New jail for Lee County?

TUPELO – Lee County’s plans for a new jail may take at least another five years since they’ve been scuttled by tough economic times, says the man who advises the Lee County Board of Supervisors.
“Until the economy gets better, with Toyota coming, we hope things will improve enough to start talking again about a new jail,” said Gary Carnathan of Tupelo, the supervisors’ attorney. “It’ll be at least five years.”
Just before the U.S. economy was hit by a deep recession, supervisors and Sheriff Jim Johnson were discussing ideas and funding for a new facility.
Johnson says he’s concerned that little progress has been made for a new jail. “We’re still in dire need,” he said. “Our situation hasn’t changed.”
In some ways, it’s gotten worse for the facility, which operates 24/7 for people who don’t exactly take good care of it, he noted.
“I’m ready to get it back on the table,” Johnson added.
Darrell Rankin, board president, said Thursday that discussions of a new jail need to be revived and he hopes the county and city can consider options together.
“We’ve kind of stuck our heads in the sand,” he said. “This problem isn’t going to go away.”
Throughout its 13-year existence, the current jail has been plagued by too many prisoners and not enough space to house them.
Federal lawsuits are filed regularly by prisoners, who claim they were beat up when they shouldn’t have been locked up with more violent detainees.
Others complain there aren’t enough beds or even benches on which to sit in the lock-up, or timely medical treatment.
Right now, the county, Johnson and others associated with the jail face at least nine lawsuits.
In the past few years, officials have pointed to the lawsuits and insisted they wouldn’t have as many if they had better facilities.
But Carnathan disagrees now.
“It’s just a sign of the times,” he said Tuesday. “It’s happening everywhere. We live in a litigious society.
“Even with a new jail, we’re still going to have lawsuits.”
The county has spent many thousands of dollars on legal fees defending itself, Johnson and others named in the legal actions.
Tuesday, Magistrate Judge Jerry A. Davis dismissed one lawsuit set for trial Monday, saying the plaintiff failed to prove her claims.
Next up for trial is a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Sandra L. Parker on behalf of the state of William G. Williams, who became ill while he was in the jail, allegedly asked for medical care, didn’t get it and died of pneumonia.
That trial begins Aug. 18.
Carnathan said talks of a new jail likely won’t be revived until the supervisors see evidence of an economic turnaround – higher sales tax receipts, increased ad valorem tax collections, rising property values.
Johnson said he accepts that he can’t do anything about the current economy and its effect on financial plans.
He expressed hope that talks will resume soon. He lamented recent budget cuts that have cut deep into his basic equipment needs.
“I guess that if I can’t get any new patrol cars,” he added, “I’m not going to get a new jail.”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

Two years pass since jail study approved
- A longtime prisoners’ advocate says other counties have built new facilities.

By Patsy R. Brumfield
Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tuesday, Lee County’s jail held 201 prisoners, one less than its approved limit.
Longtime inmates’ attorney Ron Welch of Jackson says that if the jail’s population reaches what he terms “dangerous levels,’ Lee County could be exposed to serious liability, which – if somebody is seriously injured or dies there – could cost more in court judgments than what it would cost to build a new one.
“I do know that, with the active cooperation and coordination and of the entire criminal justice system of Lee County,” he said, “it is possible to keep the population at a safe, design level until a new one can be built.”
In May 2008, Sheriff Jim Johnson told the Lee County Board of Supervisors that a crowded facility is a daily problem.
“We average at least 200 inmates every day, and we stay full 99.9 percent of the time,” he told them two years ago. Johnson said then he hoped the jail could be expanded to handle at least double its inmate capacity. “We can only do so much. We’ve been this way for a while.”
On May 8, 2008, supervisors asked a Tupelo architecture firm to study how expansion options for the 202-bed facility, built in 1997.
This week, more than two years later, supervisors’ President Darrell Rankin said no recent discussions have taken place about a new jail.
He said the harsh economic climate during the past year or so makes it unlikely a majority of the supervisors will agree to any kind of tax increase or bond issue to build the facility.
But he also said he wants the discussion revived.
Welch noted that several other Mississippi counties are going ahead with new jail construction.
In Tate County, he said, they’re using a lease-purchase option through a Jackson-based company, without any bonds, and paying the debt from tax revenues across 20 years or so.
He said the same thing was done in Panola County for a 100-bed addition.
“Somehow, I think Lee County may be better off financially than Tate,” Welch said. “So, it may just be a matter of current Lee office holders choosing not to do what other, less financially able counties have done and are doing.”

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal