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Grand Jury Report: Prisoners in Charge at Mississippi County Jail

Grand Jury Report: Prisoners in Charge at Mississippi County Jail

by David Reutter

The prisoners seem to be in control of the Hinds County, Mississippi Detention Center because the jail does not have enough staff to adequately monitor them, according to a scathing Hinds County Grand Jury report filed on October 2, 2014 in County Circuit Court. The grand jury members inspected the facility, which became the focus of a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation to determine if prisoners were in danger of violence following a March 2014 riot that left one prisoner dead and at least seven others injured.

“We noted that there were not enough officers to secure the Jail,” the report said. “Those officers that were on duty there were frightened of the inmates. The inmates seemed to be in control of the Jail as a result of the shortage of guards.”

The grand jury laid the blame directly at the feet of Hinds County Sheriff Tyrone Lewis. “After hearing from the Sheriff and his team, we are of the opinion that Sheriff Lewis is incompetent to oversee the jail or keep pretrial detainees or state inmates in a safe manner or to keep the public safe from the inmates,” the report stated. “Therefore, we recommend that any Hinds County Circuit Judge or Chancellor remove the jail from the sheriff’s control and remove any power Sheriff Lewis has to supervise pre-trial detainees or inmates pursuant to Mississippi Code Ann. § 19-25-9, as he is incapable and unfit for this duty of his office.”

Lewis defended himself by pointing to a greater need for prisoner housing than the facility was designed to accommodate. Reacting to the grand jury report, he said the jail had been turned into a prison instead of a detention center for pre-trial detainees because the court system is backlogged. He noted that more than 50 detainees have been held over two years while awaiting trial.

The report also produced a strong reaction from county leaders. “The statement that they felt that the sheriff needed to be removed, it is troubling to us,” said Hinds County Board of Supervisors President Darrel McQuirter. “That’s a very serious statement.”

“I think he’s doing his job. The grand jury sees some other things, and we’re just going to respect the report,” he added.

“I don’t want to alarm people. I don’t want to make people think that something has happened or had happened,” stated Supervisor Robert Graham. “The only thing that we’re doing is evaluating this report right now.”

Since Lewis took office as sheriff in 2012, the jail has had its lion’s share of problems, including escapes, violence and riots.

“While at the jail, we witnessed the immediate after effects of arson, a prisoner exposed himself to us and we witnessed a prisoner in possession of a cell phone (a felony),” the grand jury reported. “Jail staff informed the Grand Jurors inspecting the Jail that occurrences like these were beneath the Sheriff’s notice.”

The grand jury noted many of the facility’s problems could be traced to insufficient staffing and inadequate training of existing staff. “The staffing appeared to be inadequate in quantity and quality,” the report said. “A female deputy was supervising male inmates alone. Inmates were attempting to break glasses as we entered the floor. Neither staff nor inmates were initially aware that we were there.”

“More training and staff presence are recommended by this Grand Jury,” the report continued. “Specifically, we recommend that guards be paid a rate that is competitive with surrounding counties. We recommend that additional training for guards be instituted. Current training is insufficient.”

The inspection also revealed several maintenance issues at the lock-up, including mold and mildew in interview room air vents and prisoner showers, inadequate ventilation throughout the facility and numerous cracked or broken windows in cells.

In June 2014, Sheriff Lewis and Jail Administrator Diane Gatson Riley took reporters on a tour of the detention center’s Pod C housing unit, which had been destroyed during a 10-hour riot. Lewis told reporters that $8 million had been spent on upgrades, including new locks on cells and a new ceiling. In addition, Lewis said a new video visitation center and computer system were added to monitor prisoners.

However, the problems documented in the October 2014 report included many of the same issues that had plagued the jail a year earlier, when a separate grand jury inspection found the detention center “in a deplorable condition and inadequately staff[ed].” The 2013 report noted that “In its present state, ... [the jail] poses a major security risk to inmates, staff of the facility, visitors to the facility, and to the citizens of Hinds County. The facility also poses a major liability risk to Hinds County.”

The 2013 grand jury determined that staffing levels, experience and training were severely lacking, and there was a “significant variance in the number of staff and supervisors reporting for duty on each shift over a three-day period.”

The sheriff’s department responded at the time that it took the recommendations of the 2013 report seriously. “We feel we’ve done an excellent job of meeting some of those recommendations as it relates to staffing,” said sheriff’s spokesman Othor Cain. “We’ve hired a jail administrator, a captain over security, a captain over training. We have beefed up numbers of detention officers as well as some other areas.”

Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Tomie Green called a special meeting to review the most recent grand jury report, but the meeting concluded with no decision on any action.

Meanwhile, problems at the jail continue. On July 13, 2015, four prisoners – including a murder suspect – escaped from the facility. Two of the escapees were quickly caught while the other two, Montreal Damon Anderson and John Rollins, remained at large.

Sources: Report of the Grand Jury, First Judicial District, Hinds County, Mississippi (Oct. 2, 2014);; Report of Hinds County Grand Jury (Sept. 17, 2013);