TUPELO • The Lee County Jail started the week with 41 felony inmates waiting to be shipped to the state prison system. It ended the week with 49, and that was after the state hauled off nine men Tuesday.
Under normal conditions, the prisoners would have been shipped off to a state facility months ago. But COVID-19 has caused serious lags in the transportation process as the Mississippi Department of Corrections imposed restrictions to limit the spread of the pandemic to its facilities.
The additional 40-50 state prisoners has pushed the Lee County Jail population consistently over its 202-bed capacity. Over the last 30 days, the jail has averaged around 210 each day, topping out at 228 on Aug. 20.
“We can handle the flow of people in and out of the jail that haven’t been convicted,” said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson. “We can bond them out or release them on their own recognizance. We don’t have that option with state prisoners. We have to hold them until the Mississippi Department of Corrections comes and gets them.”
Johnson said he has offered to have deputies transport state prisoners, but the Mississippi Department of Corrections won’t allow it. He said MDOC has “the full authority and full discretion to decide when someone is transported.”
By law, once someone is convicted of a felony in circuit court, MDOC has 30 days to transport a prisoner to a state facility. Even with paperwork delays getting the prisoners into the MDOC computer system, under normal conditions the transfers happen within 35 days.
But in March, MDOC suspended all transfers from county jails when the pandemic first arose, said MDOC communications director Grace Simmons Fisher. When the department resumed the transfers in late May, there were restrictions, including quarantining prisoners two weeks before any transfer.
That caused a backlog on the county level.
“Any time someone is sentenced to a county jail, that very minute they become the property of DOC,” Johnson said. “But we have to house them until DOC decides on their timeline when to load them into their computer system. That starts the process to get them to a state prison.”
Even with transfers resuming in May, it was June before the state picked up any prisoners from the facility in Tupelo. MDOC returned in July, August and early September to start removing the accumulation of state prisoners from the county jail.
MDOC picked up nine men early Tuesday morning. Two of them were sentenced to state custody in February. The most recent court order was from July, when a man was ordered back to state custody to serve the remainder of five sentences for cocaine possession and sale.
“The number needing to be picked up is always greater than what they pick up,” Johnson said. “And that list grows every day.”
A new grand jury started hearing Lee County cases this week. Many of those 400-plus cases will lead to pleas or probation revocations. That means the jail will have to find space for even more state prisoners before the MDOC bus returns next month.
For security reasons, MDOC does not give advance warning – to prisoners, families or jail staff – about when they will pick up prisoners from county jail. Generally, they will show up unannounced in the middle of the night and be back on the road well before sunrise.