Hinds County

Missing Hinds County votes found, absentee vote counting continues

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi – 2022-11-10 12:04:05

An empty voting booth is seen at Fire Station 7 for the midterm elections in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

All of the votes in are now accounted for, Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace confirmed Thursday morning, but reporting of the vote tally in the county continues to lag behind all other counties in the .

This comes after reports on election night that vote tallies from nearly two dozen precincts, stored on thumb drives, were unaccounted for.

While Wallace said there were “no major problems” on election day, he said “21 precincts were not counted on election day, due to various reasons.”

“Nothing was lost,” Wallace said. “Some of the poll workers, they did a great job on…

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Jackson water crisis flows from century of poverty, neglect and racism

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Jackson water crisis flows from century of poverty, neglect and racism

More than a century before failing infrastructure left Jackson, Mississippi, without running water this summer, thousands of the capital city’s residents gathered in a park downtown to celebrate the new water filtration plant that promised to turn the muddy liquid flowing into people’s taps into “clean, pure water.”

People poured in from nearby schools and factories to witness history that morning in November 1914, according to the account in the Jackson Daily

Train whistles blew, cheerleaders carried large banners, and city leaders spoke from a stage decorated with flags, pennants and bunting.

“Our historic capital city has many causes for congratulation,” said Edgar S. Wilson, a prominent and politically connected businessman who presided over the event, “but clear water is her crowning glory, her greatest asset; a blessing that will pass from generation to generation.”

Today, Jackson’s water system is a symbol of national embarrassment, highlighted by this August’s crisis that deprived more than 170,000 people of water to drink, wash or flush toilets.

It was the latest in a series of water-related problems plaguing the ’s biggest city. They include frequent line breaks, shut-offs, boil-water notices and an ongoing exposure to toxic lead and harmful bacteria. Jackson consistently has been in violation of safe drinking water standards since at least 2018 and has been under a federal order since 2020 to fix a host of issues impacting its water system. A 2013 consent decree Jackson entered with state and federal agencies requiring it to fix its beleaguered wastewater system also remains in effect.

Even now, the system continues to teeter on the brink of failure. It strained to meet the demand of an additional 55,000 people who attended Jackson State University’s homecoming game against Campbell University on Oct. 22. An even larger crowd is expected Saturday for JSU’s game against Southern University with ESPN’s “College GameDay” in town. Residents were warned on Monday that this could again push the water system to the limit and were urged to ration water usage.

State officials have blamed leaders of the predominantly Black city for fiscal mismanagement and neglect. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in a recent statement called the situation “a crisis of incompetence” and pointed a finger directly at Jackson’s mayor.

City leaders, meanwhile, accuse state officials of the predominantly white legislative and executive branches of ignoring their cries for help. Democratic Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba during an interview earlier this year with Mississippi Today called state lawmakers’ attitudes toward Jackson “paternalistic” and “racist.” During a press conference in September, he told residents not to trust the state.

But a USA TODAY Network investigation reveals that the foundation for these current failures was laid decades ago and problems compounded as the city evolved. Since then, city leaders and state officials alike have abandoned civility in lieu of finger pointing and steered the system into a collision course with disaster. 

Reporters combed through more than a century of newspaper archives, decades of the city’s annual financial statements, water quality reports and studies of the municipal system over the years, as well as recent lawsuits and orders against the city for violating drinking water standards. They also interviewed more than a dozen residents, city and state officials and former workers of the water system who shared firsthand knowledge of the problems. 

The reporting found a complex story of population decline, poverty, racism, politics, mismanagement and . But key details emerged that, when pieced together, paint a portrait of a water system that was flawed from the start and worsened exponentially over the years as those in power seemingly lost control. 

The system was cobbled together over the course of several administrations into a needlessly complicated operation with several moving parts. Complaints about bad water were rampant early on, and the system, unlike most Mississippi communities, relies mostly on surface water instead of cleaner, simpler wells. 

Jackson now has some 1,000 miles of water mains and two treatment plants: the original one, named J.H. Fewell, that can draw up to 25 million gallons a day from the Pearl River; and another one that opened in 1993, named O.B. Curtis, that can draw twice as much from the manmade Ross Barnett Reservoir located northeast of the city. The O.B. Curtis plant uses two different types of filtration systems to treat the water – conventional and membrane, making it tricky to manage.

Further complicating things, Jackson also operates a small system of wells that rely on groundwater and serve about 16,000 customers in the southern part of the city and nearby Byram.

“Until someone disputes this, and no one has been able to, you have probably the most complex water treatment facility in the country,” Lumumba said at a community meeting last month.

The original plant and piping that was laid more than a century ago started reaching the end of their lifespans just as Jackson’s population began to decline and its wealthier white residents fled for the suburbs. By the time Jackson elected its first Black mayor in 1997, the system was already in desperate need of repair but lacked the customer base to afford the then-$300 million worth of improvements. 

The price tag for those and other improvements has ballooned over the years to an estimated $1 billion as one administration after the next postponed infrastructure projects amid a dwindling revenue stream. Although the city collected some $900 million from customers over the past two decades, it lost nearly a half billion dollars in unbilled and unpaid usage during the same time from rampant theft and a botched metering and billing system. 

