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Stories Written by Errol Castens



By the time you read this, I’ll probably be in Parchman.

This weekend, Kairos Prison Ministry members are scheduled to spend 72 hours or so in Mississippi State Penitentiary.

In that time, we hope to come to know nearly 50 inmates at Unit 30 and use our flawed hearts and minds to introduce them to Jesus Christ.

Several dozen friends from Southaven to Starkville and from Baptist to Episcopalian have prepared for this weekend for months. As with most mission efforts, it involved thousands of man-hours of team building and training as well as individual logistical assignments.

To say we anticipate these trips joyfully is to cloak the truth in pious language. In the last few days, we’ve been giddy with anticipation of getting to watch God work.

Most inmates will come in expecting to meet suit-wearing, hand-folding, prim-and-proper Sunday school teachers. Instead, they’ll find people a lot like themselves.

They’ll hear of the lives we wasted before Christ met us – some in fearful, faithless spiritual paralysis, and others in confessions straight out of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. They’ll see most of us, with just a few different circumstances, could have been wearing prison stripes.

Inmates will enjoy several privileges rare in Parchman: They’ll be waited on, listened to, accepted and encouraged.

They will praise God in songs that admit helplessness, embrace forgiveness and express longing for a freedom that has nothing to do with guards and razor wire.

They’ll be shown that thousands of people worldwide are praying for them. (If you’re a believer, we also solicit your prayers.)

A series of short talks over three days will build on each other to present the gospel of Christ to these folks who live in an unusually dark place. Prayer will doubtless range from the quiet, contemplative kind to the sweating, sobbing, fetal-position kind that lifts burdens unimaginable to many folks from polite society.

At every Kairos walk, connections too coincidental not to be God’s orchestrating show up. Gang rivals unknowingly assigned to adjacent seats end up praying for each other; a repentant killer unexpectedly meets a kinsman of his victim and hears forgiveness; an inmate becomes friends with the son of one of his convicting jurors.

Some inmates will remain unfazed, but others will want to hear more. Some will surrender their fears and failures and become new people right before our eyes – an experience I would wish for every Christian man I know to witness.

For those convinced prison religion is always fake, I refer them to some converted friends who’ll never leave Parchman alive but who are among the most joyful people I know.

After all, Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 9:13, “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Errol Castens is a news writer for the Daily Journal and the Oxford Citizen. Contact him at (662) 816-1282 or

news_education_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Two major capital improvement projects within the Oxford School District were completed just in time for the biggest student population in its history.

The new Oxford High School just off Sisk Avenue in the Oxford Commons development was completed in December 2013 and opened in January of this year. As soon as it was vacated, contractors started work on the old high school, on Bramlett Boulevard, and it reopened last week as the new campus of Oxford Middle School.

“As of Thursday … we’re at 4,120,” said Assistant Superintendent Bill Hamilton at Monday’s school board meeting. “Last year on the same date, we had 3,972. We’re up roughly 145 to 150 students over last year.

“I would look for this number to go up just a little bit,” he said.

This fall’s underclassmen at OHS were a major factor in the tight schedule to get the capital improvements done.

“The ninth and 10th grades each have more than 300,” Hamilton said. “At the high school we have somewhere between 1,000 and 1,100 students this year. … “You can predict that if you graduate 199 and have 300 freshmen coming, well, that’s why the new high school was built.”

The old high school building was so crowded in its last several semesters that hallways were designated as one-way corridors between classes.

The building comfortably accommodates its new population of seventh- and eighth-graders, and halls now offer two-way traffic.

Superintendent Brian Harvey said recent birth statistics indicate even more growth is in the pipeline.

“Based on live birth reports, we will have one or maybe two more groups in the 330 range, then we’ll go back up the 370 range for at least the next two years. This year we got roughly 65 percent of the live births born in Lafayette County.

This year’s kindergarten class has topped 320 so far, but that could still grow.

A new schedule provides separate buses for upper and lower grades and lets upper grades start 40 to 50 minutes later than lower grades. Harvey said its anticipated benefits already are visible.

“The secondary schools are a more relaxed atmosphere,” he said. “Students are a little better prepared for the day.”

OHS has some traffic confusion, which has resulted in two fender-benders in the first week of school.

A newly opened parking lot on the east side of the school tempts drivers to exit right onto Charger Loop to shortcut the one-way, counter-clockwise route that bids them to go around the entire campus.

“We need to instruct people,” Harvey said.

