Lee County Jail becoming a “ticking time bomb”

This is a room you never want to visit in real life — the booking area for the Lee County Jail, where you’d be searched, photographed and fitted with a prisoner uniform.

It was about this time of year 1997.

There was a buzz throughout the law enforcement community. A new jail was to open in August and it was going to be state-of-the-art.

Harold Ray Presley was the Lee County Sheriff. Sgt. Jim Johnson had been working for the department since 1989.

“The jail was built because the old jail was out-dated, much like the situation we’re in today. The old jail had been placed under a federal consent and that mandated them (the county) to repair the conditions or build a new facility. They had a certain period of time to comply,” said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson.

A consent decree is a formal agreement (contract) created to resolve a dispute between parties without either party admitting blame. The decree document is a court order that establishes an enforceable plan for some kind of reform. Under that federal consent Lee County (1997) decided to build the current facility.

The old jail (prior to the current facility) held approximately 57 inmates.

“So when they decided to build a 200-bed facility, they were looking at that number - 57. The county partnered with the City of Tupelo to get the land the current jail sits on. Tupelo owned the land. They did a city/county contract for 20 years so the county would house city prisoners,” Johnson said. “What they did not realize was adding the city prisoners to the county prisoners was going to add up to more then 200.

“I was here when we moved in. When we moved in, we had six more inmates then we had beds.”

It wasn’t just the City of Tupelo who closed their jail, but also communities like Nettleton, Baldwyn, Shannon, Verona, Saltillo, Verona and others closed their jails too.

“At that time (1997), I was very interested in the facility, even with the position I held. I was part of the transition team, who helped write policy and procedure for the jail,” Johnson said. “We were going from an analog stage to a digital stage, from old bars, keys and cranking, sliding doors to this modernized glass facility — all electronics — I mean it was a lot different setting then we were used to.”

Prior to opening of this jail (1997) Presley and Johnson organized a big sleep over, without prisoners. Students, and kids from civic and church groups could spend the night. Participants brought sleeping bags, were booked in and locked up at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 23, 1997 and let out Friday, July 24, 1997 at 8 a.m. Besides the kids having fun, the jail staff could practice their positions dealing with a large crowd.

The picture soon came into focus. The jail was overcrowded from its opening and hasn’t gotten any better since. The building has been under 24-hour-a-day, seven day a week strain for nearly 25 years.

There is a constant juggling of the overcrowding number, separating male from female and trying to keep violent away from non-violent and sick away from well. According to the sheriff the big mess is about to get messier.

"In 1997, that year, the Grand Jury turned out 500 + indictments. When a Grand Jury turns indictments, I can tell you every single one of those are either individuals you are incarcerating or you are going to incarcerate. The county is responsible for housing all of those,” Johnson said. “Last year (2020), the Grand Jury returned 1,200 indictments. So it’s more then doubled, just with the case load out of circuit court, which is the sheriff’s responsibility, and those have to be in jail. There are some numbers I can’t play with, indictments is one of those.”

Another number the sheriff can’t play with is inmates awaiting to be transported to a state facility by the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC). They too, have to be incarcerated.

“The problem now is with all the beds being utilized by those we can’t let go, those we have no control of ... now, it has minimized to the point where I’m only allowing 10 beds per municipality. So the municipalities pick who they bring over here,” Johnson said.

Since the facility (1997) opened, the City of Tupelo had averaged 70 to 100 beds for their arrests. There is no longer a contract which forces the sheriff to hold municipal inmates.

The Lee County Jail has about 125 beds for those aforementioned, Circuit Court and MDOC, reserved for those must incarcerate individuals.

So what happens if there is no movement on a new jail?

“Where you’ve headed is falling under another federal consent where the federal government comes down here and mandates it — like the old jail fell under prior to 1997,” Johnson said. “We did not get out of that federal consent until 2005. They (the feds) stayed with us and they are not company you want to have. Where we’re at is a very dangerous place to be, not just for the people who work here but also the citizens.”

Back in 2013, the Lee County Board of Supervisors heard a proposal for a new 600-bed jail. At that time, the issue of needing a new jail was not new. The sheriff and the board of supervisors had been seeking the right direction for several years.

“It’s sad but I know, for a fact, there are people (criminals), who are out on the streets today, who absolutely no business being out there,” Johnson said. There are over 400 criminals who are on parole in Lee County. “You can keep pushing this thing down the road, keep ignoring it, but it’s not going to go away — it’s only going to get worse. This is a ticking time bomb,” Johnson concluded.

You can reach the LCSD by calling (662) 841-9040.

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