Corrections chief says Lincoln County Jail under investigation

Published 6:03 pm Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps says the earlier removal of 20 state prisoners from the Lincoln County Jail was part of an ongoing investigation into the county lockup.

Epps took issue with a comment by Sheriff Wiley Calcote, who labeled as “routine” a jail lockdown and removal of the inmates in mid-July.

“It’s certainly not routine,” Epps said this past Friday. “We’re investigating the operations of the jail down there, and I have given the order to remove all the inmates down there.”

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Mississippi reimburses counties for housing state inmates and their removal could result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for Lincoln County.

Calcote had expressed surprise on Friday when questioned about the reason for the inmate removals and the investigation.

“This is news to me,” he said.

Calcote said deputies were dispatched Friday afternoon to pick up two more inmates at the state prison for delivery to his jail.

“Ask him if they came back with them,” Epps said later in response.

Epps said one element of the investigation involves the jail providing passes to state inmates. The passes allow inmates to leave the jail unsupervised for a stated length of time.

The sheriff’s department had been warned once before about the practice of issuing passes, Epps said, and jailers had received classes conducted by Mississippi Department of Corrections officials detailing the circumstances in which passes were and were not allowed to be issued.

He said MDOC concerns about inmate passes were addressed during a meeting with representatives of “a few” sheriffs’ departments from around the state.

Since then, the commissioner said, other inmates at the jail had received illegitimate passes.

“This is the second time I’ve gone through this with the sheriff you have down there,” Epps said. “That’s against state law as well as MDOC policy and procedures. And that’s just an inkling into this investigation.”

The commissioner said he could not elaborate on other elements of the probe.

“It’s been proven already that some have been given passes that should not have been, so I’m comfortable saying that,” Epps said.

Calcote, however, denied issuing passes without MDOC approval. The sheriff said he never met with Epps previously nor had his jailers been instructed about passes by MDOC officials.

“We give out very few, and those we do are approved by the Department of Corrections,” the sheriff said.

Epps he wanted to have all state inmates removed from the jail and hopes to begin a process to have the courts decertify the facility as a place to house state inmates.

According to Lincoln County Jail records this past Friday morning, the jail presently houses 31 state inmates, Epps said. Another 20 inmates are scheduled to be removed from the jail this week.

“We’ll turn around as quickly as possible to get the other 10,” he said.

The commissioner estimated MDOC pays Lincoln County more than $306,000 per year to house 40 state inmates. In addition, the removal of the state inmates could eventually result in the termination of inmate work crews used by the jail to clean up litter along roadways, clean public buildings and grow food in the jail’s garden, Epps said.

District Attorney Dee Bates, representing southwest Mississippi’s 14th District, said he could not comment on any existing investigation because he may be required to prosecute any cases that develop from it.