EDITOR'S NOTE: Once again, we find ourselves talking about how frequently inmates are escaping from jails around our region. It's a story we seem to cover all too often. And in view of a new renovation plan for the Lee County Jail -- revised down to $8 million dollars from $51 million, will we see even more escapes? Here's WTVA's Mike Russell with another report from The Mike Files.
TUPELO, Miss. (WTVA) - November 5, Triple murder suspect Antoine Adams escapes from the Marshall County Jail in Holly Springs by pushing open a plexiglass window and crawling under a fence. Early September, armed robbery suspect Delvin Moore jams a locking mechanism, fooling jailers into thinking it was locked. he escapes from the Lowndes County jail.Earlier this year, two inmates with Mississippi connections - Cory Dean and Zeppelin Kennedy - escape from the Marion County Jail in Hamilton, Alabama.
Just three months ago, I described three jail escapes similar to these, three of the many in this region - and everywhere I go, people still ask the same question: How is it possible that so many inmates are breaking free? The truth is, as I said before, escapes happen - for a variety of reasons in a multitude of jurisdictions.
In Union County, for example, Sheriff Jimmy Edwards says that prisoners have a lot of time on their hands. They're constantly watchful, looking for a chance to find a weak spot.
In Calhoun County, second-term Sheriff Greg Pollan says he's not had an escape during his 6 years on the job. He says inmates would have to go through four locks before they see the light of day.
In Pontotoc County, Sheriff Leo Mask says a lot of it depends on the inmate's state of mind. He says if they're on drugs, their perspective is constantly shifting - and that makes them harder to predict.
In addition to all these, there is one more contributing factor, and it comes from an experienced sheriff in Lee County.
"A lot of it is employee mistakes," says Sheriff Johnson. He is one of the most tenured sheriffs in the state - and he would be the first to admit that county jail employees sometimes unwittingly contribute to escapes. They might be talked into doing something for an inmate like unlocking an interior door or they might grant some obscure request that leads to an escape opportunity later.
"A lot of it is employee-driven," he adds. "That's something that you really have to stay on your toes - we preach that in our staff's head constantly that, unfortunately, you cannot trust these people. We've seen people that let their guard down for whatever reason, and then, all of a sudden, they're taken advantage off. It goes from one scale to the next - from an employee making a mistake to you can be doing everything right, and they'll figure out a way to escape."
Regardless of the jurisdiction, or the complexity of the security system, inmates are creative, driven, opportunistic, and most of all dangerous and desperate. And sometimes that is compounded by money NOT spent on measures that might prevent or at least slow down escape attempts, especially in a poor state like Mississippi. Facility planners are constantly asking the question....
"Where can we save money, how can we cut back?" says Johnson. "And one way that they did when we built this facility was around our exercise yard, which is in the center of our compound here - they cut back on a lot of the razor wiring and security wiring. And one of the first escapes we had was that particular area."
Of course, there's no such thing as a perfect budget. A new jail plan in Lee County proposes $8 million for expansion and renovation versus a more sophisticated $51 million plan floated previously. Some think it's just a band-aid fix, housing a hundred more prisoners with the same security challenges. But it will be voted on later this month.
"I can tell you one thing that does not help us," adds Johnson.
He's talking about the numerous prisoners' rights regulations he faces every day -- mandates from a variety of institutions that control the way the inmates are housed, treated, and fed. Johnson says they almost have more rights than his own deputies.
"Now there are no federal or state mandates the officers -- how big their office must be or what they must be supplied with," says Johnson. "But for that inmate, it's every square foot accounted for - and you gotta give 'em this, and give 'em that, and give 'em this. And the more that you do that, then the more of a risk you're running of you losing control of what's going on."
Needless to say, running a jail is no easy task. Besides the obvious challenges like overcrowding, staffing, training, monitoring, the costs of providing services and complying with laws, there are politics, gang activity, logistics of health care, mental health care, privatization, and of course, the nature of the criminal mind.
At the end of September, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, there were almost 21,000 inmates in the state, about one third of the total number of offenders. 30 were escapees or walk-aways - a tiny fraction, and that's good news. Still, escapees present a clear risk to the rest of us -- and almost everyone would agree that even one escapee on the streets is one too many.