For eighth time in a row, jail at top of list of needs|[02/02/08]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 2, 2008

For the eighth consecutive time, grand jurors say a new jail is the No. 1 issue facing Warren County.

The January term of the grand jury released its written report to Warren County Circuit Judge Frank Vollor, saying a new jail is needed “as soon as possible.”

The jury, which completed its work of examining criminal cases and inspecting local government operations Friday, toured the jail with Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace. He has continually described the facility, a portion of which dates to 1907, as “outdated,” “grossly undersized” and “not large enough to meet the needs of the community.” Newer portions were completed in 1979 and a few years ago.

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Grand jurors assessments of the jail match that of Pace.

“It’s old; we don’t have necessary capacity; it’s a safety risk to the officers,” said grand jury foreman Richard Hanks.

Fellow grand juror Gregory Alexander agreed. “Crime is high in our community right now, and we don’t have room for these criminals. It’s definitely time.”

The Warren County Board of Supervisors has also identified the jail as a priority, resulting from a comprehensive study of all county building needs projected at least 20 years into the future. Results of that study trickled in and, in August, Pace, Undersheriff Jeff Riggs, District 1 Supervisor David McDonald and County Administrator John Smith spent four days at a Department of Justice conference in Colorado. The topics at the seminar included how to assess jail needs and designs.

McDonald said the next steps will be hiring a criminal justice consultant to address the needs of the community, and then traveling to other facilities in communities similar to Warren County. He noted that progress is being made in both areas.

“We’re still in the information-gathering mode,” McDonald said. “Once that’s done, we can really start moving things along. But the last thing we want to do is rush this thing.”

As a county jail in Mississippi, Pace said, the local facility is supposed to house three kinds of inmates — felons charged and awaiting trial, people convicted of misdemeanors and state inmates working in trusty programs. It’s barely serving one of the purposes. The jail, located at Grove and Cherry streets, Pace said, 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 to and from jails in other counties. Paul Rogers, the city’s strategic planner, said the city spent $376,365 to house prisoners in the Issaquena County Jail last year, compared to $21,456 spent on prisoners at the Warren County facility in 2007.

A location or timetable for a new jail here has not been determined. 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.

Other recommendations made by grand jurors:

* Warren County prosecutor should be a full-time position with an assistant and clerical support.

* More investigators are needed for the Vicksburg Police Department, the Warren County Sheriff’s Department, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and the District Attorney’s Office. The report also noted concerns regarding the pay and retention of city and county law enforcement.

* The citizens of Warren County should urge local legislators to become more involved with the juvenile justice system and implement reforms as a long-term solution to reducing crime.

* More practical and detailed orientation for grand juries concerning duties and obligations should be presented before the presentation of cases.

* Additional assistant district attorneys should be appointed.

* Prominent signs should be placed at the Warren County Courhouse directing people using wheelchairs to the north parking lot, which offers easier access to the building. Also, handicapped parking spaces be added in the east parking lot.

* Security lights should be upgraded at the east and north parking areas; proper emergency lighting is needed in the interior stairwells; illuminated exit signs are particularly needed in the two stairwells.

Vollor empaneled the jury, drawn from voter rolls, Monday. He dismissed the panel Friday after receiving its written report.