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – The only resident who spoke at a public hearing Tuesday on Oxford’s proposed water and sewer rate hike didn’t protest the hike but was seeking extension of water service to her daughter’s rural home.

Oxford had petitioned the Public Service Commission for a six-percent rate increase for water and sewer customers who live a mile or more outside the city. Rates for Oxford residents and those within a mile of the municipal limits are set, according to state law, by the city’s Board of Aldermen.

Oxford Public Works Director Bart Robinson testified Tuesday before Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley that the increase was necessary “to maintain a healthy cash flow for our system to maintain adequate service at or above current levels and to adequately fund capital improvements.”

According to Robinson, the hike will cost an extra $3 per month to a typical homeowner using 6,000 gallons of water.

The city has had as much as $10 million in its water-and-sewer reserve fund, which it uses to make capital improvements, major repairs and extensions of service to previously unserved areas. Robinson said after several major projects it now stands at around $6 million and will drop further after the city spends some $1.5 million to relocate infrastructure to accommodate the Highway 7 expansion.

“We will be decreasing that fund steadily,” said City Attorney Pope Mallette.

Projections of repairs and capital improvements through 2030 estimate that even with the rate increase the reserve fund will remain between $1.5 million and $3 million for most of the next 16 years.

“Anytime it gets below $2 million, I start getting nervous,” Robinson said.

Robinson noted that his office had received no written or oral objections to the increase.

“Most people want Oxford water and sewer service,” he said.

Proving his point was Mary Johnson, the lone member of the public who asked to speak at the hearing.

“I had the wrong idea of this meeting. I thought it was to get it expanded to places in the county that don’t have water,” she said. “There are people that want the water.”

Presley said he expected a ruling on Oxford’s rate request within two weeks.



I’m weird. I like to meditate on – and occasionally write about – subjects that don’t often come up in conversation, at least among my friends. Looking-for-shapes-in-clouds or remembering-certain-images-from-long-ago kinds of musings.

A while back I wrote about some of my favorite olfactory experiences, for instance.

This week, I’ve been thinking of some sounds I most enjoy hearing – or remembering. (I’m not counting words, songs or even particular genres of music – those would be topics waayyy too wide to even begin here.)

Though there are a few clichés among them, I hope my ponderings will trigger some extra appreciating for you, too.

• flutes

• the “bob-white” of quail and the low-pitched buzz when they suddenly fly

• train horns passing miles away on a dead-still winter morning

• the combined love calls of a gazillion crickets and tree frogs

• boots crunching in snow

• thunder (both distant and near)

• babies’ laughter

• geese honking their way south in the fall

• French horns

• summer rain on a tin roof

• the buzz of hummingbirds

• the tick-tock of a wind-up grandfather clock

• purring cats

• harps

• ocean waves crunching against a rocky beach

• the two northbound clacks of the now-replaced Highway 51/Illinois Central Railroad bridge at Pickens

• roosters

• sleigh bells

• most owls (not screech owls, though)

• wind, as heard from the floor of a thick pine forest

• a ‘popping Johnny’ (antique, two-cylinder John Deere tractor)

• cowbells on actual cows (not so much in a stadium – sorry, Alma Mater)

• the near-complete silence of most Mississippi snowfalls

• the unique timbre of my dad’s propane-powered Massey Harris 50 tractor

• the popcorn-like patter of bugs on windshield driving through the Delta on a muggy summer night

• English horns, oboes and bassoons

• kittens’ mewing

• bullfrogs

• the distinct, identifiable sound of each of the 20 doors in my ancestral home

• church bells

• mourning doves

• the “pop-psssshh” of a Diet Coke can being opened

• fountains, rippling streams and waterfalls

• the whir of a ceiling fan

• ah-oo-ga horns

• a horse’s whinny

• contented sighs

• cellos

• whippoorwills

• pecans falling on a tin roof

• woodpeckers hammering in a nearby forest

• the scratching of a hoe against garden soil

• the “skritch-skritch” of a steel (not plastic) leaf rake

• wrens

• the comforting, corrective growl of a rumble strip

• hens’ contented clucking

• a maul clean-splitting a firewood billet

• the periodic thump of an old-fashioned percolator

• the flapping of sheets on a clothesline

• meadowlarks

Errol Castens is a reporter for the Daily Journal and the Oxford Citizen. Contact him at (662) 816-1282 or

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Aldermen on Tuesday adopted changes to the taxi ordinance aimed at increasing safety and eliminating rogue taxis.

