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Federal Court Puts Troubled Mississippi Jail in Receivership

by David Reutter and Keith Sanders

On July 29, 2022, the federal court for the Southern District of Mississippi took the dramatic step of placing Hinds County’s Raymond Detention Center (RDC) under federal receivership.

A series of crises dates back to a 2012 prisoner riot at the 28-year-old, 594-bed jail that led to a September 2013 grand jury report finding it in “deplorable condition and inadequately staff[ed],” posing “a major security risk to inmates, staff of the facility, visitors to the facility, and to the citizens of Hinds County,” who also faced “a major liability risk” as a result.

Unsurprisingly, another riot broke out the following March, killing one prisoner and injuring seven others, prompting yet another grand jury to observe that the jail was under control of those incarcerated and recommending relieving then-Sheriff Tyrone Lewis of responsibility. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.50.]

The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) then began an investigation in 2014, which led to a lawsuit filed two years later in the Court. The parties immediately entered into a Consent Decree in 2016 containing 92 requirements for RDC. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.40.]

But three years later, in 2019, DOJ was back to present the Court a litany of ongoing violations at the jail. The County managed to avoid a contempt order by agreeing to hire a new jail administrator, and the Court in 2020 “begrudgingly” approved a stipulated settlement agreement, “even though the County had reached sustained compliance in only one of the 92 requirements of the Consent Decree,” Judge Carlton Reeves later recalled.

A November 2021 report from Court-appointed monitor Elizabeth Simpson showed that any progress previously made had seriously deteriorated. “As always, the lack of personnel is the single greatest problem facing” RDC, she said, adding that the County’s “inability to provide maintenance” was “problematic.” The lack of sufficient staff to make detainee and prisoner classifications prevents an “objective risk instrument” from governing housing placements, resulting in “gang pods” where prisoners are grouped by affiliation with a gang to which the pod’s control is ceded.

Simpson went on to list related problems, including “inmate committees rejecting housing placements” and “security moving inmates without Classification involvement, lack of bed space and limitations on the use of some housing units.” As a result, “over-detention” recurs without incident reports or corrective action, the monitor said, pointing to six instances in which prisoners and detainees were released as much as two months late.

“Of great concern is that there appears to be no functioning PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] officer at this time,” she added, so though “PREA-related medical transports were identified,” there had been “no investigation of these incidents.”

At the time of Simpson’s report, there had been six deaths at RDC in 2021. Two were suicides, another two resulted from drug overdoses, and one was chalked up to COVID-19. But another was captured on video that showed prisoners assaulting and knocking down the doomed detainee, after which his head was stomped and his dying body dragged across the pod and propped in a sitting position. Guards did not discover the corpse until nine hours later.

Then in December 2021, conditions inside the facility prompted a fight between several prisoners that ended with a fire being set inside the jail, after which a deputy was taken to the hospital for head and neck injuries.

The Court also noted that after just five months as RDC, Administrator Kathryn Bryan submitted a letter of resignation due to “a distinct lack of support,” relaying in detail a directive from Interim Sheriff Marshand Crisler that Bryan called “reckless and dangerous.” She planned to leave in February 2022, but newly-elected Sheriff Tyree Jones sent her packing early on January 31, 2022.

Faced with another contempt motion then, Hinds County adopted a new tactic: It argued the Consent Decree exceeds “the constitutional minimum necessary to provide the County’s inmates with basic sustenance,” so it was “no longer violating its citizens’ constitutional rights at RDC” under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e.

“Needless to say, the available evidence does not support this proposition,” wrote Judge Reeves, who noted that 15 Monitoring Reports refuted the County’s position and said “[t]he motion instead appears to be a last-ditch effort to prevent a federal takeover of [RDC].”

The Court also said that case law on stipulations and judicial estoppel do not favor a party changing its position without evidentiary support. It issued the contempt order on February 4, 2022, finding the County “non-compliant with more than two dozen provisions of the Consent Decree.” See: United States v. Hinds Cty., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20679 (S.D. Miss.).

Yet because Hinds Country invoked the termination provisions of PLRA, the Court was compelled to hold an evidentiary hearing on February 14, 2022. While the result of that was pending, a second contempt order was issued on March 23, 2022, when Reeves fretted that the County’s “compliance has been elusive” with the decree, and “Court-appointed independent monitors report that Hinds County is in sustained or substantial compliance with only three of 92 requirements of the Consent Decree.” See: United States v. Hinds Cty., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52859 (S.D. Miss.).

 Nevertheless, after the PLRA review, Reeves partially granted the County’s motion to terminate the decree on April 13, 2022, at least as it applies to the jail’s work center. Also terminated were provisions regarding contraband—not because there was any significant reduction in the problem but because regularly conducted shakedowns meant the County was no longer “deliberately indifferent” to the problem in a constitutional sense, Reeves allowed.

Because a separate agreement governed the County’s treatment of youthful offenders, the section of the consent decree devoted to them was also terminated.

However, the County remained deliberately indifferent to its inadequate staffing problem, the Court said. That, combined with a lack of direct supervision, left housing pods under the control of gangs, sustaining levels of assault and death that remained too high.

The County was also excoriated for its continued and deliberate indifference to the medical needs of those incarcerated in the jail, not to mention an incident reporting system deemed “paltry.”

Thus the portions of the decree addressing those problems were left in place, as were requirements to reduce sexual assaults, inject investigations with more integrity, improve the grievance system and sharply restrict the use of segregation. See: United States v. Hinds Cty., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69057 (S.D. Miss.).

Hinds County countered that it has spent millions of dollars for jail “construction, improvements and increase in staff pay,” noting it has met or is in the process of fulfilling various elements of the 2020 order. Officials also told the Court that the County Board of Supervisors recently “approved a resolution to move closer towards a new detention center.” Consequently, attorneys for the county requested the Court to hold judgment in abeyance until July 1, 2022.

When that date came, the Court “invited the County to argue its motion for reconsideration and welcomed any evidence that would ameliorate its record of non-compliance.” After the parties rested, the Court said “regretfully, it is clear that the County is incapable, or unwilling, to handle its affairs.” On July 29, 2022, it denied the County’s motion for reconsideration, saying that “[a]dditional intervention is required.”

“It is time to appoint a receiver,” the Court concluded, promising to do so by November 1, 2022. See: United States v. Hinds Cty., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135504 (S.D. Miss.).

Meanwhile an appeal Defendants filed to the contempt order remains pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. See: United States v. Hinds Cty., USCA (5thCir.), Case No. 22-60203. 

Additional source: Jackson Free Press

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Related legal cases

United States v. Hinds Cty.

United States v. Hinds Cty.