Tuesday, December 17, 2019
The Hinds County Board of Supervisors dodged a bullet Monday, narrowly avoiding a federal contempt trial for ongoing conditions at the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond. Federal Judge Carlton A. Reeves ruled that the county is not meeting federally mandated compliance requirements in place since the U.S. Department of Justice placed the jail under a consent decree in 2015, ordering that the facility must be improved on multiple fronts.
A federal investigation into the jail had revealed systemic issues there, including violation of pretrial detainees’ constitutional rights, staffing shortages, improper training of employees, a culture of violence, and insecure and unsafe facilities.
Although the jail is meeting 59% of compliance standards since the consent decree went into effect four years ago, two significant areas require immediate attention to bring the facility to full compliance, Hinds County Board Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen revealed Monday during a Hinds County Board of Supervisors meeting. The board oversees and funds county detention facilities.
A court-appointed federal monitor found that staffing problems, which the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office oversees, are an ongoing concern. Jail facilities, which fall under the purview of the board of supervisors, remain inadequate and are in urgent need of repairs to ensure the security and safety of both detainees and staff.
“This board has done a lot to make things a lot better in Hinds County. Unfortunately, the facilities and staffing levels at the detention center are still not at a minimum level to meet constitutional compliance,” Teeuwissen notified the board on Monday, minutes before a contempt trial was scheduled to take place in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
Teeuwissen urged the board to concede to the non-compliance findings and enter into a “short-term plan” to bring the jail to compliance within 10 months. The other option, he said, was for the board to proceed to trial.
A contempt trial would mean that the county likely could not renew liability insurance, not just for the jail but for anything, Teeuwissen warned. Whereas most Mississippi counties currently pay $10,000 to $20,000 in insurance deductibles, Hinds County pays approximately $100,000 owing to outstanding problems, outgoing District 2 Supervisor Darrel McQuirter noted.
“As this board term draws to a close, Hinds County has an opportunity to make a public statement that constitutional rights are indeed more important than politics,” Teeuwissen said. “A statement that those that are presumed innocent and locked in the county jails are entitled to humane conditions and that employees deserve some measure of safety and security while they guide those individuals as they go through the criminal justice system.”
The board voted 4-to-1 to concede to the findings and enter into a settlement agreement.
District 1 Supervisor Robert Graham cast the sole vote against the settlement. He said that he had not seen Judge Reeves’ court order nor the settlement proposal in its entirety.
“I don’t even know what we’re settling,” Graham said before voting against the attorney’s recommendations.
Teeuwissen responded to Graham by reiterating that they had, in fact, communicated about the issue ahead of the meeting.
Jail ‘In Crisis’
“The Hinds County Adult Detention Center and the Jackson City Detention Center are facilities in crisis,” Principal Deputy Assistant General Vanita Gupta of the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division said in a 2015 press release following the federal investigation into the 594-bed facility.
The investigation found evidence of “rampant prisoner-on-prisoner violence,” “inadequate staffing and staff training,” jail staff using improper and excessive force on detainees (without sufficient protocols in place to detect or investigate abuses), a “remarkable volume of contraband,” excessively lengthy pretrial incarceration of detainees, and other problems.
Between 2012 to 2015, three riots and several deaths occurred at the jail.
“Low staffing levels contribute directly to the rampant jail violence,” the DOJ’s investigation read. At the time of the investigation, the vacancy rate at the Hinds County Detention Center was 80%.
The investigation also revealed problems with the physical structure of the jail, which date back to its construction in 1994.
“The most glaring structural problems are well known, and include defective locks, cameras, and alarms, as well as structural design issues and weaknesses with the building and its perimeter. … The County’s failure to correct these issues poses a serious risk to prisoner safety and health,” the DOJ report warned.
‘Board Failed To Do a Good Job’
The new settlement agreement will give Hinds County 10 months to “develop a long-term detention plan” with the input of incoming Supervisor David Archie. The county must carry out immediate repairs to the facility with competent service providers and contractors. The settlement also requires the sheriff’s office to address staffing and training issues.
“It sounds as if the board failed to do a good job,” McQuirter said before casting his vote.
Teeuwissen applauded the board for what it had achieved, like turning around the Henley-Young juvenile detention facility, which was also placed under a consent decree in 2015 but is now fully compliant.
“This board has done more in four years than any other board ever. But you don’t undo 30 years worth of problems, ladies and gentlemen, in four years,” Teeuwissen said.
“Remember, the Department of Justice first came to Hinds County in 1989 talking about jail conditions. You don’t fix 30 years in four. Y’all should be applauded that you figured out in the last three years how to get Henley-Young in compliance and get over half of the adult system in compliance,” he continued.
“Having said that, challenges remain,” he added.