The ordinance will require that video cameras continuously record the interior of licensed taxis for the safety of both drivers and passengers. (The recorded images may not be distributed, published or sold.)

Taxis must be clean and in safe working order, free of any body damage that could injure a person or damage clothing. Drivers may not use a mobile device while in motion, and no one may smoke in a taxi.

In an effort to reduce the number of unlicensed out-of-town taxis that solicit business in Oxford, the law will require taxis to display a city-issued medallion on their left and right front doors so police can easily identify rogue vehicles.

One proposal in the ordinance changes was eliminated Tuesday. On motion by Alderman John Morgan, a ban on passengers’ sitting in the front seat of taxis was eliminated. That requirement had generated pushback among taxi drivers and owners, on grounds that severely inebriated passengers or those subject to carsickness need to be in front and that a single passenger behind a driver poses more of a robbery or other security-related risk.

Morgan said, “I would like to thank Jay Hughes for all the time and effort he put” into the ordinance change.”

Alderman Hughes, an attorney, had aided in the study of other cities’ ordinances. Based on most of those, he initially pushed for the front-seat restriction.

“I spoke to a number of people [and] I think that what motivated this concern was concern for the safety of the driver,” Hughes said. “Yielding to the general consensus of everything I’ve heard … and a democratic process that I think has worked extremely well, I second Alderman Morgan’s amendment.”

Rooftop restrictions

Also on Tuesday, the Board of Aldermen readopted a ban on commercial use of rooftops more than 50 years old, which effectively prohibits rooftop dining or bar areas in the downtown area.

Even for newer buildings, several restrictions would apply, including barriers six feet inside the roof perimeter.

“The roofs of the older buildings around the square were designed for shelter not as support for a live load on the second or third story for assembly,” City Planner Andrea Correll wrote to the mayor and aldermen. “These older structures can only support so much without a complete remodel. Many of these buildings have common walls consisting of decaying brick and mortar. Therefore, it also will affect adjoining structures during retrofit and renovation. There are issues with life safety, such as exiting the rooftop safely and fire hazards to neighboring properties.”

The ordinance had been in effect in the past but was unintentionally left out of an updated code of ordinances.

“The only reason we’re here is because it was dropped out,” said Alderman Janice Antonow. “It was there for a reason, and we need to remember that when we adopt it for a second time.”

Oxford Police Department Chief Joey East has released a three-goal plan to improve the way his department serves the community. (Courtesy)

Oxford Police Department Chief Joey East has released a three-goal plan to improve the way his department serves the community. (Courtesy)

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – The Oxford Police Department has completed a strategic plan that better defined its mission, major goals and specific strategies to achieve them.

“I saw it was useful for the community to see what your goals and ambitions are as a department, to be transparent, to let everyone have a say,” said OPD Chief Joey East.

The plan was spurred by the city’s decision to update its own comprehensive plan.

“We want people to realize we’re not just going year to year,” said Megan Prescott, East’s executive assistant. “We’ve taken the time to come up with what we hope is a useful comprehensive plan.

“We’re taking your future into consideration by showing you ours.”

Three main goals emerged from the departmental self-study. First was to “reduce crime and the perception of crime.”

“When you compare Oxford to any surrounding areas, we don’t have the crime level that other people have,” East said. “Yes, we have auto burglaries and things like that, but a lot of that is people with unlocked cars: People are just walking around pulling on handles and stealing whatever’s inside. We could clear a lot of that stuff up just by educating people to lock their cars.”

The department has recently become part of the University of Mississippi’s orientation process for new students as well.

“We’re not talking about drunks uptown or DUIs – just quality-of-life issues, because that’s really important to us,” East said. “When you’re living in Old Oxford around people who are established and have young kids, and you’re having a party, they don’t want to be awakened late at night.”

On the other hand, he noted that the department is working to use data more effectively to increase patrols – or sometimes just courtesy visits – in areas where crimes or disturbances are more common.

Another crime-perception issue is that graffiti denotes gang territory.

“We have some cliques, but as far as actual gang activity – Crips and Bloods and that sort – we haven’t seen any of it,” East said. “When we see graffiti, we get it down immediately and try to target the individuals involved. We had a lot of ‘tagging’ (graffiti) for a time, but we found it tended to be college students – some locals. Each time we’ve been able to find out who it is or discourage it.

A second goal is to “become the law enforcement employer of choice.” East said he hopes to increase salaries over the next several years to make officer pay as much a competitive advantage as Oxford’s quality of life, the department’s reputation as a progressive agency and its extensive training and promotion opportunities.

