MOUNT VERNON — Alleged victims of sexual battery by a deputy at the Knox County Jail have prior mental health issues that were evaluated by the courts.
Two women who are alleged victims in sexual battery charges brought against Jason Hess, 31, Howard, had been referred for mental health evaluations while they had cases pending in Knox County Common Pleas Court, according to court records. One was sent to a veteran’s program but left before completing the course of treatment as prescribed by the court.
Knox County Prosecuting Attorney Chip McConville declined comment on whether the inmates’ mental state could have led them to be allegedly victimized.
“I am not going to make characterizations,” McConville said.
McConville stated the evaluation and veteran’s mental health program were not ordered due to any connection of sexual abuse at the jail, as the women’s disclosure of events came out later.
Hess has been charged with two counts of sexual battery, third-degree felonies, and four misdemeanor counts of public indecency. The charges stem from a period between Aug. 5, 2015, to April 18, 2018, when Hess was employed as a jailer with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
Hess pled not guilty to the charges Wednesday and is represented by attorney Brandon Crunkilton.
Hess was arrested Tuesday and booked in at the Knox County Jail. He was released after posting 10 percent of a $10,000 bond.
The sexual battery charges involving the two women date from between Sept. 26, 2017, to Nov. 11, 2017, and March 9, 2018, to April 16, 2018.
The charges allege Hess had oral sex with the two female inmates at the jail, and exposed himself to several others. There are a total of five alleged victims, McConville said, with one woman allegedly being the victim of a sexual battery charge and a public indecency charge.
One of the incidents was reported through the jail’s Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) phone system.
Hess allegedly exposed himself to inmates through tinted windows that allow deputies to see into the jail area. Knox County Sheriff David Shaffer, when asked about the specific area in the jail, said that with back-lighting there is a place in the administrative area where someone can stand and be visible in silhouette to someone in the jail area.
Shaffer said that officers are instructed not to adjust lighting that can make them visible to inmates. This also includes instructions to not leave doors open where inmates can see them.
Asked if anything has been done to prevent similar incidents from happening, Shaffer said “anytime there is a negative incident we review what occurred, and look for ways to eliminate future episodes,” and that it is part of every deputy’s training to not engage in “immoral behavior.”
Further accountability measures may come about through a new wristband inmate tracking system that should be in use at the jail in March, Shaffer said. The tracking system will show where inmates are at any given time, which could be used to show proximity to jail staff.
The charges brought against Hess have been discussed with command staff and deputies, Shaffer said.
Shaffer said the allegations against Hess do not represent his agency as a whole.
“The Knox County Sheriff’s Office is composed of a dedicated group of officers and civilian employees that are serious about serving the community, safe-guarding lives and property, and respecting the rights of all persons,” he said. “Unfortunately, one individual that doesn’t adhere to those principals can damage the efforts of the entire agency.”