By David Howell
COFFEEVILLE – Yalobusha supervisors voted 4 – 1 to move forward with the construction of a new county jail, a decision that comes after more than two years of discussion as county officials have weighed several options to replace the current 1964 model 24-person jail.
The vote came in Tuesday’s meeting, held in Coffeeville, and is only a preliminary step in the process. Formal planning could begin as early as next week, during a recessed meeting scheduled Monday in Coffeeville.
Tuesday’s discussion kicked off as Sheriff Lance Humphreys presented a letter from Mississippi Department of Corrections (M.D.O.C.) Commissioner Chris Epps, who offered his assistance to the county in the construction of a new jail.
In the letter Epps pledged that M.D.O.C. would provide the county with 25 state inmates to help offset the cost of building and operating the jail.
Last month supervisors had asked Humphreys to bring verification from Epps, agreeing to provide the inmates. In the agreement the state will pay $20 per day for each of the 25 inmates, a revenue stream that will earn the county $182,500 annually and has been identified as an important component in funding the new facility.
“I can sit here and talk all day long, but we have been studying this thing for six years, the whole board has,” District One Supervisor Tommy Vaughn said. “We got an opportunity to build this thing without raising taxes… I want to see it happen.”
“I agree,” Board President Amos Sims added.
District Three Supervisor M.H. “Butch” Surrette, who cast the lone vote against the new jail, reiterated his previous reservations about building a new jail.
“Last time we met and talked about it, I asked for a contract from the Department of Corrections and we don’t have it,” Surrette said, referring to Epps letter as not being a binding contract. “I know that some counties have contracts,” Surrette added.
“Butch, what is your alternative to what we are doing here? What is your answer when we have a jail that is slap full and we have an opportunity to build a new jail?” Vaughn asked, as a back-and-forth discussion ensued.
Surrette pointed to the possibility of building a regional jail, an option that supervisors have lobbied for during the last two legislative sessions with no success. Surrette also questioned the details of the contract, after Vaughn made a motion early in the discussion to move forward with the construction of a new jail.
“What I am saying now is that we are going to commit to building a jail. We can work these things out. We are going to bid for a contractor, we are going to bid for an architect, and buy the building from these people right here,” Vaughn said, referring to officials with Southern Composite Systems Inc. who were also at the meeting.
“If you can tell me how we are going to build a jail?” Vaughn asked Surrette, referring to another option available to the county. “It is not going to be a regional jail because they can’t pay for themselves. Hinds County turned theirs down because they can’t pay for it. I don’t want a regional jail, I don’t want 300 state inmates down here south of town. I want to take care of the county now and in the future,” Vaughn said.
“My main thing is for Lance and M.D.O.C., we have got to make sure, for us to get this jail paid for, that we have got to have those 25 state inmates,” District Five Supervisor Frank “Bubba” Tillman said.
“I agree,” Surrette said.
“As long as (Lance) meets the criteria that they offer, they will not take them away. I went back and talked to the Commissioner (Epps) the other day and that is all we are going to get,” Vaughn said, referring to Epps letter.
Vaughn’s comments brought a response from Humphreys, who weighed in on the long-term outlook of housing the 25 state inmates.
“If I can say something. I don’t know of one county that has a contract… Even the counties with regional jails. It is set out in state statute that they (M.D.O.C.) will provide up to 300 inmates for these counties. They are averaging about 220. It’s just like Holmes County… they didn’t meet (M.D.O.C.) requirements and they came and got 30 or 40 inmates,” Humphreys said. “They can come get the inmates at any time if I am not doing what I am supposed to do,” Humphreys told supervisors.
“The thing I was going to ask you, sheriff, if we go on with this plan and something happens and those state inmates get taken, the monkey is on your back that you have done something wrong?” Tillman asked.
“That’s exactly right,” Humphreys answered.
Later in the meeting Tillman made the second to Vaughn’s motion.
“For Yalobusha County, I believe it is a step that needs to be done for improving our county,” Tillman said.
“We have been battling this thing for some time… we have to step up and make this decision,” Sims agreed.