Wednesday, May 14, 2014
One morning last summer, Larry David McLaurin and his cellmate ate breakfast in their cell in Pod B3 at the Raymond Detention Center.
Sometime later that day, during rounds, a jail guard observed McLaurin lying on the floor covered in a blanket. The guard didn't think anything was out of the ordinary because McLaurin often slept on the floor.
During a second check of cells later in the afternoon, after a shift change, a different guard making rounds also observed McLaurin lying on the floor, but could not get a clear look inside because he said McLaurin's cellmate, Elton Oneal McClaurin (the men are not related), obscured the guard's view.
It wasn't until around 3 p.m. that jailers realized that McLaurin was not sleeping. Guards entered the small cell and removed the blanket to find McLaurin's swollen face and head lying in a small pool of blood.
McLaurin's wrists and ankles were bound with an "unknown type of rope material," one jailer wrote on the incident report, although the report did not indicate whether the binding occurred pre- or post-mortem, if there had been an altercation and, if so, what sparked it.
When questioned, McClaurin—the cellmate who had a history of mental illness—was "mute" and did not respond to simple questions about the date and year.
It was June 23, 2013—two days after Larry David McLaurin's 56th birthday and just 10 days after McLaurin was arrested in Jackson on felony arson charges and booked into the jail.
It was also a time of unusually high unrest at Raymond Detention Center. The week preceding McLaurin's death, on June 19, a 25-year-old man named Joshua Nelson was stabbed during a fight with other prisoners at the detention center, which jail officials said started as an argument over contraband. Nelson survived his injuries, which required stitches at a Jackson-area hospital. Four days after McLaurin's death, three Hinds County deputies were caught in a scuffle when jail detainees refused to return to their cells, but the deputies only received minor scrapes and bruises.
The previous year, in July 2012, a prisoner named Kendall Johnson sparked an insurrection at the jail at 2:30 a.m. by flooding housing Pod C and holding off guards with a fire hose, and then letting other inmates out of their cells. Afterward, the pod was uninhabitable, and prisoners had to be dispersed to jails in surrounding counties. There were no serious injuries, but a female detention officer was taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure.
This year, an outbreak of violence on March 31 led to the death of a man named Markuieze Bennett, 21, who had been incarcerated for two years with no trial.
Escapes, uprisings, violence and contraband trafficking—among prisoners and staff—are all a part of the modern corrections system, particularly in a nation like the U.S. that incarcerates more people per capita than another nation in the world and in Mississippi, which has the nation's second highest incarceration rate.
For this overburdened criminal-justice system, whose problems start from the moment a patrol cop slaps on the handcuffs and continue up until the door clangs shut and beyond, a place like Raymond Detention Center is simply the stage for a much larger drama that has been playing out for decades.
After McLaurin's death, Hinds County Sheriff Tyrone Lewis talked to reporters. McLaurin, he said, had not shown signs of mental illness when he arrived at the jail.
"We're not medical professionals. We have a medical staff in house, and inmates are checked. It didn't reveal from his statements or paperwork that he had any mental issues," Lewis told reporters of McLaurin. "We're not equipped to house mental patients."
Really, the Hinds County jail is becoming less and less equipped to house anyone.
The tragic inadequacies of the Raymond Detention Center unfold in a 16-page grand jury report released in September 2013. Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Tomie Green ordered an inspection of the jail after a string of security failures inside and outside the facility, including the death of Larry David McLaurin earlier in the summer. Their report, although just a snapshot that covered a three-day period, is damning in its description of an "inadequately staffed" jail in "deplorable" condition.
Dr. James Austin, president of Washington, D.C.-based corrections research firm JFA Institute, authored the report on the grand jury's behalf. Austin and his team noted that approximately 400 people are booked into the jail each month and stay about one month on average, which he noted is longer than similar-sized facilities.
While the facility is budgeted for 260 security staff members, monitors observed that "the number of staff reporting for each shift was inadequate in terms of providing a sufficient number of staff to operate the key jail functions."