Meanwhile, the city failed to keep its plants fully staffed and functionally operating, leading to a deterioration of water conditions. Jackson has racked up multiple state and federal drinking water violations in the past five years and, in 2020, got hit with an emergency order by the Environmental Protection Agency. It must now commit to costly improvements to remedy the problems but lacks the funds to do it. 

As Jackson struggles, state leaders have done little to help. Every year since at least 2018, Jackson has sought financial assistance from the to improve its water system. And every year, those bills have died in committee.

“We’re at a reckoning point,” said Leigh Terry, assistant professor of environmental engineering at The University of Alabama. “We’re going to see more of these cases come up if we don’t invest and do the maintenance needed to replace these pipes, and pump systems and everything that often gets neglected.”

Jackson’s water woes are extreme but not rare. They’re endemic of a problem plaguing cities from coast to coast, as failures from aging infrastructure outpace funding for improvements.

But Jackson’s residents are particularly hard hit. Nearly 84% of them are minorities, and one in four 1 in 4 lives in poverty. Many struggle to pay their bills, much less buy bottled water every time the system strains. 

“I can’t even count how many times we’ve been on boil-water notice with the main gaskets breaking and the pipes breaking in the wintertime,” said Evelyn Fletcher, a federal building inspector who moved to Jackson 13 years ago. “I feel that God allowed this situation to be exposed across America, and even other countries, so we could get the assistance that we really need. I feel like it was God’s timing because we’ve been going through it for a while.”

A fire that led to water

The state of Mississippi took its name from the mighty waterway slicing through the country, but it was the lesser-known Pearl River that gave rise to the state’s capital. 

Jackson was established as the seat of government in 1821 in part because of its proximity to the Pearl, which cuts down the center of the state. But it wasn’t until a fire threatened to consume the city’s business district six decades later that the river became its life force.

The 1884 blaze had left firefighters scrambling for water, so local leaders devised a plan to pump the Pearl. This would ensure a steady supply of water for drinking, bathing and fire protection. In April 1889, the “Water Works Co.” began operations, delivering “pure, healthful river water” through a network of underground pipes, according to newspaper archives.

But it was not without its problems. The untreated river water was subject to contamination from bacteria and pollutants. Sometimes it arrived in people’s homes full of mud.

Residents soon looked to artesian wells as a solution and, in 1910, voted to create a new system from these free-flowing underground springs. “We want artesian water,” a Jackson Daily News headline demanded that year. But, by 1912, the company hired to drill the wells could produce just 2.5 million gallons of water a day – not enough for the city’s 4 million gallon per day requirement. 

Jackson’s groundwater is limited because the city sits on top of an inactive volcano, which stunted the formation of the area’s underground aquifers as they developed over the eons. Because they formed on top of the existing volcano, they’re shallower and thinner than usual, said Bill Oakley, a geologist who worked for decades for the U.S. Geological Survey and still consults on well projects throughout Mississippi.

To reach the desired capacity would be costly, engineers said in 1912. It would mean drilling additional wells and maintaining gasoline engines or electric motors for pumping. This forced the city to consider two other options: either drawing ground water from shallow wells in nearby Rankin County or building a filtration plant to purify water from the Pearl River. 

The matter was decided in one afternoon in April 1913 when then-Mayor Swepson James Taylor and an ad-hoc commission of prominent citizens determined that “filtration of the Pearl river supply is Jackson’s only solution to the water problem,” according to an account from the Jackson Daily News.

Limited groundwater supplies forced their hand, Oakley said. But in choosing filtered river water, Jackson diverged from the path most Mississippi communities would take.

All but 15 of the more than 1,000 community water systems in Mississippi pull from ground sources, according to EPA records. Of those that use surface water, most purchase it from the Northeast Mississippi Regional Water Supply District, which draws water from the Tombigbee River.

Although it has its problems, groundwater from wells and aquifers is generally cleaner and easier to treat. It usually contains less bacteria and is of a higher and more consistent quality. By contrast, surface water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs can vary dramatically depending on where and when it’s collected, and it generally has more contaminants, sediments and debris to be filtered out. 

Memphis, Tennessee, which initially relied on the Wolf River as its primary source of drinking water, faced a similar dilemma as Jackson in the late 1800s, especially after a deadly outbreak of Yellow Fever that swept the region was linked to unsanitary water. But unlike Jackson, Memphis could tap into an abundant aquifer and continues to tout its clean water to this day. 

Memphis’ municipal water system has had no violations or enforcement actions in at least five years, EPA records show. Jackson, meanwhile, has 176 violation points and more than 70 enforcement actions during the same time period. 

As state and federal regulations over drinking water have stiffened over the decades, it has become more challenging to staff Jackson’s water system. It takes up to six years of training and a Class A certification to operate a surface water treatment plant, which requires someone onsite 24 hours a day. 

Jackson consistently has struggled to hire and retain enough operators to run its system. This stems from a combination of low wages, high training requirements and a dearth of other surface water systems from which to recruit talent. 

