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Mississippi: Hinds County Jails in Crisis, Face Mandated Reforms

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a letter in May 2015 that described the findings of an investigation which concluded two jails in Hinds County, Mississippi were violating prisoners’ rights. The county has since entered into a settlement agreement that implements a number of reforms in its jail system.

Specifically, the DOJ investigation found that Hinds County had violated prisoners’ rights by “(1) failing to provide conditions of confinement that offer reasonable safety and protection from violence, and (2) holding prisoners in the jail beyond their court ordered release dates.”

The DOJ focused on conditions at the Hinds County Adult Detention Center in Raymond and the Jackson City Detention Center in Jackson. Both facilities are operated by the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office. The Raymond jail has 594 beds and the Jackson facility contains 192 beds.

“Hinds County Adult Detention Center and the Jackson City Detention Center are facilities in crisis,” said Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. “Making these facilities safe will require broad systematic reforms and a commitment to improve staffing and operations.”

Federal investigators found that “grossly deficient staffing is the most immediate problem facing the jail. This deficiency affects every operation and is both a direct and indirect cause of many of the jail’s constitutional deficiencies.” The DOJ noted that the staff turnover rate at the facilities was extremely high.

The lack of staff and physical plant weaknesses were exploited by prisoners, resulting in breaches to secured areas and violent assaults. “The jail also has a serious contraband problem,” the DOJ wrote. “Ready prisoner access to weapons, cell phones, drugs and other illicit materials contribute to the ongoing risk of harm to both prisoners and staff.”

DOJ investigators noted that jail employees even lacked knowledge of where prisoners were housed. While touring the isolation unit, they were told several cells were “out of service and should not be occupied.”

“When we tried to enter the cells, the staff members could not open one cell at all. When they opened the other one, we were surprised to find that it contained a prisoner,” wrote the investigators. “It turned out that the prisoner had spent the past three weeks in this cell, without properly functioning plumbing and in horrible living conditions. The cell stank, and the floor toilet was clogged with urine soaked blankets and cloth.”

The DOJ also found the jails lacked an adequate classification system. As for gangs, jail officials had “a default process of housing all the members of a gang together in some of the same units.” That practice, the DOJ concluded, was counter-productive because it “actually strengthens gangs.”

The DOJ’s review cited an unacceptably dangerous environment with pervasive prisoner-on-prisoner violence. It also found “facially problematic” uses of force by jail staff, including one incident where a guard ordered a K-9 to attack a prisoner for failing to follow an order.

DOJ investigators noted a number of substantial problems with physical security at the jails. They found a disabled door control system, an inoperative sally port door and a hole burned in a poly-carbonite window, and wrote that prisoners “have repeatedly breached the roof in order to get closer to the jail’s security perimeter and obtain contraband.”

Contraband was so out of control that a single prisoner was found with 17 cell phones, a pound of marijuana and 12 cell phone chargers. In fact, the Hinds County Grand Jury issued a report in October 2014 that concluded prisoners seemed to be running the jail. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.50].

Further, Hinds County had “imprisoned people without legal bases for days and months.” A review of over 100 prisoner records revealed that “at least twelve people [were held] past midnight on the day they were ordered released, and up to seventy days after the court ordered their release.”

The DOJ issued another letter on September 15, 2015 that proposed a settlement and described what the county would have to do to ensure constitutional jail conditions.

To avoid additional litigation, in June 2016 Hinds County entered into a settlement with the DOJ. The settlement agreement requires the county to implement a number of reforms, with a focus on reducing its jail population. The reforms include a prohibition on jail sentences for indigent defendants who fail to pay fines, alternatives to jail terms and re-entry services for convicted offenders.

The settlement requires the creation of a “criminal justice coordinating committee,” to be comprised of the sheriff, county judges, county supervisors and mental health professionals. The stated purpose of the committee is to find and implement alternatives to incarceration.

As reflected in the DOJ’s May 2015 investigative findings, a number of violent incidents that occurred in the jails involved defendants with histories of mental health problems. As such, some of the other reforms mandated by the settlement agreement are directed at mitigating mental health-related issues.

Per the terms of the settlement between Hinds County and the DOJ, the county’s progress in implementing the reforms will be overseen by a court-appointed monitor. See: United States v. Hinds County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:16-cv-00489-WHB-JCG.

Sources: www.wapt.com, www.mississippitoday.org, www.wjtv.com

Related legal case

United States v. Hinds County