Locking down a plan: Crisler and Jones discuss future of troubled detention center
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - With one inmate death and one inmate beating being reported in recent weeks at the Hinds County Jail, the candidates headed to a runoff in the sheriff’s race say a major priority will be shutting down the notorious housing unit where the incidents occurred.
The unit in question is the detention center’s A-Pod, which has been cited numerous times by federal officials for its lack of staffing and unsafe living conditions.
“I can’t say how quickly I can get it closed, but I can tell you this: it will be (a) priority,” said Cpt. Tyree Jones.
Sheriff Marshand Crisler also hopes to shut down the unit, but says that can’t happen until renovations are complete on B-Pod and detainees can be moved.
“We’re trying to make the jail a little less stressful... You already know putting anybody in a stressful (situation) could get their anxiety and anger up a little bit,” he said. “But if you put a bunch of people in there that have violent pasts, you’re going to elevate that.”
Crisler went on to say that he was “trying to put some measures in place that I can protect these pre-trial detainees.”
“It takes a little time to do it,” he said. “This is not anything that you can do at the snap of a finger, but what I won’t do is ignore it and I’m not.”
Jones and Crisler will face each other in a special election runoff on November 23. The winner will fill the remainder of the term of the late Sheriff Lee Vance. Vance passed away this summer from COVID-19.
Crisler, who was appointed acting sheriff by the Hinds County Board of Supervisors this summer, led in the November 2 race, garnering about 31% of the vote.
Jones was the sheriff’s department’s spokesman under Vance but was relieved of those duties following Crisler’s appointment. He received 24% of ballots cast, WLBT figures show.
The winner of the runoff will be responsible for overseeing a jail that has been plagued by safety concerns and is currently under a federally-monitored consent decree.
Crisler says the county has already met 88% of the perquisites of the decree and hopes to meet the remaining 12% by early next year.
Jones says Crisler’s claims are “completely impossible,” and that a recent inmate death there was a major setback for the county’s decree efforts.
Meanwhile, Crisler says he hopes to build a new jail and is close to having the board of supervisors support to do it.
Again, Jones counters that claim, saying that the county is “nowhere near close now or then” to building a new detention facility.
“We only had (gotten) quotes to possibly build a new facility,” he said. “That is nothing that should come from the sheriff anyway. That should come directly from the board of supervisors. The jail belongs to them.”
We reached out to District 1 Supervisor Robert Graham to ask him about jail plans. He has not responded to our request for comment.
The roughly 30-year-old Raymond facility has suffered from structural issues for years, in part, due to its poor design and construction. In a 1994 article from the Clarion-Ledger, contractors cited several design issues with the 594-bed facility, including electrical and foundation problems.
When the jail opened in November of that year, 18 of the first inmates brought in had to be housed in the booking area because the door locking system did not work, the Ledger reported.
The jail is owned and funded by the board of supervisors. However, day-to-day operations fall under the purview of the sheriff.
Both the board of supervisors and the sheriff’s department were named as parties when the federal government filed suit against the county in 2016 citing concerns with the jail, work center, and overall criminal justice system.
According to the federal government’s initial complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, detainees at the Raymond Detention Center “suffer(ed) serious harm or risk of serious harm from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and staff members’ use of force.
Federal investigators also reported that jail staffing at the time was “poor, with insufficient numbers of trained and experienced staff to supervise prisoners, respond to emergencies, and man all critical security posts.” Those staffing concerns, in turn, “contributed to a variety of serious deficiencies including delays in providing prisoners with exercise, programs, and treatment.”
That year, the county entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to address the fed’s concerns. Under the order, the county was required to implement several measures to improve jail operations and jail safety and ensure that those being housed are lawfully detained.
The county’s efforts to implement decree mandates have been slow to non-existent.
In January 2020, District Court Judge Carlton Reeves noted that fact, saying county leaders should have been held in contempt for failing to implement numerous decree-related mandates.
However, the judge was hopeful that with a new sheriff and a new board of supervisors, decree provisions would be “implemented in good faith and with all speed.”
Nearly two years later, improvements have been made, but issues at the jail persist.
And on November 3, a detainee in A-Pod was taken to Merit Health for treatment after several inmates attacked him.
Anthony Thomas, who is currently behind bars on a possession of marijuana charge, was taken to the hospital after his girlfriend Heather Scott said between 10 and 15 detainees jumped him.
“The guard was standing there laughing,” she said.
Scott went to see Thomas at the hospital but was unable to go into his room. She says she caught a glimpse of him in his hospital bed but initially didn’t recognize him because he had been beaten up so badly. “I looked dead in his face and did not recognize him until he called my name,” she said. “I didn’t even notice him because his face was so swollen.”
Crisler said he was not familiar with the incident Wednesday and did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Scott said she had set up a video meeting with Thomas for Thursday morning. However, the jail canceled the call, saying video equipment was not set up in the medical ward, where Thomas is now housed.
Weeks earlier another attack occurred in A-Pod. However, that victim, Michael Richardson, wasn’t so lucky. Richardson died after the attack, but his body was not found for about nine hours.
