Washington County Jail staff dealing with challenging inmate, prosecutors file assault charges

Washington County jail personnel in Stillwater have had their hands full with an inmate allegedly abusing staff over the last couple of weeks.

Thame Lee is accused of punching, kicking, and spitting on correctional officers. It has led prosecutors to file a pair of felony-level assault cases against him with a third one pending.

Authorities report issues with addiction and mental illness have made the jail setting more volatile, often leading to staff shortages inside correctional facilities across Minnesota.

"We understand it is part of the job, but it is still something we want our men and women to go home safe every single night," explained Washington County Jail Commander Roger Heinen, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 32 years. "And nobody wants to be a punching bag. Nobody wants to be assaulted, even though we understand it can happen."

Washington County is unique with its jail and two state prisons within its jurisdiction. The County Attorney’s office has a dedicated prosecutor to handle cases that arise behind bars, including that of Dominique Jefferson inside the maximum-security Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility.

Jefferson’s case is currently working its way through the courts, charged with punching a female correctional officer in the face so violently earlier this year, that court documents state she will never see out of her right eye again.

"Our office wants to send a clear message that we are going to take whatever steps we can to protect the correctional officers who work so hard to do a very difficult job in the jail, and in the prisons," stated Nick Hydukovich, the head of the Washington County Attorney’s Office Criminal division. 

Meanwhile, Heinen cannot say enough about the men and women who continue to show up to work under the circumstances, "Proud of our staff coming to work every day, 24-seven, 365. Dealing with some of the most difficult people, name-calling, assaults. When they come to work, they do a great job. We are really proud of them."

Hydukovich made clear his office does not do a lot of negotiating with inmates on these assault-type cases, often tacking years onto their sentences. To that point, prosecutors have a 2020 case involving Adrian Bell stabbing a correctional sergeant with a shank inside the Stillwater prison. It is going to be sentenced next week, more than three years later.