"The current security situation at the (Hinds County Detention Center) is in dire need of reform and requires immediate actions by county officials to avoid further injuries, deaths and physical damage to the facility," grand jurors wrote.
The monitoring team also found inconsistency in the number of supervisors who reported to each shift, and the facility's control centers were inadequately staffed, "which poses major security and liability risks for the facility," grand jurors wrote.
In addition, there are no "rovers" to perform daily security cell checks, help take prisoners out for daily recreation, visitation and feeding inmates.
"The reason these required positions are chronically absent is due to the exceptionally high staff turnover rate. Based on data provided by both the Sheriff and the County Administrator, there were 200 staff terminations in 2012. For the first six months of 2013, there have been 80 terminations with a projected 160 terminations for the entire year. With these extra-ordinary high turnover rates, there is a constant shortage of staff being assigned to key post positions," grand jurors wrote, noting that the starting salary of $21,816 "negatively impacts the quality of people applying for work."
Sheriff Tyrone Lewis also points out that Hinds County competes with higher paying Rankin County and Madison County jails as well as Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, a state prison in Pearl, for employees.
Coupled with the absence of a formal training program and poor working conditions, "there is little wonder why over half of the staff leave within a year," grand jurors wrote.
"We observed a new-hired female officer assigned to the critical position of safeguarding the mentally ill inmates and suicide watch. She had no prior training to assist her in handling this critical inmate population."
Through the Cracks
Larry David McLaurin's troubles may have ended at the Raymond Detention Center, but they did not begin there. McLaurin, who never married or had children, had a long history of mental illness that seemed to get worse the older he got.
"Larry was great when he was on his medication," said his sister, Betty Johnson.
McLaurin was born in Simpson County, the second youngest and only boy among six children. McLaurin was named after his father, a mechanic named L.D. McLaurin, but when he enlisted in the Army, military officials would not allow him to just go by initials, so he chose the name Larry David.
Johnson said while McLaurin was stationed in Germany, he flipped his Jeep and hit his head, but for reasons she does not know he never sought medical treatment for that injury. After he was honorably discharged in the late 1970s, Larry was not quite the same, Johnson said.
In the early 1980s, Johnson said her brother started serving a 14-year sentence for burglary at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where he was housed in a psychiatric ward. He got out of prison in 1993; Johnson remembers the year because it was two years before their mother, Gretha Mae Blue, died.
For about seven years, McLaurin lived in Greenville in an apartment the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs helped him get, but he eventually came back to Jackson. Johnson said she doesn't know McLaurin's diagnosis, but that "he hallucinated and was paranoid."
Over time, his mental health never improved. Once, while driving him to a doctor's appointment, he jumped out of the car in Florence and ran off; local police had to track him down and bring him home.
Johnson said she tried to check her brother into hospitals several times, most recently in April 2013, just a couple months before he died. She attempted to check him in at the VA hospital in Jackson, but doctors would not admit him against his will.
The sister didn't know McLaurin was in jail until she received a phone call from officials on Sunday, June 25—two days after he died. She recalls asking her sisters where her brother was, but no one knew.
"When you're homeless and have a mental illness, you pull away from society," she said.
In pulling away from society, many mentally ill homeless people, who take over abandoned houses, ask passersby on the street for extra cash or struggle with substance abuse, often find themselves in contact with law enforcement.
In fact, America's jails are becoming the nation's largest mental-health providers.
In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department estimated that more than 50 percent of all prisoners have some type of mental health issue. For incarcerated women, the percentage is closer to 75 percent. And the National Sheriff's Association and Treatment Advocacy Center estimated in a 2010 study that American jails and prisons have more than triple the number of mentally ill people as the nation's hospitals.
Larger cities are deploying more resources to help with the deluge; RDC doesn't even have the ability to keep severely mentally ill people separate from the rest of the population.
In Hinds County, the road for a mentally ill prisoner to receive treatment is long. When a person's mental competency is central to their defense, a psychiatrist must evaluate them at Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield, which has 35 so-called forensic beds, 15 of which accommodate all the jails in the state. Before an evaluation can commence, Whitfield asks for certain patient information that can be hard track down.
