Jail overcrowding notice sent to county under state prisoner lawsuit

Published 4:51 pm Thursday, July 19, 2007

State inmates who work for the county provide a form of free labor for menial jobs from the courthouse to asphalt crews, but if a separate place for those inmates is not built soon, the county could lose that work force.

A notice filed under a lawsuit against the state was sent to the Pearl River County jail in Millard to inform the county that it has about 30 days to build such a facility to house those inmates. That separate facility is needed to keep those prisoners separate from the rest of the jail population, said state inmate attorney Ronald Reid Welch. He said the jail is not being sued at this time and if the county can come into compliance with standards set by the lawsuit in the determined time frame, then the notice would end. If not, then the county jail could become a defendant in the long standing lawsuit styled Nazareth Gates vs. Haley Barbour.

The notice states that the jail has a working capacity of 360 inmates, but has consistently kept an average of 407 inmates for the month of June. Chief Deputy Julie Flowers contests those figures, saying the jail actually has 420 beds for prisoners.

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Welch said that number was derived from the number of staff members at the jail and the number of beds within the jail. With those two figures, he concluded about 90 percent of the actual capacity is safe to use. In Pearl River County’s case, with the lack of sufficient staff and the a new jail administrator, he set the working limit at 360. This number allows for spikes in prison population and keeps the staff and prisoners from becoming stressed out.

“You’re out of control of the institution if all your beds are full,” Welch said.

Welch said the personnel problem he saw in the past was further aggravated when four members of Pearl River County’s jail staff were let go due to alleged use of excessive force. Welch said in stressful situations, such as overcrowding coupled with low staff numbers, inmates may come under abuse.

Flowers said a building to house the state inmate workers, or work center, is in the planning stages and will be built. A site for the metal building has been set aside next to the existing jail site.

County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin said the building should be completed within 120 days, or about 90 days over the time limit. Welch said that if the jail administrator responds to his notice, the county could get another 30 days for a total of 60 days.

Currently, there are about 108 state prisoners being held at the jail, 40 of which are state work inmates, Welch said. If the Mississippi Department of Corrections picks up the extra 68 prisoners, then the jail would be in compliance again.

MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps said he planned to have 15 of the prisoners picked up on Wednesday and that within the next week he said he plans to have more unclassified prisoners, those not under the work program, picked up and to replace those with work program state inmates.

Flowers said the jail is about lose about 33 inmates, 18 of which are to go to Rankin County on Wednesday, and an additional five are waiting for beds at Whitfield for drug and alcohol treatment. She also said about eight more employees have been hired.

Welch said the jail still needs about eight more staffers. If the staff situation is worked out, Welch said he could raise the jail’s working capacity to 370 inmates. He said if those adjustments take place, it could give the jail the time it needs to build the work center.

Lumpkin said the work center’s floor plans are ready and have been submitted to Welch. He said he hopes to get the project bid out by next week and to get the mechanical, electrical and plumbing done in time. The 60-foot-wide, 125-foot-long building will have about 80 beds for state work inmates. Estimated cost for the building is about $200,000. There is about $150,000 left from the construction of the jail, Lumpkin said. The rest of the money to build the facility will come from the county.

“You rob Peter to pay Paul,” said District II Supervisor Danny Wise.

For years the jail and the board of supervisors have known that they needed a separate facility to house the state work prisoners, but nothing has been done by the county until now to build the facility, Welch said.

“We never said we were never going to do it. We had this thing called Katrina,” said District IV Supervisor Robert Thigpen.

If the building is not constructed, then the state inmates will be removed from the jail to make room for local prisoners.

Pearl River County has contracts with Pike and Hancock counties to hold some of their prisoners, Welch said. The county takes out-of-county, state and federal prisoners to make money to support the jail’s budget, but that also takes up beds that could be used for county prisoners, he said.

“That’s when the jail really began to turn around financially,” District I Supervisor Anthony Hales said about the out-of-county contracts.

Hales said the reason the facility was not built sooner was due to lack of funds.