In choosing surface water, Jackson created for itself a host of challenges. But, in the view of Jason Barrett, associate extension professor with the Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute, 

Jackson’s decision was not a fatal flaw. Other cities – like Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville – also pull from surface water sources without nearly the issues facing their Mississippi neighbor. 

“I don’t think Jackson’s issue is the quality of the source,” Barrett said. “I think Jackson’s problem is management.”

The rise and fall of a city

Jackson’s population, which hovered just above 21,000 when it opened its first filtration plant, continually swelled over the next few decades as it matured from a dusty river town to a bustling metropolis. 

More than 60,000 people called Jackson home by the start of the second World War, and the city was laying hundreds of miles of new pipes to accommodate the steady influx of households, schools and businesses. The filtration plant, which could pull just 4 million gallons of water a day from the Pearl River when it opened, was pumping up to twice that much by the mid-1940s.

Water quality problems and line breakages were common during those early years, newspaper records show, but it wasn’t until January 1944 that Jackson experienced its first widespread water loss. After a valve in the pumping station broke, the entire system shut down for two days and caused a panic among residents. 

“For 30 years, the Waterworks department has efficiently operated,” then-Mayor Walter A. Scott told the Clarion Ledger at the time. “It has never before been completely broken down or shut down as it was from Friday until Sunday at 3 p.m.”

It was a harbinger of things to come as the city’s population continued to grow, putting additional strain on an already aging system. The next three decades saw a series of annexations – including one in 1976 that was called the largest in state history – that more than doubled Jackson’s geographic footprint to some 120 square miles and boosted its population to over 200,000 people.

By 1979, the state Board of Health issued a grave warning that Jackson’s main surface water system was operating near capacity. The city should add no new homes or industries until fixing its “problem-ridden water treatment system,” according to a Clarion Ledger article at the time. 

“It is clearly evident that some of the water problems were inherited with city expansions,” the board said. “Other problems are due to continuing neglect of adequate operation and maintenance procedures and lack of adequate planning and foresight by city officials for many years.”

The public scolding led to the approval of $4.4 million in water infrastructure improvements the following year, but it was not enough.

Just as Jackson was making plans for the biggest expansion its water system had seen in decades – its second water treatment plant, the O.B. Curtis – its population and pocketbook was were about to shrink from the reverberations of societal upheaval that had started years earlier.

Mississippi, like many Southern states, went through a period of dramatic changes in the 1960s and 1970s as a system of legal white supremacy and violent oppression of Black people gave way to the expanding civil rights movement. The federal government struck down the separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws that defined the way of life across the South and forced the integration of

Southerners largely balked at these changes. But in 1969, a decision finally forced Mississippi and other holdouts to begin desegregating. For Jackson municipal schools, the change came in 1970.

“Forty percent of the student body is gone overnight with desegregation in the city of Jackson,” said Robert Luckett, a historian at Jackson State University.  “Their parents are the political, social, economic, religious leaders of the state of Mississippi, and when they withdraw their children from the public schools – when they themselves withdraw from the city – you begin seeing almost immediately the subsequent withdrawal of support for all things Jackson.” 

White people, which had represented nearly two of every three  residents in 1960, accounted for just one in two by 1980 – and just one in six  by 2020. 

Their exodus coincided with sweeping new federal mandates. The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, both passed in the 1970s, required most cities to invest in significant improvements to be able to comply with the strict new standards on testing and contaminant thresholds. 

Jackson was no exception, but not long after these rules kicked in, the federal government started to phase out its generous infrastructure grants in lieu of loans that municipalities would have to pay back. It was a double whammy for the capital city.

“I’m not sure you can point to any period in time and say, ‘this is when the problem occurred,’” former Mayor Harvey Johnson told USA TODAY in a recent interview. “But once the federal government took away its grant funding mechanism, that’s when local governments had to start relying on their own resources to get the job done. It especially hurt communities like Jackson with high incidents of poverty and low-income neighborhoods.”

Cozy relationship frays

Johnson was elected in 1997, and his ascension into office marked a historical milestone as the first time an African-American won the city’s mayor’s race. 

That distinction came with a new set of problems. Whatever cozy relationship might have existed between Jackson’s white mayors and the state’s majority white leadership was over now. Johnson and the Black mayors that came after him have faced skepticism and distrust when seeking financial aid for the struggling water system.

When the state approved a 1% sales tax for Jackson water improvements in 2009, lawmakers wouldn’t let the city control the funds. They instead created a nine-person commission outside the city’s purview to oversee and approve the tax fund’s expenditures. Johnson noted that the state placed no such restrictions on a similar sales tax for Tupelo, a majority white city in northeast Mississippi.

More recently, when Jackson received funds, the legislature singled out the city for extra oversight of its spending. And a bill that would have given Jackson an additional $42 million beyond what the ARPA rescue funds provided died in committee earlier this year.

State Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat from Jackson who works with local leaders to represent in the state house, said the lack of continuity in Jackson’s leadership has prevented the city from adopting a “long-term vision.”

“It takes more than a term to become familiar with the problems and how to address them and how to get the votes on the local level to pass it,” Frazier said.