Adam Moore, a spokesman for Whitfield, said the hospital's forensic services unit is currently processing 120 evaluation orders. In addition, Whitfield has one psychiatrist and one psychologist to perform forensic exams; defendants also have the option of hiring their own doctors to perform the evaluations, Moore said.
Suspended in legal limbo, it's not unheard for people to wait two years for an evaluation. Michele Purvis Harris, who was appointed as the Hinds County public defender in 2012, said that puts defense attorneys in a tough spot.
"When we believe that someone is incompetent and does not have the capabilities of understanding a plea offer—there might be one on the table; it might be a real good one—we have an ethical responsibility to make sure they understand what they're doing.
"So we can't even get them in court to do a plea, even if the DA was offering time served, you can go home today. We can't bring them before the court saying they want to take that plea knowing they have some mental issues and they don't understand."
Robert Shuler Smith, the Hinds County district attorney, laid the blame at the feet of defense attorneys for the slow pace of getting treatment for mentally ill inmates.
"Someone who's just there waiting for their mental evaluation is something that the defense attorney has to bring to the attention of the court and to our attention. We don't know whether or not the person has that mental illness conclusively until we receive the medical information from the defense attorney," Smith told The Clarion-Ledger last year, not long after McLaurin's death.
Smith did not respond to email and phone messages requesting an interview for this story.
Records show that, in all, some 130 people have been in the detention center for a year or more without trial, including five people who have been incarcerated longer than four years. Harris, who was appointed as the Hinds County public defender in 2012 and ran against Smith for his first term in 2007, takes issue with Smith's assertion that it's her office doing the foot dragging, adding that by her count, her assistant public defenders are successful in the majority of their cases when they do make it to trial.
Ray Carter, Harris' deputy, is more pointed in his critique.
"We are not causing the cases to lag and not go to trial," he said of defense attorneys. "It's been my experience that most of our clients want a speedy trial and want these cases concluded as fast as possible. The prosecutors basically decide which ones they want to try and which ones they're prepared to try and let the judge know. We're the last ones to find out."
Besides that, just because of the mechanics of the courts, it can be a long process. Harris and Carter estimate that judges hold about one criminal trial per week (they preside over civil matters as well). During the most recent six-month term, the grand jury returned 385 indictments. "There might have been 20 to 25 that made the trial list," Carter said.
"We can't make the DA put it on the docket. We ask, we ask, we ask. We file motions with the judge. I've even had clients write letters to the judge. It's rarely us that ever causes a case to be delayed," Carter told the Jackson Free Press.
With the situation at RDC, some defense attorneys believe that their clients would receive better health-care service in prison. Said Carter: "Lord knows I don't want anybody in prison unjustifiably or illegally. It's something we wrestle with all the time. ... As much as I hate to admit it, but you know that they'll get some kind of treatment at Parchman.
"I think it's terrible that someone has to sit out there (in RDC). Anything could happen. They could do things to other people."
A Rocky 'Arranged Marriage'
Hinds County officials have long complained about jail's structural flaw that have existed since the day it opened in 1994.
In the late 1990s, Hinds County went into mediation with Dunn Construction, which built the building and the jail's architect Allen & Hoshall Ltd., over a series of problems, including frequent electrical surges and a faulty foundation that kept cell doors from locking properly.
The county poured about $500,000 into fixes, and eventually brought in an out-of-state consultant to perform a complete diagnosis. The architects eventually settled their part of the lawsuit for $650,000, news reports at the time show.
In addition, the building lacks proper drainage.
"When you have floods, you have standing water," Lewis said.
Another fatal design flaw critics of the jail point to was the decision to install dropped ceilings, which prisoners have dismantled over the years as a way to get out of their cells by fashioning shanks and other tools out of the metal splines that support the tiles and out of sheer boredom. As of last fall, more than 90 cells had no lighting in them. The grand jury noted: "Other cells have lighting, but the light fixtures have exposed wires or are dangling from the ceiling. When repairs are made to the cell lighting, they are quickly damaged by the inmates who are being confined to their cells 23 hours per day."
