- Associated Press - Thursday, June 23, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Hinds County and federal officials have reached a settlement to improve conditions at the three jails in Mississippi’s largest county.

The U.S. Justice Department announced the settlement Thursday, after two years of investigation and negotiation with the county. In May 2015, federal officials said conditions violated the U.S. Constitution because threat of harm amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and failure to release inmates on time violated equal protection guarantees.

“Across the board, this settlement will make the Hinds County criminal justice system smarter and fairer,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “If implemented, these reforms will make pretrial detainees, prisoners, corrections staff and the entire community safer, while also ensuring that vulnerable individuals get access to the treatment, care and community services they need and deserve.”

County Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen said the county chose to settle the suit because it agreed conditions at the jails in Raymond and Jackson were indefensible.

“I think anyone who’s watched the Hinds County jail over the last several years would know that Hinds County had no defense to the Department of Justice’s findings,” Teeuwissen said. “The riots have been well-documented, the injuries, the escapes, all that’s been well-documented. It seems wasteful to use taxpayer money to argue about that.”

U.S. District Judge William Barbour must approve the deal, and then the Justice Department and the county would agree on an independent monitor to oversee the settlement for at least two years.

It requires the county to improve physical conditions and staffing and better separate inmates, based on risk factors. It would also require the county to better take care of juveniles and mentally ill prisoners and put fewer prisoners into solitary confinement.

The county agreed to improve record-keeping to ensure prisoners due to be released don’t get stuck in jail, and work to improve coordination among prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and the jail. The county has struggled to prosecute pretrial detainees quickly, with some sitting in the jail for years because they can’t raise bail or have been denied bail.

Finally, the county agreed to help mentally ill inmates better transition to the civilian world and hire an outside consultant to provide advice on diverting some people from jail. Justice Department officials said this was the first settlement to have such provisions. The deal also contains provisions saying the county can’t jail people who owe fines without considering whether they can afford to pay. Lawsuits against jailing indigent people have been brought against Jackson, Biloxi, Moss Point and other cities in recent years.

Teeuwissen estimated that supervisors have spent more than $8 million in recent years to improve the Raymond and Jackson jails, saying as much as 90 percent of needed physical improvements may be complete. However, Sheriff Victor Mason blamed the jail’s poor condition and understaffing for the escape Thursday morning of two capital murder suspects. One was recaptured Thursday afternoon.

Teeuwissen said Mason will need more jail employees, but said he hoped that the sheriff could cut administrative personnel to shift money to the jail, without cutting patrol deputies or requesting more money from the county.

“What it does mean is the sheriff is going to have to re-prioritize his budget,” Teeuwissen said.

The settlement emphasizes the idea that jail guards should be physically present inside units, instead of hiding behind barriers. The settlement says a transition to such “direct supervision” will require training and new procedures. It calls for reducing use of force by guards, tracking and investigating prisoner injuries or violence, and cutting use of solitary confinement, especially for mentally ill prisoners

Mason and his lawyer didn’t return phone calls seeking comment Thursday.

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Online: Hinds County Jail settlement: https://1.usa.gov/28QxXfq

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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