Jail sends reports to U.S. Justice Department

GULFPORT — The Harrison County jail has been sending reports to the U.S. Justice Department since 1995, when a federal court order resulted in a judgment to require improvements on numerous concerns.

The scrutiny began as early as 1993, when a study ordered by then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno found the jail to be substandard, dangerous and in violation of rights guaranteed to incarcerated persons.

The case is considered inactive, though the reports are still required and the court file shows that Justice Department representatives sometimes respond to them.

U.S. District Judge Walter J. Gex III was assigned to oversee the consent decree in January 1995.

The quarterly reports include a month-by-month breakdown of statistics on various operations at the jail, including staffing lists and security reports with statistics but few details on use of force and inmate grievances.

The court file shows little activity other than the filing of the quarterly reports until recent years. In 2003, Gex began issuing written orders that Sheriff George H. Payne Jr. provide specifics on understaffing, overcrowding and plans to correct the problems.

A letter from a Justice Department official on July 20, 2005, presented a two-edged sword. It complimented the sheriff on some improvements, but warned of “a very disturbing pattern of misuse of force” and linked it to the stress of overcrowding and understaffing.

Six months after the death of inmate Jessie Lee Williams Jr., attorneys for his estate asked for a hearing to request a review of the jail reports. Gex denied the request in a written order that said they lacked legal standing: only parties named in the judgment have the right to ask. The parties include Harrison County Sheriff George H. Payne Jr. and the Harrison County Board of Supervisors.

Gex began more frequent requests demanding specific details on what the jail is doing to hire more officers.

The county supervisors have the right to ask the judge for a status review on the jail’s compliance with orders. They haven’t asked.

“I assume it’s because they believe the experts who were brought in to study the jail are doing their job, and the experts question anything that would raise a red flag,” said Joe Meadows, attorney for the county supervisors.

County supervisors routinely receive legal notification of intent to sue over various complaints. In many cases, said Meadows, the complaints are unfounded.

Meadows said he remembers one case in particular: “There was this one gentleman (inmate) who wasn’t happy that his hot dog was not warm enough and he was not given some sort of medicine.”