Criminal Justice Reform.
The words sound like an oxymoron, the late George Carlin would have worked into his act — like “military intelligence” and “jumbo shrimp.”
Many probably remember when USA News, on May 3, 2019 brought the state into a first place category with the headline “Mississippi Leads the Nation in Criminal Justice Reform.”
The bill was intent on prioritizing rehabilitation of offenders, especially juvenile offenders, reducing harsh prison sentences and changing the drug sentencing policy.
Most all law enforcement would disagree — sure it would leave less people behind bars and cost the state less money — but will it make society better or worse.
“The system has failed society,” Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said. “What is so frustrating is the system, even MDOC (Mississippi Department of Corrections), he was a free man, not because of anything he did — it was the system who put society back under threat. It’s a wonder he turned himself in.”
Who is he — Teiryn Nichols, #228934, who law hope is in custody at the Desoto County Jail.
Nichols has been in and out of facilities since he was 15, probably younger.
“He had an extensive juvenile record, which you won’t be able to access, because of confidentiality,” Johnson said. “In fact, because of this record he was transfered to the adult system because of all of his criminal activity prior to him turning 18.”
In 2018, Nichols, 15 years old, at the time, and three others overpowered a jail employee and escaped on Aug. 30. Nichols, at 16, was released from the adult jail on a $500,000 bond.
On July 7, 2020, the Lee County Sheriff's Department received multiple reports of auto burglaries as well as a report of a vehicle being stolen from the Springhill Road area of Lee County.
The crimes occurred in the late-night hours of July 6 through the early morning of July 7.
During the course of the investigation, Lee County Sheriff's Investigators identified Nichols, 17, as a suspect.
“His criminal life started when he was about 14,” Johnson said. “You wouldn’t think it if you just met him once and just talked to him. He made like 23 on his ACT. He’s very articulate. He’s well mannered and behaved.”
Nichols was charged with four counts of burglary of an auto, one count of felony taking of a motor vehicle, and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
At the time of his arrests, Nichols possessed items that by his own admission were stolen from vehicles in the Springhill Road area.
Nichols was being held without bond.
“So he went before Circuit Court Judge (Paul) Funderburk, who gives him 20 years and suspends all of it and puts him under house arrest,” Johnson said. “There was an understanding he would move in with his grandmother and attend college in Memphis. He didn’t do that.”
Lee County Sheriff’s Department Investigator Will Morgan said, “So he was put on house arrest, moved in with grandmother, and after two or three weeks, stole his grandmother’s car and came back down here.”
Earlier this year, it was announced through MDOC, in further efforts to tighten security at Mississippi’s maximum security State Penitentiary in Parchman, Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain said that the long-abandoned Back Gate of the sprawling 18,000-acre prison will once again be reopened and guarded for the first time since 2017. Other facilities were also to “tighten security.” Perhaps Nichols didn’t get the memo.
“Once he got here, he stole another truck,” Morgan said.
“We caught him. He went back before Judge Funderburk. Funderburk re-enters the 20 years for him to serve and sentences him,” Johnson said. “So he stays here until he’s transfered to a location selected by the MDOC, for a 20 year sentence. We assume, like everyone else, he’s gone to Rankin County and then he is sent from there, once he’s been classified, to wherever they send 20-year inmates.
“We don’t do that, they do it. That’s the last we hear about him. Then we get word last week that he has escaped MDOC.”
Investigators Morgan and Brian Kilgore start digging in to the MDOC website and find something unusual.
“It said his sentence was for four years and he was eligible for parole in 2024. That was for all those charges they had entered. So instead of 20 years for all that, it said four years,” Kilgore said.
“Mind you, it was word of mouth, unofficial channels how we found out he escaped. MDOC had not contacted us,” Morgan said.
These latest charges were all felonies, fleeing law enforcement officer, and theft (times 2) taking of a motor vehicle.
“So Thursday, of last week, I send an email to MDOC for them to check on the status of Teiryn Nichols. I said, ‘it has been brought to our attention, he was sent to a halfway house for a 20 year sentence and now he’s escaped,’” Johnson said. “At exactly 4:59 p.m. that same day, I get an email from MDOC which says ‘Sheriff, I was just informed he has turned himself in at the Desoto County Jail.
“In the meantime, once Investigator Kilgore had checked their (MDOC) site and we had brought it to their attention, he (Kilgore) goes back and check the MDOC site again, and it’s got ....”
“22 years, and Investigator Morgan, while this is going on, calls MDOC office in Tupelo and asks them ....,” Kilgore said.
“...I asked them — we’ve been informed he (Nichols) escaped, is this correct? They wanted to talk with their supervisor before they answered — but they said ‘Yes.’ So I asked where he was being housed. They said, ‘More Traditional Housing, which is part of the Mississippi Re-Entry Experience.’ She said he’d been gone since the 22nd (October),” Morgan said.
“So between 6:30 p.m. and 6 a.m., the number was changed from four years to 22 years,” Kilgore concluded.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Department has never heard of the More Traditional Housing or the Mississippi Re-Entry Experience.
According to moremsorg — M.O.R.E.’s vision is to provide assistance to those who are transitioning from incarceration to healthy and productive members of the community.
According to MDOC, the “M.O.R.E” provides a re-entry program to inmates in the year before their release, giving them remedial education courses and social and job skills. The program graduates 30 inmates per month on average. They have found a recently released inmate’s chances of re-offending greatly increase if they have not found some form of employment within 45 days.
Nichols doesn’t appear to fit a re-entry program.
“When we interviewed him last time — I said, You’re a young man — if we wiped the slate clean and you could start over what would you do? He said, ‘I’m going to do the same thing again,’” Morgan said.
“Escape is it. He’s the Houdini of inmates. That’s his high in life,” Johnson said. “Once he gets out and does what he does, he’s ready to come back (jail) because he wants to do it again.”
“He’ll graduate, at some point, he’ll be that guy you chase around that’s killed five or six people — because breaking into cars doesn’t do it anymore,” Kilgore added.
Nichols, as far as everyone knows, is still in the Desoto County Jail, awaiting transfer to a MDOC facility.
MDOC can be reached at (601) 359-5600.