Appeals court halts federal takeover of Mississippi jail

FILE - Rolls of razor wire line the top of the security fencing at the Raymond Detention Center in Raymond, Miss., on Aug. 1, 2022. Mississippi’s largest county secured a legal victory Wednesday, Dec. 28, in its effort to stave off a rare federal takeover of its jail, where a judge found “ongoing unconstitutional conditions" for inmates. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
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Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s largest county won a legal victory Wednesday in its effort to stave off a rare federal takeover of its jail, where a judge has found “ongoing unconstitutional conditions” for prisoners.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a lower court’s order putting the Raymond Detention Center into receivership until it rules on the county’s motion for reconsideration. The court will also look at whether the lower court’s injunction complies with the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a 1996 federal law that places restrictions on lawsuits brought by prisoners.

Hinds County officials applauded the move to delay work by the receiver, who attorneys for the county said would be “utterly unaccountable” to voters and taxpayers.

“We are still facing the day-to-day challenges at the jail, but we are thankful for the opportunity for another court to look at the situation and see that the Hinds County Sheriff and Hinds County Board of Supervisors have been doing something right in this situation,” Hinds County Sheriff Tyree Jones told WLBT-TV.

On July 29, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves put the jail into receivership after citing poor conditions at the facility. The judge said deficiencies in supervision and staffing lead to “a stunning array of assaults, as well as deaths.” Seven people died last year while detained at the jail, he said.

At that point, federal and state judges had ordered receiverships or a similar transfer of control for prisons and jails only about eight times, according to Hernandez Stroud, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

On Oct. 31, Reeves appointed Wendell M. France Sr., a public safety consultant, former correctional administrator and 27-year member of the Baltimore Police Department, to improve conditions at the jail outside Jackson. France was scheduled to assume operational control over the jail on January 1, 2023.

According to the terms of the receivership, France has 120 days from his appointment to develop a draft plan to improve conditions at the jail.

In his ruling that prompted the federal intervention, Reeves wrote that cell doors did not lock and a lack of lighting in cells made life “miserable for the detainees who live there and prevents guards from adequately surveilling detainees.” He also said guards sometimes slept instead of monitoring the cameras in the control room.

Jones said county officials were committed to fixing the issues at the jail, many of which stem from staffing shortages.

France is to be paid $16,000 a month, but Hinds County argues the expense will take money away from other services such as roads, bridges and schools.

In addition to delaying France’s work, the appeals court also sent the case back to the lower court to allow the district to “conduct additional proceedings concerning” the federal order.