The Noxubee County Adult Detention Facility remains just down the street from the previous jail in Macon, Mississippi on Feb. 8, 2023. Rory Doyle for The New York Times

Mississippi’s failure to require inspections in jails bodes disaster, says the lawyer who oversaw jail and prison conditions for decades.

In 2017, state lawmakers stopped providing funds to the Mississippi Department of Health to carry out those inspections after a federal court stopped requiring such inspections under Gates v. Collier, the longtime lawsuit brought by state inmates.

Without those inspections, “there’s no check, there’s none,” said Jackson lawyer Ron Welch, who represented those inmates in Mississippi jails and prisons under the court order settling that case. “It’s giving sheriffs a free pass. They can do as they wish.”

He called county supervisors, who fund the sheriffs and jails, “willfully blind” accomplices.

An investigation by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today and The New York Times shows that in addition to this lack of inspections, there is a lack of oversight. No state regulator has the authority to fine a sheriff for endangering people in custody or for failing to train the staff who operate the jail. 

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, said this is a national problem as well. Unlike almost every other country, he said, the U.S. has “no independent oversight over what happens in prisons and jails.” 

This lack of oversight contributes to the abuse of those held behind bars “that is entirely foreseeable,” he said. “Their lives are systematically devalued.”

After Mississippi stopped inspecting jails, allegations arose in 2020 that Noxubee County deputies coerced Elizabeth Layne Reed, a woman incarcerated at the jail, into having sex.

Her lawsuit said two deputies, Vance Phillips and Damon Clark, gave her a cellphone and other perks, including a sofa in her cell, so that she would have sexual encounters with them. She described the first encounters as taking place outside the jail, only to be followed by those in the interrogation room, in the evidence, even in her cell.

She said in an interview that she wanted the public to know what happened to her in the hope that others would come forward. “It made me terrified to trust anybody,” she said. “Women in jail and prison need to be protected.”

According to the lawsuit, the sheriff at the time, Terry Grassaree, knew all about his deputies’ “sexual contacts and shenanigans,” but did nothing to stop them. Instead, the lawsuit alleged, the sheriff “sexted” her and demanded that she use the phone the deputies had given her to send him “a continuous stream of explicit videos, photographs and texts” while she was in jail. She also alleged that Grassaree touched her in a “sexual manner.”

The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Grassaree is charged with bribery and lying to the FBI when he denied that he requested the nude photos and videos from Reed. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Juan Barnett, who chairs the Senate Corrections Committee, said he supports resumed funding for jail inspections to “help curb abuse. The more oversight, the better.”

Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott, who serves on the executive board of the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association, said he believes most sheriffs would support the return of state-funded inspections as long as they are reasonable. “We have to fight for our budgets to keep them up,” he said. “Oversight and reports have always helped me.”

Eight of Mississippi’s 82 sheriffs have jails that have been certified by the state Board on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Training; the others haven’t been.

Scott said such certification reduces the cost of insurance and gives employees guidance on the best ways to run a jail.

He hopes to one day receive certification from the American Correctional Association, he said. “Getting state accredited puts me a leg up.”

Although Mississippi recently received a record $4 billion budget surplus, Welch said there’s no political will right now to aid those behind bars, despite the fact that Mississippi prides itself as being part of the Bible Belt. 

“God taught us to love our neighbor,” he said. “The principle is ‘do not inflict needless pain on any person.’ That’s the heart of it.”

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.