And the plans that were in place often needed more money to actually be carried out, but lawmakers were hesitant to give Jackson more money after years of mismanagement.

Frazier said a popular sentiment in the capitol is, “Why should we send resources that they might squander?”

Reeves said in September the city doesn’t have a plan to fix its water woes and doubted it could be relied upon to provide one, echoing a sentiment that has rippled across the executive branch in recent weeks. In October, he issued a press release criticizing Lumumba’s handling of the water crisis and accusing him of acting in bad faith.

Lumumba disputed that he has no plan to fix the water system. During a September press conference, the mayor held up several documents outlining needed repairs and associated costs – documents he said he had previously shared with state elected officials. He also named previous Black mayors, including his father, who died in office in 2014, and said they, too, had tried to work with the state on this issue.

“The reality is that (former Mayor) Tony Yarber asked for money to deal with this issue. The reality is that my father asked for money to deal with this challenge,” Lumumba said. “I know that Mayor Harvey Johnson asked for money to deal with this challenge.”

USA TODAY Network reached out to both Reeves and Lumumba through their representatives, but neither was made available for comment.

Theft, broken promises and distrust

As the cost to fix Jackson’s problems climbs, the city’s utility revenues are in a freefall. 

Despite raising water and sewer rates several times in the past two decades, Jackson has struggled to generate enough revenue to keep the operation financially solvent. 

Part of the issue is its dwindling customer base. Jackson has lost utility sales as its population declines and major customers like schools and hospitals disconnect from the system in lieu of more stable sources of water like wells. 

But it’s also because of rampant theft by residents who altered meters and connections to avoid paying for water, as well as by city workers who circumvented the billing system and bribed customers to give them cash in exchange for wiping out their monthly bills. A pair of investigations, one launched in 2015 and the other in 2019, nabbed more than two dozen people in a scheme that then-Public Works Director Bob Miller called “the worst I’ve ever seen.” 

But perhaps the biggest culprit is a faulty water meter and billing system installed by German technology company Siemens as part of a $91 million contract signed in 2012. 

The meters didn’t link up to the billing system as promised, measured usage incorrectly and resulted in some customers getting overcharged while others didn’t get billed at all. The city sued Siemens and settled in 2020 for about $90 million, but Jackson is still reeling from the mess and doesn’t anticipate a resolution until late 2024.

“In my household, we have not gotten the bill in five months,” said Fletcher, the Jackson resident. “We’ve called to the city water department to ask about the bill, and they said, ‘Oh, we haven’t gotten you a bill yet.’ So we’re just holding our breath to see what five months of a bill will look like.”

Utility sales to customers, which in 2014 reached a peak of more than $69 million, fell to less than $48 million in 2020, the latest year for which data was available. 

Meanwhile, its accounts receivables — mainly unpaid water bills — continued to climb. In 2003, Jackson was owed some $6 million in unpaid bills. By 2020, that number reached nearly $55 million. Customers now owe the city more than they’ve paid.

“It’s kind of like the frog in the pot,” said Quentin Whitwell, who served on the Jackson City Council from 2011-2014. “You’re in water and don’t realize it’s boiling until it’s too late. My observation today is that, you know, it all came to that boiling point, and everybody was caught off guard.”

When the system finally snaps

As the city’s financial fortunes have faltered, so too has its ability to keep its water department fully staffed. Over the last two decades, former plant employees said, the institutional knowledge needed to operate a complex system such as Jackson’s was depleted as longtime workers became dissatisfied and left. 

Employment at the water plants became top heavy with managers who knew little about the operations, while experienced workers got squeezed out, said Ronald Gilbert, who started in 1995 as an operator at J.H. Fewell before moving to operation supervisor at O.B. Curtis. 

Gilbert said the system, which always struggled on a shoestring budget, started to strain in the late 1990s. By the time he left in 2005, he said, things were getting worse.

“Not enough money, natural age and loss of skilled people,” Gilbert said. “You put that together, and anything’s going to fail.”

Gilbert said that during his tenure, the city operated its water system with a crew of about 35 people. In January 2020, just seven people were working in the entire water department, city records show. 

The city council approved across-the-board pay raises for plant operators in November 2021. But the increase did not alleviate staffing concerns in the way city administrators had hoped.

Jackson’s water system now has so few operators that some are forced to work up to 75 hours a week without overtime pay just to cover all the shifts, and supervisors are taking on the extra load in addition to their managerial duties, according to an assessment of the city’s water system conducted earlier this year.

The staffing shortages have contributed to widespread failures, including the inability to routinely monitor and maintain the system to prevent pressure loss and water contamination, a fact seized upon by the Environmental Protection Agency during a February 2020 site visit to the facility amid ongoing concerns. 

Inspectors also found numerous leaks and line breaks – as many as five or six a day – leading to a loss of water pressure and requiring the city to issue boil-water notices. In just four years, the report noted, Jackson had sent out more than 750 such notices.

The EPA slapped Jackson with an emergency administrative order citing numerous problems, including inadequate staffing, high sediment levels and poor corrosion control, all of which put consumers’ health at risk. Jackson must now implement a comprehensive plan to address the issues, but it told the EPA it lacks the funds to make improvements. 

