Federal Judge Places County Jail Into Receivership After County Fails To Comply With Consent Decree
from the if-it's-broke,-don't-fix-it,-says-Kirby-County dept
In an extremely rare move, a federal court has ordered a jail into receivership, placing it under the direct control of a court-appointed third party that will (hopefully) carry out the needed changes Hinds County, Mississippi either can’t or won’t do. (h/t Scott Greenfield)
Receivership is uncommon. As Hernandez Stroud of the Brennan Center points out, this option has only been deployed eight times since it became an option for courts following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which allowed federal courts to yank control of schools away from local governments to ensure desegregation of schools.
The Raymond Detention Center (RDC) has been under a consent decree since 2016. And it has done nearly nothing to address court-ordered changes, as is noted in this March 2022 contempt order (the second[!] contempt order the county has received):
Since then, compliance has been elusive. Court-appointed independent monitors report that Hinds County is in sustained or substantial compliance with only three of 92 requirements of the Consent Decree. Problems remain with staffing, use of force, basic living conditions, and over-detention, among other issues. Today’s Order, though, is about A-Pod.
A-Pod is one of four “pods” the prison is divided into. A-Pod is completely controlled by inmates. It’s a hellhole, as a court monitor noted in his report:
A-Pod is a disaster. It’s filthy; lights don’t work; locks don’t work; doors can’t be secured; cells don’t have lights inside them. Inmates since they can’t even close the doors, end up hanging blankets down in front of them to have makeshift privacy to their cells. Showers don’t work. Everything in the place is torn up. It’s just a very bad mess. There’s no fire extinguishers inside, of course, because the inmates control that place. There are no officers who work inside the housing units in Alpha. There are no fire hoses. There are not even fire hoses out in the corridors, around the control room in Alpha. That area is ill equipped across the board.
Because the inmates have free run of the pod, they can access the roof and escape. For whatever reason, they rarely actually escape. Instead, they leave the prison and return with contraband. No one is assigned to work A-pod because it cannot be controlled in its current state. And that leads to incidents like these:
At about 0430 or 0500 in the morning, video footage showed the inmate being hit in the head by another inmate. A third inmate then stomped on his head several times. He was then dragged across the mezzanine. The video footage shows brief movement by the decedent and then none indicating that he was probably dead at that point but a time of death has not been established. He was eventually dragged back and propped in a sitting position and then later laid on a mat. He was not discovered by officers until 1:45, almost 9 hours later.
One of the many things the county agreed to was to not house inmates in A-Pod. As the March contempt order points out, this agreement was immediately and repeatedly broken:
Among a long string of broken promises, Hinds County vowed to no longer house detainees in A-Pod. The February 2022 Evidentiary Hearing, however, revealed that not only are detainees still being housed in A-Pod, but that is where they will remain indefinitely.
The RDC is chronically overcrowded and understaffed, in addition to the problems in A-Pod, which was also the subject of the first contempt order issued by this court, which noted then that it was “disturbed by the record number of assaults, fires, and deaths, including murders, suicides, and overdoses…”
The staffing problem is made worse by the remaining jailers, who will simply refuse to show up for work if they’re assigned to a pod they don’t like. Since the jail can’t afford to make its staffing problem worse, these jailers are able to pick and choose when and where they work. A-Pod may be a problem, but it’s one jailers are able to ignore, since actually patrolling that pod would put their lives in danger. But stuffing inmates into the pod puts them in danger, which is clearly “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The receivership order [PDF] makes all these points while turning control of court-ordered detention center reforms in the hands of someone who might actually get something done. The court cannot allow the RDC to continue being the horrific nightmare it has become under the county’s watch.
First up is whether RDC presents “grave and immediate threat or actuality of harm” to detainees. The record indicates that it does. As discussed extensively in the November 2021 Show Cause Order and April 2022 Order instituting the New Injunction, conditions at RDC subject detainees to unconstitutional risk of harm, including death, rampant physical and sexual assaults, and neglect of the seriously mentally ill. Indeed, the record overwhelmingly indicates that RDC is “an institution ‘where terror reigns.’”
Persistent shortcomings in staffing and supervision embolden gangs and encourage the prevalent circulation of contraband, including narcotics and weapons, within RDC. Jail staff continue to receive inadequate training regarding use of force, such as the use of tasers.
The court notes that the jail system needs a minimum of 248 employees. At this point, the system only employs 175 people and only 108 of those work at RDC. And, as the number of employees continues to plummet, the number of detainees housed by Hinds County’s inadequate facilities has increased from 500 to 700.
Despite two contempt orders and six years of court-ordered monitoring via a consent decree, things continue to get worse at the RDC.
Instead, then as now, conditions at RDC are severely deficient. Cell doors still do not lock. There is no lighting in many cells in A-Pod, which makes life miserable for the detainees who live there and prevents guards from adequately surveilling detainees. Many cameras do not function. (“At last count, 56 cameras were not working, 14 were missing and 10 needed adjusting.’”) Even when the cameras work, guards tasked with monitoring them sometimes turn to “sleeping instead of manning the cameras in the control room.” Staff fail to conduct mandatory welfare checks.
The court notes the remedy could be even more severe. It’s fully within its power to order all detainees released, something that has happened a handful of times in the history of federal consent decrees.
In this case, the court decides that might be too severe. But it simply cannot stand by while the county continues to fail to implement court-ordered changes. Too much is at stake, even if it mainly affects people the county clearly regards as expendable or useless.
But the court says it’s really county employees and officials who are useless.
Despite naming different individuals and entities, the defendants’ assessments had one thing in common. When asked who was responsible, each person deflected, saying essentially, “not me.”
And those overseeing the overseers who insist RDC problems are all someone else’s fault are possibly worse.
The Hinds County Board of Supervisors is dysfunctional. The Board is presently distracted by a struggle regarding who is entitled to be Board President. During the Board’s meetings, the would-be President, angry at being passed over, speaks over all others in the Boardroom and prevents the Board from conducting business.
A local journalists observed that “little progress has been made by the supervisors over the past five years,” and therefore, “with the terrible conditions and mismanagement at the Raymond Detention, this could be that one situation where federal oversight is warranted and extremely necessary.” Ted Fortenberry, Consider This: Hinds County Jail, WLBT (Dec. 2, 2021).
And that what is going to happen.
This Court agrees. The County and Sheriff cannot continue this exercise in accountability hot-potato, one which has proved deadly to detainees.
Since the county refuses to do its job, the federal government will do its job for it.
The County refuses to take responsibility. Instead, it offers a litany of excuses. But each of these excuses ultimately boils down to the same argument: conditions at RDC are out of the defendants’ hands. The County wishes to abdicate responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of detainees in its custody. The Court is compelled to grant that wish. We can’t wait for continued destruction of the facilities. We can’t wait for the proliferation of more contraband. We can’t wait for more assaults. We can’t wait for another death. The time to act is now. There is no other choice, unfortunately.
By November 1, at the latest, the court and its appointee will take control of the RDC reforms. Thanks to its unwillingness to handle its own problems, taxpayers from all over the nation will be paying to fix a jail Hinds County has refused to take care of for more than a half-decade. If nothing else, detainees will finally see some of their (limited) constitutional rights restored. And everyone involved in this debacle should consider themselves expendable. Hopefully voters will ensure the sheriff and board members are no longer worthy of their trust, support, or government positions.