- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Some Mississippi sheriffs have given unauthorized passes to state inmates to temporarily leave custody for unacceptable reasons, the head of the state prison system says.

Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher told The Clarion-Ledger (https://on.thec-l.com/1I5sZu0 ) that a convicted sex offender, 33-year-old Jason Rush, got two rides home from Quitman County deputies in April. One was for an “anniversary party” where a deputy waited in the living room, and the other was for a “birthday party.”

Fisher said corrections investigators received a tip and caught Rush at his home. He says jail staffers told investigators Rush - who was convicted of one count of fondling a child and two counts of aggravated assault - was helping change a tire at the time.

“This is a public safety issue,” Fisher said. “It’s disappointing that the staff told investigators the guy was changing a tire when he was at a ‘party.’ That’s wrong.”

Quitman County Sheriff Oliver Parker would not comment Friday, and corrections officials said the incidents remain under investigation.

Temporary leave passes cannot be given to any inmate convicted of a crime of violence, but records show they have been given in some parts of the state.

In October 2013, the sheriff’s office gave a pass to William Whitaker, an inmate at the Alcorn County Regional Correctional Facility who had been convicted of robbery, burglary and aggravated assault. Whitaker at his home of died of a drug overdose on Oct. 26, 2013.

In a Nov. 7, 2013, letter, then-Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps criticized Sheriff Charles Rinehart for releasing Whitaker and five other inmates on passes.

“The actions exhibited by you and your staff have jeopardized public safety for the citizens of Alcorn County as well as the state of Mississippi,” Epps wrote.

Three other inmates released from the jail had been convicted of armed robbery. Another inmate had been convicted of manslaughter. A final inmate had been convicted of selling drugs. Less than two months later, Epps agreed to let inmates return there because he said Alcorn County “contracted with an experienced prison management company,” Mississippi Correctional Management, headed by former state lawmaker Irb Benjamin.

The Clarion-Ledger requested Mississippi Department of Corrections records, which gave details of other cases:

In 2006, an inmate, who was the jail administrator’s brother in Calhoun County, returned from his pass drunk and fled in a stolen patrol car, wrecked that car, stole a truck and wrecked it, too, before being captured. The investigation concluded that other passes also should not have been given.

In 2008, an inmate in Alcorn County escaped in a deputy’s private vehicle that the deputy had left for inmates to repair. The investigation concluded it was the third such vehicle that inmates repaired. “There were also admissions by other inmates indicating they consumed alcohol and narcotics during their work day.”

In 2008, investigators confirmed the misuse of inmate labor and an inmate being allowed out of jail in Tippah County.

In 2010, investigators found that a work crew supervisor provided narcotics to inmates he supervised. He was fired after testing positive for THC.

In 2010, an inmate at the Choctaw County Jail was arrested for possessing meth and $17,000 in cash.

Also in 2010, an inmate was discovered to be living with the Webster County sheriff and using the sheriff’s cellphone.

“During the investigation, the sheriff initially refused to return the inmate to MDOC custody and stated to one investigator that he almost drove away with the inmate in order to hide him,” according to records. “When the offender was transferred into MDOC custody, from the sheriff’s marked unit, a pistol was discovered on the seat next to the unrestrained inmate.”

According to records, the sheriff believed “the inmate’s life was in danger and felt only he could protect him.”

Investigators compared conditions they found at the Joint County State Work Program at Pontotoc County Jail, where an escape took place, to a “deer camp, with a communal kitchen, free-world clothing, a big screen television with a communal viewing area, access to a propane fryer, individual small refrigerators and access to alcohol and other controlled substances. During a search of the facility, several free-world pocket knives were discovered.”

In his letter Thursday notifying sheriffs about transferring state inmates from the Joint State County Work Programs to the state-run Community Work Centers on Aug. 1, Fisher cited protecting public safety. He acknowledged that Community Work Centers have had problems, too, such as escapes.

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