Jail HeatOnce again, grand jurors will get stinky tour of dungeon-like building

Published 12:15 am Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Warren County jail is a dark, crowded, smelly, nasty and dangerous place more reminiscent of a dungeon than a correctional facility in the third millennium.

The second floor of the jail has the odor of a dirty truck stop restroom and burned paper. Jail officers say inmates frequently urinate on the floor and use the ashes from paper burned with contraband lighters or matches to make ink for jailhouse tattoos.

Jailers must lay eyes on each inmate every few minutes either from a catwalk where they are inches away from accused felons or through observation windows covered with a rust-colored dried crust of urine and feces.

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As soon as the corrections officer passes a cell, inmates are out of sight.

“It’s like looking down the end of a loaf of bread and trying to describe each slice,” Sheriff Martin Pace said. “It’s impossible.”

The ramshackle conditions of the historic building are rarely seen by most members of the public, but members of the Warren County grand jury tour the facility four times a year.

This week grand jurors will get an eyeful of the worst the jail has to offer, so there’s little doubt, Pace said, that a new county jail again will top the list of their recommendations.

Nearly every inch of every cell — in the men’s and women’s cell blocks — is covered in profane graffiti, and though cells are repainted on a regular basis, the graffiti is scrawled again onto bunks, showers, walls and ceilings in days, Pace said.

“We give them cleaning supplies. The inmates know that the cleanliness of their place is their responsibility,” Pace said. “When they can do that and nobody can see them, it’s difficult to stop.”

The facility, which including holding cells has accommodated 141 inmates, was built in 1906 and added onto in 1977 in a linear style that was popular with jails in the early 20th century, Pace said. In a linear-style jail, cell blocks are isolated, dark and about 30 yards long. Modern facilities are built in pods where jailers have a 360-degree view into cell blocks, he said.

For grand jurors, who for more than 20 years have filed reports citing a new jail as the No. 1 need of the county, however, memories of jail tours don’t seem long-lasting.

Of the more than a dozen grand jurors contacted by phone last week, only one who served between 2008 and January remembered visiting the jail as part of the grand jury.

Darrell Flaggs, a Vicksburg firefighter who served as grand jury foreman in May 2010, remembered the jail had very dangerous cramped spaces.

“Our jail is outdated and substandard, and I know it’s going to eventually have to happen,” Flaggs said of building a new jail.

During his term as foreman the majority of grand jurors agreed that a new jail was needed, Flaggs said, but he and others on the jury cited a greater need for emphasis on public education.

Grand jurors tour the jail, youth court and the Warren County Children’s Shelter, but no Vicksburg Warren School District sites.

“I believe the grand jury should definitely tour the schools,” Flaggs said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to stop building jails until we solve the education problem in this community,” he said.

Warren County Board of Supervisors President Bill Lauderdale also said a new jail is badly needed, but believes other needs, such as aging school facilities, might need to be studied and met first.

“It’s a very incomplete look at the community and its needs,” Lauderdale said of the quarterly grand jury report. “We should be looking at priorities our whole community needs, and not just hammering on a jail.”

Whether the solution is funding a new jail or more funding for education, one point everyone agrees on is that the size of the jail has been outpaced by the county’s crime rate.

On Thursday, Warren County had charge of 150 inmates — 123 in Warren County, 12 in Issaquena County and 15 in Rankin County, Pace said. One cell block that houses 20 inmates was closed for renovations, so only 108 beds were available, Pace said.

“We’re housing pretrial felons. We have no room for misdemeanors,” Pace said. “I can’t opt to house someone who hasn’t paid their speeding ticket and let go someone who broke into your house.”

A county jail is required to house pretrail felony suspects and misdemeanor convicts who have been ordered to serve time in the county jail, but Warren County jail is full with pretrial felony suspects, Pace said.

On Wednesday, a man pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor trespassing and was sentenced by Ninth Circuit Judge M. James Chaney to a year in the county jail, but there is no room for him, Pace said.

“He will either have to spend a year in a holding cell or we will have to pay $30 per day to hold him in a county jail that can hold misdemeanor inmates,” Pace said.

The $30 is the fee Warren County must pay to house inmates anywhere in the state outside Warren County. Additionally, it is responsible for the man hours and financial costs of transportation of inmates to the facilities and back for court.

Following a fire nearly two weeks ago, 18 inmates were moved to Rankin County Jail in Brandon, about 50 miles east of Vicksburg. With an expected influx of inmates with the grand jury term, some could be sent as far away as Brookhaven, 80 miles away, Pace said.

“They have a smaller jail but have some cell space available,” Pace said.

The jail also is required by law to house inmates who have been convicted of felonies but haven’t been transferred to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Because the jail does not meet minimum standards set by the state to house convicted inmates, it is allowed to hold them for a maximum 30 days after conviction, Pace said.

“To serve this community with a full-service facility and be able to house all the arrests of Vicksburg and Warren County, we need realistically 300 beds,” Pace said.

The only factor keeping the county from building a new facility is money, Lauderdale said. Estimates have put the cost of a new jail at $12 million to $30 million. County officials as part of the criminal justice coordinating committee last met about the jail April 19. No new meetings have been scheduled.

“The last meeting we had there seemed to be some reluctance with some officials,” Lauderdale said.

Between 2007 and 2010, members of the committee led by then-District 1 Supervisor David McDonald visited jails in Colorado, Kentucky and Indiana as part of the ongoing study into designing a new detention facility here. McDonald lost re-election in 2011, and supervisors have discussed the jail little since.

In April 2010 after a 16-month study Voorhis/Robertson Justice Services presented the committee with a 148-page report presenting architectural and staffing needs. The report called for a 134,000-square-foot, 350-bed facility built on at least 20 acres. Ideally, the county jail also must be expandable to 650 beds and likely will need a 50-acre tract, according to the report. Jail staff would need to be tripled from current numbers to operate a facility of that size, according to the evaluation.

Another option for expanding the jail includes remodeling a third floor that is little more than “an attic space,” Pace said.

The floor has no ventilation or plumbing system and is accessible only via an emergency stairwell that once led to the roof.

In May 2010, nine offers of land for jail sites — as small as eight acres and as vast as 195 — inside and outside Vicksburg’s city limits were submitted. None has 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.

Meanwhile, grand jurors are paraded through four times a year.

Gene Rogillio, a softball coach at St. Aloysius High School, served on the grand jury in July 2011. He doesn’t remember touring the jail.

“You listen to case after case for four days, and you need about three weeks to decompress,” Rogillio said.

But he does have knowledge of the jail from his years of working for BellSouth before retiring in 1991.

“It’s like everything else. It’s outdated and they do the best they can with what they’ve got,” Rogillio said.

If the people of Warren County really want a new jail, they must elect leaders who are adamant about building a new jail, Rogillio said.

“If you don’t like what they’re doing, vote them out,” he said.