The sheriff’s department said a preliminary investigation determined Richardson had been assaulted by several inmates and died after a “medical episode.”
Crisler says the death is still under investigation and said it’s too early to say if it is a homicide.
“We don’t even know how this person died because they’re under the medical examiner’s authority right now,” he said. “It would be easy to say that he got beat up and he died, but he didn’t have any visible injuries when he was found dead.”
“There was no gaping hole in his head, no major blood loss, none of that. So whatever it was, it was internal, if it was caused by the attack on him. It could have (happened) because of a medical condition. That’s why we represented it as a medical episode because that’s what it was as far as we know.”
Even so, Crisler said the inmates involved in the attack have been transferred to the Rankin County Jail, and if they are deemed responsible for the man’s death, they will be held accountable. The sheriff also says that his office is conducting an internal investigation and will hold detention center workers accountable if their actions contributed to Richardson’s death.
Jones maintains Richardson’s death is a homicide, saying that surveillance from the jail clearly shows the inmate was brutally attacked, something that he says the recent DOJ reports points out.
He says if the assault brought about a medical issue that killed him, the death would be a homicide and not a medical issue.
Crisler has seen the video and confirms Richardson was severely beaten.
“There have been drug overdoses, suicides, and COVID. Now, we’re stepping it up a notch where we’re having homicides. That means someone takes the life of another individual while they’re in our custody,” Jones said during an interview at a Fondren coffee shop. “These are some of the things that have to be addressed.”
So far, six deaths have been reported at the Raymond detention center this year. A court-appointed monitor put in place to oversee conditions at the facility says staffing shortages likely contributed to several of them.
In the April 18 suicide, for instance, the officer assigned to the booking area was not at his designated post when the incident occurred. And in the case of the July 6 suicide, an officer was working double duty and unable to provide the constant observation required, according to monitors.
Of this year’s deaths, two were classified as apparent suicides, one was classified as a drug overdose and one was the result of COVID-19 according to monitors’ reports.
Crisler was not in office when five instances occurred.
Both candidates say beefing up staff at the jail would help prevent future tragedies and both say increasing salaries and training are priorities.
“My plan is to meet the requirements, all the requirements of the Department of Justice,” Crisler said. “Well, guess which one of the top requirements, or prerequisites the department set aside... Raising the salaries of the detention officers.’
“Now, give my predecessor due credit, Lee Dan Vance, my friend, said, ‘I will subscribe to that and I will support that.”
Vance, who began his first term in 2020, worked with supervisors to increase detention officer pay by two percent.
Crisler said he’s worked with the board to raise pay for detention workers by another 5%. “That is what I believe my role is as the sheriff... to get as much as I can for my personnel and my staff,” he said. “Because I know if I take care of my staff, they’ll take care of the citizens of Hinds County.”
Detention officers in Hinds County earn around $28,000 a year, lower than the $30,550 state average, which is already the second-lowest in the nation, ahead of only Puerto Rico, according to USAwage.com.
The acting sheriff also pointed to other DOJ requirements his office has met, including moving the jail administrator under his direct supervision. He said he also is working to put programs in place to help detainees with conflict resolution.
Jones agrees wages and staffing must be increased and credited Crisler and Vance for raising pay.
Jones says if he’s elected, he also would work to boost pay and would work to implement additional training and incentive programs for detention personnel.
“There are certain standards to become a certified detention officer. After you become a certified detention officer, you shouldn’t stop there. There should be ongoing training based on trends, certain events that take place. So you have to stay abreast of whatever training is out there available,” he said.
Jones and Crisler also addressed the need to improve mental health offerings at the jail, as well as structural issues there.
“We talked about mental health. That’s a major issue and a major component of the DOJ report. You want to be able to properly train your people to deal with and identify those that suffer from mental health (concerns),” Jones explained.
“Another thing that should happen immediately is a mental health division or ward (that operates) 24/7 at that detention facility. When you have people in there that are suffering from mental health, they (would be) able to see the proper personnel, (be able) to get treatment, and if medication is needed, (be able) to get medication prescribed as well.”
“This is very important because again, we’re talking about pre-trial detainees. You are responsible for not only their physical health but their mental health as well,” he said. “You can’t just say that we don’t have people there that are not suffering from mental health, because they are.”
Court records indicate that jail staffers do not always respond to inmates’ health needs. A detainee died in March after staffers refused to take an inmate to the detention center, despite recommendations from a jail nurse to do so.
“Subsequently the arrestee collapsed, and the nurse was called back from medical to perform CPR,” the court monitor wrote. “When she asked why the individual had not been transported to the hospital, she was told that staff wanted another evaluation first.”
Meanwhile, the nurse’s effort to provide medical treatment was delayed when officials had to find an extension cord to hook up the O2 concentrator and after someone had to run back to the medical unit to obtain a defibrillator.
Living conditions at the jail also continue to be a problem. After an HVAC unit at the A-Pod went out, inmates were allowed to move their beds into the unit’s communal area to sleep.
Crisler said a work order has been issued to repair the HVAC, but it had not been repaired as of Thursday.
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