It wasn’t the first time the city has run afoul of safe drinking water regulations. In 2016, the Mississippi Department of Health notified Jackson that several of its water samples exceeded the maximum amount of allowable lead – 15 parts per billion. The state determined that the O.B. Curtis plant had a failing corrosion control system, which is supposed to prevent lead and copper in the pipes from dissolving into the drinking water.

Jackson was ordered to fix this problem, but it continues to rack up violations for non-compliance. According to a recent notice the city distributed to customers, from “2018 to 2022, we failed to consistently meet treatment technique requirements for our system which is a violation of the Lead and Copper Rule and a requirement of the City’s Optimized Corrosion Control Plan.”

In addition to increased state and federal oversight, the city also now faces a series of lawsuits from citizens claiming they’ve been poisoned by lead and plagued by water shutoffs. This summer’s crisis was just the latest to leave Jackson residents without water for long periods of time – they faced a similar scenario after a February 2021 ice storm deprived them of water for weeks.

The most recent of these lawsuits, filed in September, claimed Jackson leaders have long ignored the need to upgrade the system and could have avoided all of this had they just done their jobs.

“The people of Jackson, like all people in this country, deserve access to clean and safe water,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement after meeting with Jackson officials in September. “They also deserve more than words – they need action.”

That the city’s water system would collapse amid finger-pointing and federal oversight was likely far from the minds of those who celebrated its first filtration plant that cold November day more than a century ago.

But at least one person there felt the occasion held a lesson for future Jacksonians. Speaking to the crowd of how the city put aside differing opinions and rallied around the plan to filter river water, then-City Attorney William Hemingway called the plant a “monument to harmony and unity of purpose.” He said it should remind people of the value of working together.

“And if at any time discord comes among us,” Hemingway said, “let us look to this matter and give up personal matters for the common good.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes  the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Today, MCIR, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Federal judge appoints receiver to manage Hinds County Detention Center

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi – 2022-11-02 06:31:03

A federal judge has appointed a receiver to temporarily manage a jail near Mississippi’s capital city to improve conditions.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves on Monday selected Wendell M. France Sr., a public safety consultant, former correctional administrator and 27-year member of the Baltimore Department to remedy “ongoing unconstitutional conditions” at the Raymond Detention Center.

More:Hinds Detention Center staffing ‘particularly egregious’, judge says; officials ‘disappointed’ in ruling

More:Expert: Receiverships uncommon, especially for local jails like…

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Hinds County: Judge appoints receiver to detention center

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Hinds County Jail taken out of local control under appointed receiver

A former Baltimore jail warden and current criminal justice adjunct professor was appointed receiver of the Detention Center, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves ruled Monday evening. 

Wendell France Sr. was one of four people Reeves considered for the appointment. He began his role Tuesday but will not take operational control of the jail until Jan. 1, 2023. 

“France’s diverse experience in corrections and criminal justice system leadership equip him with the tools to ensure RDC’s (Raymond Detention Center) compliance,” Reeves wrote in his order. 

France worked at the now-closed Baltimore City Detention Center in the intake center and in pretrial detention and as deputy secretary of for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He was also an officer with the Baltimore Department. 

France has also worked as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice and studied police departments through the Control Act of 1994, according to court documents. He has also investigated and made recommendations on criminal justice, law enforcement and correctional issues in several states. 

Currently, he is an adjunct professor at Bowie State University and Coppin State University – both in Maryland. 

Reeves appointed France weeks after ordering federal takeover for the jail, which had previously been under a consent decree since 2016 to address unconstitutional conditions. 

In his July order, Reeves wrote receivership is needed because there is a risk of unconstitutional harm to jail detainees and staff. In 2021, seven detainees died and there have been other issues such as violence, understaffing, old infrastructure and contraband. 

During a Monday conference, Board of Supervisors President Credell Calhoun said the county would accept the judge’s decision and work with its legal team on next steps. 

He added that the board has invested millions of dollars at the jail to make improvements, including getting doors that lock.

Hinds County is appealing the appointment of a receiver and Reeves’ decision to hold the county in contempt before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Within 120 days of appointment, the receiver will develop an action plan for how to achieve compliance with court orders, according to court documents. Within 75 days, the receiver will also establish a budget for the first year of jail operation. 

France will receive $16,000 per month for services performed as jail receiver, according to Reeves’ order. 

Reeves asked the county and the DOJ to present candidates for the jail receiver role. The county proposed one person, and the department recommended three, according to court documents.

The DOJ’s other candidates were Susan McCampbell, who has worked as a court monitor at jails and prisons in multiple states, and another person whose name was not mentioned in court records. 

The county recommended Frank Shaw, who served as interim administrator of the Hinds County Detention Center. 

Reeves rejected Shaw as an option because his experience was in prisons rather than jails, according to court documents. Jails hold people who have not been convicted of a crime, while in prison, people held there have been convicted and are serving a sentence. 

He also decided against Shaw because Shaw was in charge of a privately- prison in Arizona where riots broke out, according to court documents. 