Ron Welch, a prisoner's rights attorney who filed several federal lawsuits against the county for jail conditions over the years, agrees that the jail has been plagued with such problems.
"That's no way to run a building of any kind," Welch said. And because of the 2012 riot, nearby jails billed Hinds County $635,714 to cover the cost of 20,233 days of incarceration—which could have covered the cost of 56 prisoners for a year—although the actual cost is likely much higher.
District 2 Supervisor Darrel McQuirter said the board is considering all its options, which has included building a new jail, contracting jail construction and operations to a private corrections firm or asking the City of Jackson to increase the fees it pays to the county for housing its arrestees.
County taxpayers have already spent more than $5 million to retrofit parts of the jail. Building a new facility will cost between $30 million and $60 million and take up to a year and a half to construct. Pod C was scheduled to be back online in October 2013, but delays in procuring and installing cameras held it up.
"What do you do for the 12 to 18 months?" McQuirter asks. "We have to stabilize the current situation."
It didn't help that, until recently, a committee of people who clearly do not like each other collectively runs the jail. The Hinds County Board of Supervisors controls the sheriff's budget and the appointed county administrator, Carmen Davis, is the administrative head of all county departments, including maintenance, where work orders for jail fixes go.
"To be charitable, there is a great deal of ongoing conflict in this 'arranged marriage' between the County and the Sheriff. The Sheriff claims that the County has failed to adequately maintain the basic maintenance needs of the facility. When they need a repair a work order is submitted but the County is slow to make the needed repair. The result is a facility that is in disarray in its basic electric, plumbing, smoke alarm, control boards, ventilation and security systems," they wrote.
Lewis says many of those challenges have since been overcome with the reformation of the board of supervisors, which added two new members in 2013.
"We have a great working relationship with the board," he said. The reconstruction of the pods that were damaged in the riots will also bring about needed technological changes. The newly built areas will have a camera surveillance system to observe prisoners and staff members that Lewis said he will be able to access on his iPhone.
No solid plans are in the works for expanding mental-health services at RDC. Betty Johnson, Larry David McLaurin's sister, believes that as long as so many mentally ill people are locked up in the jail, policymakers should be doing more to identify and treat them.
"I'm not mad at the guy who killed my brother because I could see he had mental issues, too," she said.
Recent action by the Legislature may help move people through the courts faster, which could help alleviate some stress on jails. Andre de Gruy, director of the Office of Capital Defense Counsel, said legislative reforms that Gov. Phil Bryant recently signed and take effect on July 1 could be a "game changer" for criminal-justice system.The new law is expansive, but lays out definitions for violent and nonviolent offenses. People convicted of a violent offense will be required to serve at least 50 percent of their sentence; those with nonviolent convictions have to serve 25 percent. In addition, judges will have more discretion to assign alternative sentences such as drug court and house arrest.
In addition, the bill states that the presumptive sentence for misdemeanors is probation. "People shouldn't be sitting in jail on a misdemeanor. They should be out on bail waiting to go to trial. Hopefully, what should happen is the people that are going in and staying in jail two or three years, a lot of those should be moving faster," de Gruy said.
Adam Moore, the Whitfield spokesman, said the hospital has also asked for a new 60-bed forensic unit. In the meantime, warehousing people in the jail—whether their mental illness is apparent or not—could continue to be a recipe for very public problems.
"This is a jail, not a prison," Lewis said. "A jail is for pretrial detainees. That means we should have a revolving door. We should not have a backlog of people sitting in jail for two years to eight years.
"I've only been in office two and half years and I have people sitting there 8 years, 7 years and they should have been gone. That creates a problem. That creates animosity. It creates a street mentality and it creates a mentality where anger builds up—and we have these outbursts."
Lewis would be happy to have a new jail, but he understands that the county is strapped for cash and that a tax increase would be unpopular. Until then, he believes that if all the wheels of the local criminal-justice system—prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, politicians, police officials and his deputies—turn together, replacing RDC can come later rather than sooner.
"This facility can work," Lewis said.
This is part 1 in an ongoing series.