“We’re competing against some well-known places,” he said. “We want the very best.”

Prescott said the department often hosts training that is open to a variety of law enforcement agencies, both as a professional courtesy and as a means of bringing more officers to see Oxford and its police department.

“If we host more training, it’s a means of indirect recruiting,” she said.

A third goal is to “prepare for future growth and increasing population density.” Its objectives are to determine staffing and resource needs, to develop an efficient recruiting and training plan and to plan for efficient delivery of police services to newly developed areas.

One outreach that will touch on all three goals is a revival of the Citizens Academy, whose first class will start next month. In its original iteration in the 1990s under Chief Steve Bramlett, the Citizens Academy was a 10-week class that got so detailed as to touch on constitutional law and other technical subjects. The new version will aim at about a three-week run, meeting Friday nights and Saturday mornings.

“The things you don’t understand why we do, we want to explain – why we walk up to a car a certain way, why we talk a certain way, why you can’t get out of your car,” East said. “We want to do some hands-on – getting behind the wheel of a patrol car and doing a little driver training, going through a shoot house. We’re going to try to make it a lot more interactive and fun.” The class will even include some department history as shared by nonagenarian former Chief H.C. Franklin.

“We’re going to have a good mixture of people,” East said. “(Deputy) Chief James Owens has done a good job putting this together.”

For more information on Oxford Police Department’s strategic plan or its upcoming Citizens Academy, call (662) 232-2400 or visit

Janet and Ramon Barreto

Janet and Ramon Barreto

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

NEW ALBANY – Union County Sheriff Jimmy Edwards said the inmate-retrieval service contracted to return a pair of longtime fugitives back to Mississippi left the Memphis area for the West Coast on Tuesday.

Janet and Ramon Barreto were arrested last week in Oregon, some five years after they failed to appear in Union County court to face charges of manslaughter, child abuse and neglect and, for Janet Barreto, witness tampering after the death of their 2-year-old daughter, Enna, in 2008.

They now face a combined 25 state and federal charges, including unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Edwards said he arranged last week with Inmate Service Corporation of West Memphis, Arkansas, to transport the Barretos from Oregon by ground vehicle. After an initial projection of pickup by Tuesday, Edwards got confirmation that afternoon that one of the company’s inmate transport teams had just left and expected to pick up the couple late this week.

“They told me that they did leave today, but it looked like it would be Monday before they get back,” he said. “It’s a 12-passenger van. They’ll make several pickups on the West Coast.”

Edwards said normally law enforcement agencies grant up to 10 days to retrieve suspects arrested in non-local jurisdictions.

Because of the distance involved, he said, Union County actually has a cushion of time until late next week in case of transport complications.

county_lafayette_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – The Lafayette County Board of Supervisors on Monday approved entering a preliminary agreement with the city of Oxford for the construction of two roads that each lie partly inside the city and partly outside its bounds.

As drafted, the Regional Economic Development Act (REDA) agreement will provide for spending up to $14 million, split 50/50 between the two entities, to extend West Oxford Loop from Anderson Road to Old Sardis Road and to build a road connecting Sisk Avenue at Oxford High School to Highway 6.

“The purpose of the REDA is not to approve the project itself but to approve a mechanism by which the city can borrow funds for the construction of roads that are part in the city and part in the county,” Board Attorney David O’Donnell said. “Without a REDA agreement in place, the city can’t spend money on roads that are in the county.”

County and city officials did a similar REDA agreement for the frontage road now under construction from Sisk Avenue to Highway 30, most of which is in the Oxford Commons development.

O’Donnell noted that while Oxford officials have indicated they would issue bonds for their part of the project, the county would not be required to do so. He also said many decisions are addressed more generally than specifically.

“The draft before you constitutes the first draft of the agreement. Details have to be worked out,” O’Donnell said. “Anything we agree on in the REDA is considered an agreement in principle.”

One principle likely to stick is that the two projects are inseparable – that one would not be done without the other. The agreement also assumes all funds will go toward design and actual construction.

“This is conditioned on acquisition of right-of-way on both projects from landowners,” O’Donnell said. “The preliminary agreements assume that all rights-of-way would be donated.” County and city officials contend that increased value from new road frontage would more than offset any landowner’s expense in donating land for either road project.

If both entities agree on a few more details, the next step would be to authorize engineers to design both projects.

O’Donnell said, “On the front end, there would be a real cost – the design cost” – adding that he did not have an estimate for engineering fees.