Reeves said he interviewed two finalists for receiver and was confident that either could have taken on the role with integrity and been able to secure results for the people of Hinds County. 

In a separate Tuesday order, Reeves outlined responsibilities of the receiver, which includes:

  • Day-to-day jail operations
  • Remedy for unconstitutional conditions by implementing the new injunction order
  • Determine the annual budget for the jail, including staff salaries and benefits, medical and mental health services, facility improvements and fire safety
  • All executive, management, leadership powers relating to the custody, care and supervision of jail detainees
  • The duty to control, oversee, supervise and direct administrative, personnel, financial, accounting, contractual and operational functions of the jail 
  • The power take over personnel actions of staff who perform services related to jail operation
  • The authority to negotiate agreements with Sheriff’s Office, Board of Supervisors, other state, county, city officials or agencies not under the receiver’s direct control 

The county and DOJ each outlined what kind of duties and responsibilities they wanted the receiver to have, which Reeves took into consideration when determining which to grant.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Hinds County troubled youth facility exits federal oversight

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Hinds County troubled youth facility exits federal oversight

A decades-long court agreement to address unconstitutional conditions at the youth detention center has ended, but advocates and county officials said work will continue to ensure the wellbeing of detainees. 

“Our concern for children detained at Henley-Young continues, and we look forward to the next phase of the critical work of improving outcomes for youth in Hinds County,” Disability Rights of Mississippi and the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a joint statement Monday. 

Disability Rights of Mississippi said this month all parties agreed to end the consent decree. U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Jordan approved termination of the decree Oct. 13.  

The organizations sued the county over conditions and treatment of children at the center, including denial of mental health treatment and insufficient educational, rehabilitative and recreational programming. They settled and entered a consent decree in 2012, and that agreement has been amended three times and extended multiple times. 

As a result of the consent decree, improvements have been made at the facility, including increased access to mental , staffing and education, officials and advocates said. 

Hinds County officials gathered Monday at Henley-Young to celebrate the end of the consent decree. 

“We’re not going to let up,” said Marshand Crisler, who has been the center’s executive director since January. “We will continue to implement the policies and procedures to keep this facility moving forward.” 

He hopes the facility can become a model for other facilities in the Jackson area and across the

Since the consent decree ended, the county has increased its number of youth detainees to 45 from the 32-detainee cap set in the consent decree, Crisler said. He said the center has the staffing to meet that need, and that the facility has the capacity to house up to 80 detainees. 

In its statement, Disability Rights of Mississippi expressed concern about the county’s intention to increase the number of youth at Henley-Young. 

“We will not tolerate a regression of conditions or services due to an increased population in the facility, or for any other reason,” the organization said. 

Crisler said 35 of the youth at Henley-Young have been charged as adults in the criminal court system. The others are under the jurisdiction of the county’s Youth Court. 

Under the consent decree, the county began housing juveniles charged as adults at Henley-Young. Attorneys for the county argued that the detainee cap became hard to work with once the center started housing them, according to court documents. 

Tony Gaylor, attorney for the Board of Supervisors, said the population rise is a concern at any of the county’s detention facilities and is related to . The county hopes to keep Henley-Young’s population down by working with the court system and district attorney, he said. 

Hinds County Court Judge Carlyn Hicks, who oversees the Youth Court, said taxpayers can expect savings because the county will no longer have to pay attorney’s fees to manage the consent decree. 

With the county no longer paying those fees, she hopes to see it reinvested in the community and diversion efforts that alleviate the need for young people to come to the detention center. 

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Will Supreme Court rely on literal reading when deciding legality of public funds to private schools?

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Will Supreme Court rely on literal reading when deciding legality of public funds to private schools?

The will most likely have an opportunity to rule on whether the Constitution prevents the appropriation of public funds to private schools or explain why the Constitution does not mean what it says.

In recent years the nine members of the Mississippi’s highest court have sometimes adhered to the plain-reading-of-the-law principle in their decisions, while at other notable times they have not.

It has just depended on the issue and perhaps the mood of the court.

Plain meaning in legal parlance, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined “the language is unambiguous and clear on its face,” and “the meaning of the statute or contract must be determined from the language of the statute or contract and not from extrinsic evidence.”

Or, according to the Congressional Research Service, it is defined as: “The starting point in construing a statute is the language of the statute itself. The Supreme Court often recites the ‘plain meaning rule,’ that, if the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous, it must be applied according to its terms.”

On Oct. 13, Chancellor Crystal Wise Martin ruled, based on the plain reading, that legislation passed earlier this year providing government funds to private schools was unconstitutional. The state provided $10 million in federal relief funds to private schools. It was added to legislation late in the session. Gov. Tate Reeves, long a private school proponent, signed off on the proposal.

Parents for filed a saying the appropriation was not valid based on that aforementioned plain reading of the Mississippi Constitution.

Martin sided with Parents for Public Schools in the case, but her ruling most likely will be appealed. That appeal means the Supreme Court will again have the chance to decide whether the text of a law, a constitutional provision in the case, should be adhered to or ignored.

