County jail faces state inspections beginning in July

Published 11:59 am Friday, April 20, 2012

Three state agencies will inspect Warren County Jail and other jails that aren’t approved to house state inmates starting this summer, officials said Thursday as a criminal justice coordinating committee revisited jail issues.

The first modern-day inspections for the century-old jail at Cherry and Clay streets result from a revised court order in 2011 from U.S. District Court in Greenville. It grew out of the 1971 federal case involving Nazareth Gates, who sued the state over jail conditions.

All inspections begin July 1, according to the order by U.S. Magistrate Jerry Davis. Warren County officials were notified of the order in March by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which had sent a letter to attorney Randy Sherard’s office. Sherard was replaced as board counsel in January by Marcie Southerland.

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Handling the inquiry will be the Mississippi State Department of Health, the State Fire Marshal and the State Bureau of Buildings, Grounds and Real Property Management. Inspectors must note the structural, operational, maintenance, health and nutrition, fire safety and inmate crowding conditions. Counties not approved to house state inmates, thus subject to inspection, weren’t listed in the order. However, it referred to Harrison, Jackson, Lowndes, Lauderdale, DeSoto and Forrest counties in a passing reference to a Department of Corrections daily prison population report on prisoner concentration in jails without the status. Warren was unapproved to handle state inmates in 2007.

A report must be written by the sheriff and Board of Supervisors to whichever agency found deficiencies and plaintiffs attorney Ronald Welch within 45 days after the inspection.

Conditions noted in the order are “the mandatory inspections” that haven’t been performed in the past, said Lt. Randy Lewis of the sheriff’s department, one of 15 officials at the first justice system committee meeting in more than a year.

“We don’t really know what to expect at this point,” Lewis said.

Attending Thursday were Lewis, Board President Bill Lauderdale, who chairs the committee, supervisors John Arnold, William Banks and Richard George, County Administrator John Smith, Circuit Clerk Shelly Ashley-Palmertree, District Attorney Ricky Smith, Sheriff Martin Pace, Circuit Court Judges Jim Chaney and Isadore Patrick, Justice Court Judge Jeff Crevitt, County Prosecutor Ricky Johnson and Youth Court Clerk and Juvenile Detention Center Administrator Rachel Hardy, Vicksburg Deputy Police Chief Mitchell Dent and Dr. Shelia Lowe, crisis management director with Warren Yazoo Mental Health Services.

Formed in 2010 on the suggestion of consultants who studied for 16 months the size and scope of a new jail, the committee sought to limit how much of the cost of indigent defense taxpayers shouldered and look at the overall speed of criminal cases from arrest to sentencing. Caps were set on how much attorneys charged and gradually reduced costs during 2011, with costs so far this year 41 percent of what’s budgeted, behind last year’s pace, Smith said.

Movement on a jail has been much slower. In the study, Voorhis/Robertson Justice Services concluded an ideal jail would house 350 to 650 beds on 20 to 50 acres and cost at least $20 million. Internal calculations by the county showed property taxes could rise 3 to 6 mills if a jail is built to those standards.

Supervisors have visited jails in other states and other counties in Mississippi that have modern, pod-like designs recommended in the study. In March, Lauderdale and Banks went to Simpson County’s 155-bed jail, completed earlier this year. The $8.1 million jail was built on donated land and financed by a private trust repaid by the county with tax dollars generated from salt domes used to store natural gas.

Last May, nine offers of land for jail sites — as small as eight acres and as vast as 195 — inside and outside Vicksburg city limits were submitted. None have been singled out publicly as a leading choice. Supervisors have put off asking the Legislature to allow a jail to be built anywhere in the county until a site was picked. On Thursday, Lauderdale, who chairs the committee, brought up the offers only in passing.

Figures show 150 inmates were held by Warren County this week — 123 in the current jail and another 27 in Issaquena County, which was reapproved March 13 to house state prisoners by Judge Davis as part of the same federal case.

Whether the group’s long-term purpose trends to system management or to trying to build a jail is still anyone’s guess.

“As a group, what are we here for?” Smith asked at one point as Lauderdale asked whether it was legal to disseminate prisoners’ names and offenses during meetings. Such information is published daily. “Are we here to look and question what every defendant’s in jail for, or are we here to try and determine whether or not there should be another jail and, if so, where it should be?

“We gotta address the new jail,” said Johnson, who questioned the committee’s productivity. “I think everybody’s almost afraid to say we gotta do that. I think that’s our obligation as a committee.”

Arnold, who bounced the panel’s former chairman, David McDonald, in last year’s election, said the state inspection could help dictate a direction as a viable “third party.”

George, who cited cost repeatedly during jail talks the past few years, didn’t stray from the money line.

“They may dictate what they want you to do, but they come with a mouth full of words, a satchel of paper and no damn money. That’s where you’re at.”