“It’ll be high,” said Supervisor Mike Pickens, who furnished the only dissenting vote for the motion to approve the REDA.

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Yoknapatawpha Arts Council (YAC) will host an economic development workshop this week focusing on arts.

The program, to be held Thursday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Powerhouse, is titled “Arts Assets as Economic Catalyst” and is a cooperative creation of YAC and the Mississippi Development Authority as part of its “Year of the Creative Economy” focus during 2014.

“The workshop is a peer learning program that will draw leaders of arts organizations from across the state for a one-day workshop,” said YAC Executive Director Wayne Andrews. “Instead of a training session, the Development Authority will be asking arts leaders to share their best practices, programs and events that contribute to the cultural inventory of the state and economic development.”

One goal will be connecting leaders of emerging arts organizations with those in well-established groups.

“This type of program has never been offered before,” Andrews said. “The Arts Council hopes that with the support of the Development Authority that new services to support arts group to become effective businesses can be developed creating jobs, investment and tourism in our region.”

In addition to learning from one another, the peer program aims at collaboration among arts groups in diverse parts of the state.

“This would include looking for opportunities to coordinate resources, partner on artistic programming, and raise the profile of Mississippi arts and artists,” Andrews said. “This type of program has never been offered before and the Arts Council hopes that with the support of the Development Authority that new services to support arts group to become effective businesses can be developed, creating jobs, investment and tourism in our region.”

Andrews said such collaboration is crucial to the sustainability of arts communities across the state.

“A good portion of artists in the state live below the poverty line,” he said. “If, instead of trying to bring in more conventional jobs to an area, we could enable those artists who already practice their art to sell more, do more by providing them with more skill-sets, we would change our economy and enable more people to make a living.”

The $10 admission fee for Thursday’s program includes lunch, and registration is available at

An adjunct to the arts-leader workshop is a quarterly series of free business-related workshops for artists themselves. One this fall will focus on intellectual property – how to profit from it while preserving future usage rights.

This winter the series will have a session on basic and simple marketing with emphasis on social media – “What you can do on $50,” Andrews said.

A session next spring will focus on finance – “forecasting, budgeting, paying yourself and knowing how to plan” for lean times of year.

For more information on these or other programs, contact YAC at or (662) 236-6429.

Here’s what’s on my thinking list these days – some serious, some silly: • Some days, being a journalist feels like doing an autopsy on the yet-twitching patient named Western Civilization.

• How humiliating must it be to be a male ladybug?

• Before we became sophisticated, our ancestors used to put on war paint, mob together and go down the road to attack people who weren’t like them. Today we’re much too sophisticated for such primal behavior, except during football season.

• I love the Lord but don’t rank as much of a theologian. My deepest thoughts are along the lines of wondering what to call an agnostic praying mantis … or why Eve couldn’t have been as afraid of snakes as my wife is … or being amazed at how much begetting those folks in the Bible got done back when they didn’t have TV and social media.

• Community policing at its best: Two Kansas City, Missouri, police officers saw a group of kids congregated along a street. The cops stopped, challenged the kids to a dance-off and paid the winners in candy.

• Before we talk about the filthy rich, we might remember that to people destitute of basic food, clean water or adequate shelter, almost anyone reading this would be the filthy rich.

• Helicopter parents can’t hover forever, and the crashes can be ugly.

• I’ve stood in the mist plume of Niagara Falls, camped on the rocky Maine coast, stayed in a swanky hotel on Miami Beach, attended a session of the U.S. Senate, stood under a Saturn V rocket at Cape Canaveral, toured the world’s largest naval port, climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, shopped at the nation’s largest farmers’ market, crossed the Continental Divide too many times to count and feasted my eyes on jewel-like glacial lakes in the Yukon. I never dreamed during such travels that my favorite vacation spot of all would turn out to be Parchman Penitentiary. That is how gratifying prison ministry is.

• We would hardly recognize some major companies if they went by their original names: Radio Corporation of America, National Biscuit Company and the ego-stroking Giant Organization Of Good-Looking Engineers.

• Even politicians, plumbers and reporters were once somebody’s sweet little baby.

• One of my bosses pointed out that among the top 10 professions most attractive to psychopaths are journalist and civil servant.

• In my lifetime, families have shrunk while houses have doubled in size. Back decks have largely replaced front porches. Not sure what says about us, but it says something.

• My neighbor Otto acquired a second guard dog. Named him Sycamore.

ERROL CASTENS is a reporter for the Daily Journal and the Oxford Citizen. Contact him at (662) 816-1282