In 2017, in a unanimous decision, the justices ruled that just because a law said “effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program” did not really mean the Legislature had to actually fully fund the program that provides the state’s share of the basics for the operation of the local school districts.

On the other hand, the justices did adhere to a law that said they “shall” receive a pay raise if recommended by the state Personnel Board. A little noticed section of a 2012 bill passed by the Legislature essentially gives the judiciary the authority to award itself a pay raise sans action of the Legislature. This judicial pay process seems in conflict with the fact the Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to appropriate funds. Plus, pay raises for elected officials normally are awarded based on the action of the Legislature not the judiciary.

Or to put it another way, when a law says local schools “shall” be fully funded, the plain reading is ignored by the Supreme Court. But when the law says the judiciary “shall” award itself a pay raise, the plain reading is followed.

The plain reading also was ignored in 2020 when the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s ballot initiative process was invalid. The court ruled unconstitutional the language approved overwhelmingly by the Mississippi electorate in the early 1990s that requires a mandated number of signatures to be gathered equally from five congressional districts to place an initiative proposal on the ballot.

The court found that because the state no longer has five congressional districts, the initiative process was unconstitutional. The court made that ruling without taking into account that the members of the Mississippi Community College Board, as well as other boards in the state, also are selected from the same five now defunct congressional districts. Perhaps the state Community College Board also is unconstitutional.

Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution reads, “No religious or other sect or sects shall ever control any part of the school or other educational funds of this state; nor shall any funds be appropriated toward the support of any sectarian school, or to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.” 

Hinds County Chancellor Martin said that language is clear. It says what it says — no public appropriation to a school “not conducted as a free public school.”

It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court will adhere to that plain language or find a way to uphold language supported by the leadership of the Mississippi Legislature and Gov. Tate Reeves.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Black families harmed by NICU closure, doctors say

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‘They cried’: Black families harmed by South Jackson NICU closure, doctors warn

The closure of a neonatal intensive care unit in South Jackson will hurt the mothers and babies who need it most, say doctors and nurses who care for the patients in this majority Black, low-income area. 

Dr. Samuel Brown, an OB/GYN at Merit Health Central, sees many patients with conditions that increase their risk of delivering early, like diabetes and high blood pressure. The vast majority of his patients are Black, and Black women in Mississippi are about 50% more likely than white women to deliver prematurely – the most common reason a baby is admitted to the NICU. 

With a NICU at Merit Health Central, Brown’s patients who go into labor early and those with other complications could deliver at the hospital close to home and recover while their baby received care at the same facility. 

But last month, Merit Health announced it was closing the NICU at Merit Central. Now, women who go into labor before 35 weeks of pregnancy aren’t supposed to deliver at Merit Central unless it’s an emergency and they can’t be safely transferred. If a baby born at Merit Central requires NICU care, they are “shipped off” to Merit River Oaks or Woman’s Hospital, both located in Flowood, said Laketa Johnson, who works with Brown as a nurse manager.

Since the NICU closed at Merit Central, 10 babies have been transferred to other facilities, according to Merit. Only four babies were transferred in 2022 before the NICU closed.

“This community is the community that needs doctors … because of obesity and preterm labor, diabetes, hypertension, all that stuff affects pregnancy,” Brown said. “And those are the patients that are going to need high-risk doctors or the NICU. And the fact is, that the NICU is gone. It’s just not a good thing for this community.”

The demographics of Flowood are different from those of the community surrounding Merit Central: The zip code that includes Merit Central is 93% Black, with 31% of residents in poverty and a median income of $29,600. The zip code that includes the two Merit hospitals in Flowood is 30% Black, with 20% of residents below the poverty line and a median household income of $69,000.

Black women and babies in Mississippi suffer the worst of the ’s abysmal maternal and infant health outcomes. Black women are about 2.5 times likelier to die of a pregnancy-related complication than white women. Black babies are more likely to be born early and to have a low birth weight. And they are twice as likely to die before their first birthday as white babies. 

Alicia Carpenter, director of marketing at Merit Health, said the closure of the NICU at Merit Central was part of an effort to reduce duplication of services across their network. She said doctors help patients decide where to deliver based on their needs and health history. 

“We will work with OB providers for patients who are less than 35 weeks to understand what is best for both the mother and baby at time of presentation and post-delivery,” she said in an emailed statement to Mississippi Today. “If an expectant mother presented in labor and could not be safely transferred to a higher level of care prior to delivery, Merit Health Central is prepared to safely deliver the mother and stabilize the baby for transfer to one of our sister hospitals that has NICU services or to one of the three hospitals in the neighboring Jackson area that offer NICU services.”

Laketa Johnson, nurse manager, discusses the closure of a neonatal intensive care unit in South Jackson.

The closure of the NICU is part of a broader reduction in services at Merit Central, which is owned by but leased and operated by the Nashville-based company Community Health Systems. The company reported a $326 million net loss in the second quarter of 2022. 

Closures have included the hospital’s burn unit, the only such facility in the state, and its operating room. Anyone admitted to the emergency room who needs surgery will be transferred after being stabilized. Cardiovascular and endoscopy services have been moved to the suburbs, too. 

