ABERDEEN — As video rolls, deputies arrest an older woman with large eyes and as many streaks of gray hair as of black wearing a peace sign T-shirt.
“I don’t sell no dope,” she says as handcuffs are being slapped on her.
This isn’t an episode of Cops. It’s local TV coverage from Monroe County Sheriff Cecil Cantrell’s most recent drug roundup – held the week before Thanksgiving.
In all, the sting that began Nov. 17 would net almost 60 arrests. The majority of the men and women arrested were charged with one count of sale of a controlled substance—crack cocaine in most cases, the sheriff said—and faced a $20,000 bond.
Another middle-aged man seen on the tape speaks in a slowed, slurred cadence. He seems to think he is being arrested for public drunkenness, proclaiming that he has the right to watch the Super Bowl (even though the championship game was played almost a year earlier, in February) and drink beer and alcohol.
Cantrell ran for sheriff on a promise of cleaning up drugs in the northeast Mississippi county of 36,989. To show he’s serious, he invites a local TV news crew along on his department’s busts.
Now, Cantrell, a Democrat, has been fighting his drug war since coming into office five years ago. He was a justice court judge for 24 years before he ran for sheriff in 2011 on a promise to tackle what he calls a tremendous drug problem. He attributes his tough-on-drugs stance for the fact that he won reelection in 2015 with almost 80 percent of the vote.
Cantrell’s roundups are a staple of WTVA broadcasts and reports in the Monroe County Journal. His deputies have conducted at least three major roundups along with a number of smaller busts, resulting in dozens of arrests, in 2016 alone.
Opinions differ about whether Monroe County has a worse drug problem than anyplace else in the state. What is apparent is that Monroe County is a microcosm for the larger war on drugs with political pressure on local officials to keep the streets clear of drugs, thus filling correctional institutions with dealers and users. Meanwhile, lack of funding for drug treatment programs, especially for poor incarcerated people, all but guarantees they end up back in the system eventually.
Cantrell says his anti-drug philosophy is rooted partly in faith and partly in public-safety practicality.
In addition to believing that “the lord Jesus Christ doesn’t want drugs in any county, (so) He’s opening doors for law enforcement,” Cantrell says “100 percent of drug dealers are responsible for 90 percent of stealing” in Monroe County.
A person with a drug addiction, he reasons, might sell $500 of boosted merchandise for $30 worth of drugs. The busts also result in the seizure of automobiles and illegal guns, sometimes worth as much as $20,000, many of which are stored in an evidence room and displayed as if in a trophy case.
Cantrell also acknowledges that many of the people he arrests receive government assistance and sell drugs to make ends meet.
During the interview, Cantrell took a phone call from a woman in Chicago whose daughter was arrested in Monroe County. She wanted to know whether she could get her daughter into a drug treatment program. Cantrell said the daughter could be placed on a list but that he couldn’t provide any assistance to the woman beyond that.
“We’re going to clean up drugs. It takes too many lives,” said Cantrell. “People in this county know what drugs can do to your family. Drugs will take your wife, your husband, your whole family.”
Smokers not sellers
A 56-person drug bust is large by Mississippi standards.
Yet a visit on a clear, cool November afternoon to Commerce Street — Aberdeen’s main drag through downtown — yielded a mix of responses to the question of whether a pervasive drug problem exists here.
A man and woman smoking cigarettes outside a storefront, neither of whom lived in town, said they believed the town is safe but weren’t sure how much of that is attributable to the sheriff’s drug stings.
Several others declined to talk about the drug busts let alone drug dealers. One older woman, who waved at the passengers of just about every car that passed and also didn’t want to give her name or be interviewed for this story, did say that she believes most of the people swept up by the latest sweep were poor drug users and not hardcore dope dealers.
That sentiment was underscored when Mississippi Today contacted more than 20 of the people arrested on Nov. 17. About half the numbers went to the telephones of mothers, sisters, daughters, wives and girlfriends.
One woman said her daughter remained in jail, unable to pay the bond to get out. Another said her mother was no drug dealer and was upset that law enforcement officers took her to jail barefoot.
Only one man returned Mississippi Today’s call. He agreed to talk to a reporter if his name was not published, citing his pending charges and upcoming court appearances.
“They got all the people on drugs. They got the users,” including himself, he said. “Most of the ones I know, won’t sell a lick — they gonna smoke it.”
Still, he counts himself as among the lucky ones. Thanks to his two jobs, he was able to put up the $20,000 bond and says he will hire an attorney to fight the charges.
“If you ain’t got no job and you’re a user, how you gonna come up with $2,000? They knew what they was doing,” he said.
The man added, of his own financial situation: “I can’t (afford to) go out of town, much less going to prison.”
Disconnected from everything
Mississippi’s drug-court program is designed to help people whose alcoholism or drug addiction may have caused them to commit certain nonviolent crimes, people like those arrested in the sheriff’s roundups.
However, in Monroe County, getting help isn’t easy.
Circuit Court Judge Jim Pounds, who runs adult felony drug court for a seven-county area in northeast Mississippi with 230 participants, says he has the fewest participants from Monroe County. The reasons are mostly economic.
To get into drug court, a defendant must plead guilty and agree to go through a drug treatment program, attend regular Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, meet regularly with the judge and prosecutors and be available for random drug testing. In Pounds’ court, participants have to be on call seven days a week for drug testing; participants are actually tested two or three times a week.
All of this is paid for by drug-court participants. In northeast Mississippi, this year’s 42 graduates paid a total of $99,317.50 — an average of $2,380 a piece — in fines, court costs, and restitution to the counties where they were sentenced, according to Judge Pounds’s office.
Echoing the judge, Chad Clardy, director of community outreach for LIFECORE Behavioral Health, formerly known as Region 3, in Tupelo, said the population of Monroe County is spread out and “disconnected from everything.” That presents a challenge for many people to get back and forth to treatment. Then, there are the costs, he said.
“Really, you have to have some kind of resources to be in drug court. It’s not something you can go into without resources. You’ve got fines to pay off, all kinds of stuff,” Clardy said.
Pounds considers himself lenient. If defendants don’t have the cash to participate in drug court, he gives them two or three weeks to come up with it. Otherwise, he can send them to a state prison that has a long-term alcohol and dependency unit.
“They have two choices — drug court or go to the penitentiary,” Pounds said. “It’s been real successful for those that want it.”
As funding has dried up for some drug-treatment programs for the poor, the state has stepped in to bolster the shortfall. Since the most recent round of legislative budget cuts, the Department of Mental Health has increased funding to the 15 community mental-health centers to help provide services to poor people to get into drug treatment.
Specifically, the agency’s Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services has increased the funding available for indigent beds at community mental health centers by approximately $400,000.
Judge Pounds would like to have funding to start a drug-court program for the citizens of Aberdeen, but that seems unlikely anytime soon.
In the meantime, Sheriff Cantrell says he isn’t going to differentiate between big-time narcotics traffickers and small-time drug users who get caught in his dragnets.
In his way of thinking, his job is to lock up anyone associated with the drug trade; it’s up to a judge what happens next.
“If you do drugs in Monroe County, I’m gonna catch you and send you to the penitentiary…We’re not going to let you sell drugs in Monroe County without consequences,” he said.