McCOMB — One week after receiving the keys to the old jail downtown last summer, Calvin Phelps discovered a building full of surprises.

The doors locked automatically behind him. The keys were too complicated for a Lowe’s employee to copy. And though the jail’s last keepers had cleared out most of the building, Phelps still found blank fingerprint forms, disabled security cameras and other abandoned equipment, none of which he knew how to use.

Let me turn some lights on,” said Phelps, upon entering the dark building. “I actually know how to turn the lights on.”

Phelps is the director of the Pike School of Art, a local nonprofit that has now signed a 10-year lease for Pike County’s empty youth detention center in hopes of remaking the juvenile jail into a thriving space for art-making and more. The jail, which closed in 2013 following an investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been mostly untouched in the last five years.

As youth detention numbers have dropped nationwide and in Mississippi, communities like McComb have turned the remnants of those jails into projects aimed at neighborhood revitalization, from a teen community center in Apache County, Ariz., to mixed-income housing in Washtenaw County, Mich.

A McComb native who had left Mississippi to study and work as an artist in Chicago and Los Angeles, Phelps returned to Pike County in 2015 to live in the house his grandmother had left him. He took a job as a grantwriter for St. Andrews Mission in McComb while running the Pike School of Art.

Phelps walked past the quiet jail every day and thought to himself, “This should be the space,” he said.

A re-envisioned Pike School of Art. Credit: Pike School of Art

Having begun to make that thought a reality, Phelps and Clay Russell, the Pike School of Art’s communication director, are undeterred by the condition of the facility, which reverted back to city control once the county shut down the jail. They’ve since met with the jail’s last warden, Ronnie Pierce, who once oversaw Pike County Juvenile Detention Center, to figure out how the lights and various control panels work.

Phelps envisions the converted building to eventually house a local history museum, with exhibition space, living quarters for artists-in-residence, and space for community workshops and other events.

Pike County’s former youth detention center is seen in McComb Monday, July 16, 2018. Plans are in the work to transform the former detention center into an art space. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which once nearly sued the county over conditions in the detention center, even wrote a letter in support of the city leasing the building to the arts group. Prominent members of the community like Fern Crossley, a local radio host, have backed the project.

“This place is like a blank canvas,” said Crossley, who is also on the board of the McComb Creative Economy Partnership, another arts group in town that Phelps works with.

After documenting the condition of the facility (“We photographed every inch of the place,” Russell said), they scrubbed the building clean. On one item that would eventually be removed — the cinder block wall — was an ominous note, scrawled: “Tony B. / One Last to be / in this bitch 2-1-13.”

In November 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center began looking into allegations of abuse and unsanitary living conditions at the Pike county facility. The investigation arrived amid a series of targeted lawsuits by the SPLC against county-operated facilities over the last 12 years, including Hinds, Forrest, and Harrison counties, several of which are now under federal consent decrees.

A report by juvenile justice consultant Paul DeMuro the following January called for Pike County to shutter the facility and divert its operating budget to local detention alternatives for “the majority of court related Pike County Youth Court youth who do not pose a risk to public safety and, hence, do not need secure detention.” DeMuro deemed the facility “unhealthy and dangerous.” He observed mold, rust and physical decay, the absence of trained medical staff and detention officers’ use of pepper spray.

Moreover, youth in the facility had no due process before being subjected to disciplinary isolation not did the staff track the amount of time detained youth were put in lockdown, DeMuro found. Blind spots in the camera system meant that youth in one of the facility’s isolation cells could avoid observation, dangerous given that placing youth in solitary confinement is correlated with a greater risk of self-harm.

By February, with a lawsuit from the SPLC looming, the county’s board of supervisors had voted to close the facility and instead send juvenile detainees to the Adams County facility, about an hour-and-a-half away.

Supervisors then told the McComb Enterprise-Journal that they were closing the detention center because the building’s age meant it could not be kept in compliance with federal guidelines. At an estimated $3 million to $4 million, the Enterprise-Journal reported, building a new one would not fit in the county budget.

Across the U.S., the number of youth detained or placed out of home decreased by more than half between 1999 and 2015, per the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

That’s a trend Mississippi has maintained. Deemed a “comeback state” by the National Juvenile Justice Network in 2013 for implementing policies to reduce juvenile detention and incarceration, the state passed major juvenile justice reform laws in 2005 and 2006 and established a juvenile detention and alternatives taskforce in 2012.

According to statistics prepared by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, there were 21 juvenile residential facilities in Mississippi in 2000. By 2016, that number had dropped to 16. Likewise, point-in-time counts of the number of youth housed in those facilities decreased from 786 to 243 in that period.

And a census released November by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review found only 189 juveniles across 15 facilities.

That hasn’t stopped the local youth court judge, John Price, from calling on the county to build a new facility capable of housing anywhere from one to three dozen people. Price told county supervisors last year that because the Adams County facility was often full, he’s had to turn down detention requests, according to the Enterprise-Journal. Should the county build a new facility, Price said, it could generate up to half-million dollars per year by leasing the facility to other counties.

Pike County now spends more than $100 per person per night to place youths in the Adams County facility in Natchez, and as much as $200 per night to house them in the Forrest County juvenile detention center in Hattiesburg, Price told Mississippi Today. That’s not including the time and costs involved in transporting people between the detention centers and the youth court in Magnolia.

Last fiscal year, housing juvenile detainees cost Pike County $114,070, according to county administrator Tami Dangerfield. Between October 2017 and July 2018, the county spent $85,147.

With the uptick in closures of juvenile jails, many communities across the country have begun re-purposing these spaces into community centers, development projects and affordable housing.

A report published in June by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank,  pointed out that prison land can indeed be transformed to stimulate economic growth, meet community needs and serve local residents.

Other shuttered youth detention centers in Mississippi, like the Columbia Training School in Marion County and the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, have been leased out to private companies or sit empty.

Organizations interested in such efforts should educate and partner with community members, as well as partner with formerly incarcerated stakeholders, the Urban Institute report recommends.

To that end, the School of Art has held open houses, including a Making a Future event last fall with a visiting artist, where participants drew their idea of an arts center directly onto photographs of the building itself.

Neighbors have chipped in, offering to mow the lawn or loan a pressure washer, Russell said.

“It’s just something to see — from jail to art,” said McComb selectman Ronnie Brock, whose ward the future home of the Pike School of Art is located in. There are plenty of kids who are anxious to get into the space and find out what they can do there, Brock added.

“I’m anxious to see what talent we have in the city of McComb,” Brock said. “And it comes with the opportunity I think that center, that school is going to offer them.”

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.