New jail will come ‘as soon as possible’|[09/06/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 6, 2007

Warren County officials gathered this morning to discuss progress being made toward a problem that panel after panel of grand jurors has said needs to be taken care of “as soon as possible.”

Sheriff Martin Pace, Undersheriff Jeff Riggs, District 1 Supervisor David McDonald and County Administrator John Smith briefed other supervisors on the “intense” four days last week they spent at a Department of Justice conference in Colorado, which they say helped them better grasp the process of building a new jail here.

At the conference in the Denver suburb of Aurora, the four said they assessed the need for a new jail in Warren County, examined its mission, took part in case studies and, in the process, “really got an idea of what it’s going to take to build a new facility,” Pace said.

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“However, we don’t want the people of Warren County to think that just because of this a new jail is going to be up and running in a few months,” Pace said in an interview before the meeting. “This is just the beginning of the process. All this did was give us a better handle on what it’s going to take.”

Pace and the others have stressed that building a new jail is going to be a long-term and complex undertaking.

“This isn’t a process we want to be going through in another 10 years,” Pace said. “We want to take all the necessary steps so that we build a facility that’s going to properly serve this community for a long time.”

Pace said the next steps will be to travel and examine recently built facilities that serve needs comparable to those of Warren County. Supervisors may also bring in a professional consultant to research the crime rate and other statistics necessary to determine what is needed in a new facility.

When a decision is made on when and where to build a new jail, it will likely be the largest construction project in Warren County since the existing jail at Cherry and Grove streets was built for about $2 million in 1979. In the interim, supervisors have provided funding to construct the Warren County-Vicksburg Public Library and a new county highway department headquarters on U.S. 61 North. They have also remodeled a shopping center adjacent to the jail as a juvenile justice and county court complex. However, a new jail might cost $15 million or more and, supervisors have said, would likely be funded with a bond issue.

The Department of Justice invited Warren County representatives to attend the conference following an August 2006 assessment of the Warren County Jail by the National Institute of Corrections, which recommended replacement.

The delegates from Warren County were joined at the conference by representatives from jails in Illinois, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas. The Department of Justice paid for nearly all expenses Pace has described Warren County’s current jail as being “grossly undersized” and unable to fully serve its community.

As a jail in the state of Mississippi, the Warren County facility is designed to house three kinds of inmates: felons charged and awaiting trial, people convicted of misdemeanors and state inmates working in trusty programs.

“Right now we are barely keeping our heads above water in just one of those areas,” Pace said.

Pace explained that the jail is continually filled to its capacity of 118 with pretrial detainees only. This situation forces authorities, including the City of Vicksburg, which pays a per diem rate to house detainees, to ferry those arrested on misdemeanor charges to and from jails in other counties. Mayor Laurence Leyens has pegged that cost at $300,000 to $400,000 per year.

As of Wednesday, Pace said 61 people convicted of misdemeanors in Vicksburg’s Municipal Court were being housed in Issaquena and Claiborne County jails instead of the Warren County Jail.

Along with lacking adequate space, Pace said the jail, the original portion of which was constructed 100 years ago, also has outdated plumbing and other physical elements. The company that made the locks of the jail no longer exists.

Despite the knowledge gained at the conference, Smith, who is in charge of examining finances for the potential jail, said no cost estimate or financial plan has been drawn.

A timetable has not been determined either. However, according to the Department of Justice, the average planning and construction time for a new jail is 44 to 68 months once initial actions are taken.