Lee Vance: New sheriff sets sights on addressing problems with Hinds County Detention Center

With 30 years in law enforcement, including three as Jackson police chief, Lee Vance is easily slipping into his new role as Hinds County sheriff.

Vance was elected last year and was sworn in on January 3. Since then, the law enforcement veteran has hit the ground running, with his first priority being addressing problems at the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond.

“When you come back in a year, we’re not going to be talking about the same stuff,” he said. “There are many things I want to do during my tenure to make the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department the best law enforcement agency in the country.”

First things first, though, Vance said the county has to bring its jail system into compliance with a federal consent decree.

The decree has been in place since 2016 and outlines several steps the county must take to improve jail operations and conditions.

Vance said it will take all hands on deck to address the problem.

“The detention center belongs to the board of supervisors. The sheriff is the custodian,” he said. “Everybody in the Hinds County criminal justice system has to play a role.”

Vance said he’s appreciated the board’s support in recent weeks. At a January 15 special meeting, the board approved spending $896,000 to changing the doors and locks on 73 individual cells.

Currently, the units have sliding doors and easy-to-manipulate locks. When the doors are open, inmates are able to jam the locks to prevent them from locking once the doors are again shut.

“The new ones are harder to compromise,” he said.

Doors will also be changed to swing out, rather than slide open, also as a means to make them more secure and more tamper-resistant, Vance explained.

“They’re able to push the doors open and come out,” Vance said. “People who work there say with the new locks they’ll have a much better chance of controlling detainee movement.”

With fewer doors that open, Vance said there will be fewer chances of fights, assaults and escapes. In other words, jail staffers and detainees will be safer as a result. “Safety always comes first,” he said.

Vance is also working to hire and retain additional workers for the Raymond detention center. 

The consent decree mandates that the department be fully staffed and have less than a 10-percent turnover rate among jail workers.

The county needs approximately 271 corrections workers, and now has about 203.

“We hope to have 30 new hires in the next week or so,” he said. “The board of supervisors is also working with security companies to see about the prospects of using some of those individuals.”

Correctional officers earn $27,500 a year. To be eligible, candidates must bet 21 years old, have a high school diploma or GED, be a U.S. citizen and be able to pass a background check and drug screening.

“It’s a huge challenge keeping people working in the detention center. It’s probably our number one problem,” he said.

Vance cites low pay, working conditions and the lack of advancement as reasons for high turnover rates.

“For $27,500 and no career path, in most minds, this is a job I want until I can find something else,” he said.

To retain workers, Vance is planning to implement a career advancement plan, which would allow jailers to eventually become full-fledged deputies. By comparison, starting pay for deputies is just under $32,000.

Vance faced similar shortage challenges while with the Jackson Police Department (JPD).

Vance joined JPD in 1987 and worked his way through the ranks. He served as a patrol officer, sergeant and lieutenant supervisors, precinct commander, internal affairs commander, interim deputy chief, assistant chief, interim chief and police chief.

He was named chief in August 2014, under then Mayor Tony Yarber. He retired in December 2017, under current Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who later endorsed him for sheriff.

During Vance’s tenure, the city experienced three consecutive years of crime reduction, despite shortages among the ranks.

In 2015, crime across the city fell 17 percent over 2014; crime fell another 17 percent the following year, and 25 percent in 2017, according to department data.

Meanwhile, the department struggled to maintain officers. In 2017, JPD had just 382 sworn officers, down from 440 the previous year, while it was budgeted for around 500.

“We never used that as an excuse and did what we had to do to get the job done,” he said.

Right now, the sheriff’s department has 78 officers, two short of the 80 budgeted. “Down the line, I would like to increase that number to 100, to be more of a full-service sheriff’s department,” he said.

Vance said more officers are needed so deputies wouldn’t have to take on multiple duties. “Right now, we do not have a full-time crime investigator. We have one, but he also is over dispatch,” he said.

Vance is a 2008 graduate of Jackson State University. He attended the school from 1976 to 1980 but never finished.

At the time, he had to do an internship that would conflict with his work, and he opted to leave school.

Years later, the Jackson native decided to return to the classroom.

“I went to see a counselor and she determined what part of my curriculum to bring forward and what part I would have to complete,” he said. “It took me three semesters but I got my degree in 2008. I’m proud of that.”

Vance’s degree is in mass communications, training that has served him well in his numerous capacities in high-profile offices.

The sheriff’s only regret is that his mother, Josephine Vance Boyd, was not alive to see him graduate. Even so, he knows his mother would be proud of him.

“It stayed on my conscience until I got it done,” the 61-year-old said.

Vance has two copies of his diploma, one that he keeps at home and one that will be put on the wall in his new office.

That diploma, along with a framed poster of boxing great Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, had yet to be hung up at press time. The poster, like his bachelor’s degree, previously were prominently hung in his office at JPD headquarters.

Said Vance, “The greatest has got to roll with me.”

Vance has always been an outspoken proponent of officer safety, even if it means announcing uncomfortable truths.

In the summer of 2015, the then police chief made a bombshell announcement to the Jackson City Council, when he said his department would be coming off of the county’s radio system, because officers had reported dead spots in the coverage area. Dead spots are areas where personnel in the field are unable to communicate with dispatch. 

“I get people out there in danger and I’m afraid,” he said at the time. “Frankly, we can’t operate like that.”

At the time, Vance made the decision to switch over to the city’s backup radio system, citing the improved service over the county’s. Since then, the county has spent millions to update its radio system and has switched to the Mississippi Wireless Information Network.

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