorably and professionally until the very end,” Graves County Jail said in a statement posted on Facebook on Sunday.
Jailer George Workman told The Washington Post that seven inmates were at the factory as part of a work program designed to help them get “a fresh start on life” after jail.
The inmates and their supervisor were reportedly buried alongside other workers when the tornado struck, causing the metal building to buckle and collapse on top of them.
Graves County Jail was evacuated ahead of the tornadoes, and all of the inmates safely rehoused in other county jails.
Daniel, 47, was on his first night shift at the candle factory, his son, Zachary Daniel, told CNN. He told the TV network he met his father for the last time at a barbershop on Friday morning, where his dad gave him an early Christmas gift.
“That night was just horrible. I still don’t believe it,” he told CNN.
Several prisoners were treated for minor injuries before being transferred to a jail in another county, Workman said late Saturday night in response to questions from The Post. Jail officials declined to give any more details about what happened at the factory, out of respect for Daniel’s family.
The use of inmate labor has expanded in recent decades, with incarcerated workers laboring in industries including mining, agriculture, and all manner of manufacturing — raising concerns about whether they’re vulnerable to workplace exploitation. Supporters say inmates who participate are better prepared for finding jobs once they’re released.
Official policy on the practice in Kentucky is that minimum-security felons may take part in work-release programs provided they haven’t had a criminal conviction or broken any jail rules in the past six months.
Participation in the jobs programs is voluntary, the policy states, and inmates are responsible for securing their own employment. The employer must pay a lawful wage, and inmates are required to pay a portion of their wages to the jail, which is not to exceed the lesser of $55 per week or 20 percent of their weekly net pay.
Lathan Harpole, 18, was at the factory when the tornado hit. Buried beneath the rubble, he and another man started digging upward, he told Kentucky radio station WFPL. They emerged about 15 minutes later with only scrapes and bruises, he said. Others were not so lucky.
“I helped one of the inmates out and he told me that the officer was stuck bad,” Harpole wrote in a comment in response to a prison Facebook post about the tornado.
Harpole told WFPL he had been employed at the factory for only a few weeks, making minimum wage, plus an extra dollar an hour for working the night shift, which ran from 5 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. As the tornado sirens sounded on Friday night, workers took shelter in the bathrooms, he said. A short time later, the tornado struck.
“I heard what sounded like rolling thunder, and I started running, and I looked back, the roof lifted up and came back down,” he told WFPL. “I remember screaming out, ‘Scream if you need help,’ and all you could hear was people screaming from every direction.”
Another factory worker, Kyanna Parsons-Perez, told NBC’s “Today” show of the prisoners’ plucky efforts to rescue people from the rubble.
“Some of those prisoners were working their tails off to get us out,” said Parsons-Perez, who earlier live-streamed the cries of her colleagues awaiting rescue. “And to see inmates — because you know they could have used that moment to try to run away or anything — they did not. They were there, they were helping us.”