A month after taking office, Hinds County Sheriff Lee Vance said he wanted to move fast on making improvements to the jail.
“When you come back in a year, we’re not going to be talking about the same stuff,” he said at the time.
Vance and the county appear to be living up to that promise.
Since January, the county has installed a new perimeter fence and guard house at the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond. The county also has put in a new X-ray machine to scan bags for employees coming to and leaving work.
Meanwhile, the department has beefed up its recruiting efforts, bringing on 50 new detention officers and filling several administrative positions required under the county’s jail consent decree.
On top of that, work is also about to wrap up on cell door renovations in Pod C. Once that is completed, the pod will again be able to house detainees, Vance said.
The sheriff, though, was quick to point out that the improvements were not his doing alone, but rather were the results of a team effort. He credits the board of supervisors, the county administrator, the district attorney and the county’s judges for helping see the work through.
“This has been a true team effort. Whatever success we have, the improvements that have been made, none of them could have been made without the help of those entities,” Vance said. “As we move forward, we’re going to continue to need that type of assistance as we work to satisfy the mandates of the consent decree.”
Hinds County has been under a federal consent decree since 2016. The decree outlines several steps it has to take to improve jail operations and conditions, including making structural repairs, hiring additional employees and addressing overcrowding.
One of the first things done to improve conditions was bringing on a contractor to replace doors on some 67 individual jail cell units.
At its meeting on January 15, the board of supervisors approved hiring CML Security to replace the previous sliding doors with swinging doors. The contract was for approximately $896,000.
“One of the biggest things I talked about when I was running for office was that that doors were not reliable,” he said. “The doors could be opened and closed at the will of the detainees.”
When the doors are open, the inmates are able to jam the locks to prevent them from locking once they’re again shut.
“The new ones are harder to compromise,” Vance explained previously. “People who work there say with the new locks, they’ll have a much better chance of controlling detainee movement.”
Work is expected to wrap up in the next three to four weeks. “They started around February, but when COVID kicked in, it caused some delays in getting work crews here,” Vance said.
In addition to the new doors, the board has also made other investments in the Raymond facility, including a second perimeter fence and guard house, a new four-wheeler and an X-ray machine.
The fence cost approxiamtely $100,000, District One Supervisor Robert Graham said. Costs for the other devices were not immediately avialable.
“We think that’s been a big help as far as our efforts to keep contraband out of the facility,” Vance said, referring to the new fence.
The four-wheeler is used by detention officers to inspect the perimeter and the X-ray machine is used to inspect employee bags upon entering and exiting the facility, something else that can also cut down on contraband.
Meanwhile, Vance said the district attorney and judges are doing a better job moving detainees through the system. There are currently 230 individuals housed at the Raymond detention center, and another 182 housed at the work center, Undersheriff Allen White said.
“There were a lot of people who were there for months at a time who were not even indicted,” Vance said. “There has been movement in those areas that has made the population more manageable, and we’re grateful for that.”
Detainees and employees also will be safer, thanks to several additional new hires.
Since January, the department has brought on 50 new detention officers, as well as several administrators recommended under the decree.
The consent decree mandates that the department be fully staffed and have less than a 10-percent turnover rate among jail workers.
Since February, the sheriff has brought on 50 new correctional officers, as well as a new jail administrator, a prison rape elimination administrator, a recruitment officer, a new fire inspector and a quality control officer, White said.
The rape eliminator is responsible for handling all rape claims made by detainees, while the fire inspector ensures that fire extinguishers, fire hydrants and other items are certified and in working condition. The quality control officer investigates maintenance issues, such as whether or not doors and lights are working properly, and whether there are sewer or water issues, White explained.
Maintaining detention officers continues to be a challenge. “We have not been able to retain everybody that we had prior (to the hirings),” Vance said. “We still need to hire 20 or 30 more.”
As for the turnover, Vance said there are several factors. He points to the current public scrutiny officers are facing, as well as the low pay. New detention officers earn $27,500 a year.
“Specifically, as it relates to retention, we’re paying them as best we can but it’s hard to feed your family on $27,500 a year,” he said. “In general, law enforcement has a lot of turnover and detention is no different.”