By David Howell
JACKSON – County officials are again hoping that state legislators will authorize and fund one or more regional jails in the state, a move that could provide a replacement for the 1964-model jail in Yalobusha.
Although Yalobusha was close to the top of a 15-county list competing to land a regional jail during the 2008 legislative session, which would be funded in part through state tax dollars, an appropriations bill funding the project fell through in the final days of the 2008 state legislative session.
Helping ramrod the regional jail bill through the perils of the legislative session was Irb Benjamin with MCM Jail Development, Management and Consulting. Benjamin’s job was to lobby on behalf of the county in the competitive field of counties competing for the jail.
Supervisors hired Benjamin in early 2008, and his contact was extended this year, as supervisors again agreed to retain his services. Although his price tag is hefty, at $250,000, he does not receive the compensation unless the legislators actually approve and fund the jail in the county. Also included in his services are design, construction oversight and startup of the regional jail.
If the prison was funded, it would likely house state and local inmates in separate areas, according to tentative planning as the topic has been discussed in the board room in previous meetings. Fees from housing state inmates for the Mississippi Department of Corrections would be used to finance a a large portion of the project.
Also helping fuel the jail issue in Yalobusha County is a September jail inspection from Jackson attorney Ron Welch, who represents Mississippi prisoners in a variety of class action court cases concerning conditions of confinement.
“He wasn’t happy about the jail situation,” Sheriff Lance Humphreys told supervisors in an October meeting, adding, “He said it was like a dungeon.”
In that same meeting, Humphreys told supervisors that he informed Welch that the Board of supervisors were aware of the problem and had worked on landing a regional jail.
“(Welch) said on the regionals, if we were to get approved, we are looking at five years before it is operational,” Humphreys continued.
A federal court order was handed down immediately following Welch’s visit, spelling out extensive requirements including providing an on-site health care system at the jail for inmates, a monthly census report, a limit of two sheriff’s trustee state inmates, a comprehensive assessment and review of the county jail, and even cable television for the working inmates.
More glaring in the order was a strict deadline, September 1, 2009, in which supervisors must show “good cause” that a new jail was in the works or the county will lose the right to house state prisoners.
The federal court order is only applicable to state prisoners and not county inmates. County inmates are those who have not been convicted but are awaiting trial, or serving time for a misdemeanor.
“Maybe it is a possibility down the road we can build us a county jail instead of a regional jail,” District One Supervisor Tommy Vaughn commented during an October meeting, pointing to the fact it would be easier to look after a 50-bed county jail as compared to a 300-bed regional jail.
The issue again surfaced in November, after a discussion concerning the federal court order, when Vaughn pointed out that overcrowding was another part of the equation. Vaughn also said he would be in favor
of expanding the current jail or building a new jail using one to two million of a $2.5 million surplus in the county’s general fund.
Vaughn pointed to the ever-increasing cost of construction, which would require the county to borrow money in the future to build a jail if the decision was put off.
Another point made by Vaughn during that same discussion, was that operating a regional jail may not break even, after the cost of construction has increased dramatically each year while the per diem paid by Mississippi Department of Corrections to house the inmates has remained the same.
While Vaughn was vocal about building a county jail, his comments during that November meeting brought a swift rebuke from District Three Supervisor M.H. “Butch” Surrette.
“We have got to keep our priorities in order, we have to take care of the young folks and old folks, first,” Surrette countered, pointing to the hospital, schools and health department.
Citing an example, Surrette said that the Water Valley High School is one year older than the 1964-model jail.
Surrette said he thought the county’s best option would be to continue to apply for approval from state lawmakers to build a regional jail in the county.
“We have got the health department working out of a barn,” Surrette continued, a comment that brought a quick response from Vaughn.
“That is taken care of,” Vaughn said, referring to previous discussion concerning plans to purchase the building currently occupied by Dr. Paul Odom after the hospital builds a new medical facility that would combine the facilities of Dr. Odom and Dr. Joe Walker.
“The health department has been our first priority,” Vaughn continued, adding that the board had been saving money for a new health department and jail.
“I have not been saving money for the jail,” Surrette answered.
“I didn’t say you, I said we,” Vaughn answered.
“I have been saving money for the health department,” Surrette said.
Vaughn continued, adding that the supervisors’ focus should involve long-range plans, not “putting out fires.”
“I am not voting for no general obligation bonds,” Vaughn said, adding this was a campaign pledge.
Squeezing additional years of the current jail is also an option for supervisors, although this presumably would mean state inmates would no longer be housed in the county after September.
That would provide a hardship on the sheriff’s department, according to Humphreys, because deputies would have to transport state inmates back and forth to neighboring counties for housing, when the inmates are assigned to Yalobusha for court. During court sessions, the county is often required to house a half-dozen, or more, state inmates who have hearings scheduled.
Although the state does pay the county a per diem for the state inmates, Humphreys has said the rate would likely not offset the expense of housing the inmates in a neighboring county.
The county would also lose the two working inmates classified to work by the state. These inmates provide labor on county-owned property including grass-cutting in the summer, janitorial services and other jobs.
A third problem with the current jail is space, or the lack of. Humphreys told supervisors in November that law enforcement in Water Valley and Coffeeville often have to transport their prisoners to neighboring counties because the county’s jail stays full.
Water Valley Police Chief Mike King calls several times a week, checking for space availability for city prisoners needing a overnight stay, Humphreys told supervisors.