Beef up jail security, grand jury says

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 31, 2003

Security at the Warren County Jail should be beefed up, says a report by the grand jurors who heard cases this week, including those of six accused in a November jail escape.

Officials have said Warren County jailer Rick Haggard, 29, was beaten and robbed Nov. 25, when six fled their cells.

Haggard was treated for head injuries at River Region Medical Center following the jail break. All six escapees are back in county custody, their freedom having ranged from a few minutes to several weeks.

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Recommendations in the grand jurors’ report, which they delivered to Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick Thursday afternoon, included placing security cameras in “all legal areas of the jail, increasing the jail staff on duty, enforcing jail staff’s strict adherence to existing jail procedures and maintaining existing lighting in jail areas.”

The jail, at Grove and Cherry streets, has video security cameras, but none was focused on the hallway into which the inmates escaped. Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace has said Haggard had opened the door to accept outgoing mail from the inmates when he was beaten and robbed.

“We noticed there were no surveillance cameras” that would have captured the November escape, grand jury foreman Don Smith said. He added that the assault might have been cut short had other staff been able to see what was happening and respond quicker.

“I think the grand jury was right on target,” Sheriff Martin Pace said. “I couldn’t agree with them more, and I think they were very observant” to recommend installation of more cameras and addition of more staff.

“The surveillance system has been only moderately updated since the mid-1970s.”

Pace added that the detention center in the county’s juvenile-justice facility does have a state-of-the-art video surveillance system, and that it was funded through a federal grant. He said similar funding avenues could be explored for improvements to the system at the adult jail.

The panel that met Monday through Thursday also recommended increased enforcement of drug laws. “A large majority of the cases heard involved sale, possession or obtaining items (stolen property, burglary, etc.) for drugs,” its report said.

In its four-page report, the grand jury said it met this week with all three Vicksburg elected officials, the entire Warren County Board of Supervisors and other public officials. In addition to reviewing the prosecution’s evidence in felony criminal cases, grand juries are charged with interviewing public officials, inspecting public buildings for possible recommendations for improving the justice system and city and county government generally.

The grand jury’s report stressed “continued coordination” between county and city governments. Smith declined to comment on whether the panel discussed any particular matters of mutual concern. “The tension level has been a little high,” he said. “There needs to be a happy medium.”

The grand jury commended Vicksburg Police Chief Tommy Moffett “for his reorganization of the police department and the improvements he has made,” and urged continued improvement in the department.

The grand jury’s report also made appreciative comments on public schools after meeting with retiring Vicksburg Warren School Superintendent Donald Oakes. Jurors were also pleased with County Court Judge Johnny Price and Prosecutor Marcie Southerland, writing, “We were impressed by the passion and changes in their 30 days in office and greatly support their agenda and long-range plans for the future.”

The grand jury also made two operational recommendations about how District Attorney Gil Martin’s office handled the grand jury process itself. It said it could provide additional instructions “outlining criminal evidence admissible for court use,” and that “the District Attorney’s office should refrain from unofficial comments on cases presented to the grand jury unless specifically asked by the grand jury.”