Of the company’s nine facilities in Mississippi, Merit Central spends the largest amount by far providing care for patients without insurance, who in most cases have no ability to pay, meaning the hospital must absorb the costs. That figure was $16 million in the most recent fiscal year. 

Merit has said labor and delivery services, including cesarean sections, will continue at Merit Central. But while Brown and his colleagues continue to see obstetrics patients and deliver babies at the hospital, the closure of the NICU disrupts care for many of their patients.

Dr. Edith Smith Rayford, an OB/GYN at the community health center Central Mississippi Health Services, Inc., has delivered babies at the hospital since 1996. She served as chief of the OB/GYN section and chief of women’s health and has seen the hospital change owners several times. 

“I really, really had the vision that the hospital would remain a beacon for the community,” she said. “But I think that maybe I was wrong there.”

Roughly 700 to 750 babies were born each year at Merit Central from 2019 to 2021, according to statistics provided by the health department. 

Carpenter said that 72 babies were admitted to the NICU at Merit Central in 2021, about 10% of all babies born there. At River Oaks, 172 babies spent time in the NICU, a similar share of all births. 

The NICU at River Oaks can accommodate 20 babies, while the facility at Woman’s Hospital can take 16, Carpenter said. 

At the NICU, newborns get around-the-clock care from experts, with careful monitoring of their vital signs and temperature. Babies can stay for a few hours or for as long as months. 

Rayford said that routine deliveries haven’t changed at Merit Central. But now, for more complicated situations, she doesn’t have the support she would like. And moms who deliver prematurely at Merit Central will likely be separated from their newborns. 

“Already a bond is being broken,” she said. “Mom is in one facility, the baby in another. A newborn at that. I’m just not comfortable with that.”

Brown has one patient whose water broke at 32 weeks who has been admitted to River Oaks. Before the NICU closed, she could have been at Merit Central, where Brown sees his patients regularly and would be able to check in on her easily between other appointments. 

“This is the type of patient that I need here,” Brown said. “She can deliver any time.” 

Since the NICU closed, Brown has had patients who delivered at Merit Central only to have their babies sent to River Oaks. 

Johnson, the nurse manager, recalls patients’ reactions to learning their babies would be taken to another hospital across town. 

“They cried,” she said. 

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Nancy New: Civil case not about recouping misspent welfare money

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Nancy New defense: MDHS civil case not actually about recouping misspent welfare money

Nonprofit founder Nancy New and former welfare director John Davis, defendants in the ’s civil litigation over the misspending of millions of federal grant funds, have asked the court to stay the case until the criminal investigation concludes.

Mississippi Department of Human Services, the agency that administers welfare programs and is bringing the suit, is objecting against the stay, arguing that defendants are attempting to “avoid, or at least delay, liability for their actions.”

Now, the attorney representing New and her son Zach New is questioning the motives of the state agency, which was responsible for managing the funds in question, especially since it omitted at least one key recipient of improper welfare payments from the defendant list.

“Of course, MDHS would love nothing more than to rush this case through discovery with the cloud of criminal prosecution looming large, thereby muzzling witnesses who would reveal the depth of its wrongdoing,” wrote the ’ attorney Gerry Bufkin.

Both New and Davis have pleaded guilty to charges related to the welfare scheme and have agreed to aid officials in prosecuting other individuals “up the ladder,” District Attorney Jody Owens said after Davis’ plea hearing in September. They have not been sentenced.

Under the leadership of Davis and the politician who appointed him, former Gov. Phil Bryant, officials stole or wasted at least $77 million in federal grant funds, many of which flowed through Nancy New’s nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center to the pet projects of celebrities and politically connected figures. Some of the purchases were criminal while others simply violated federal spending regulations. Communication obtained by Mississippi Today reveals Bryant’s involvement in many conversations about the projects.

In its Oct. 11 response to the News’ motion to stay, MDHS shot back a fiery response to the defendants’ claims that the welfare agency is also responsible for the misspending.

“The New Defendants nevertheless seek to have the Court and the public absolve them of liability by pointing the finger back at MDHS, despite the fact that the New Defendants admit that they bribed MDHS’s Executive Director,” the filing reads. “But no public official or employee can approve fraudulent payments or waive statutory requirements. This strategy may generate media attention, but it is no legal defense to civil liability.”

Bufkin has argued his clients have already taken responsibility for their actions. But in response to the state Tuesday, he said the threat of an ongoing criminal investigation hinders the News from providing testimony in the civil case.

“The civil suit is the best opportunity the New Defendants have had in years to tell their story. The evidence will show that politicians, MDHS bureaucrats, and well-connected powerbrokers funneled tens of millions in welfare funds to pet projects in a series of sad and disturbing examples of TANF-flexibility gone wild,” Bufkin wrote. “The New Defendants look forward to telling their story, but unfortunately the opportunity is premature.”

Gov. Tate Reeves, who is overseeing the state’s civil , said in July that civil cases should come after parallel criminal cases.

In the civil case — filed more than two years after the state auditor’s initial findings — the state is attempting to recoup roughly $24 million from 38 individuals or companies that misspent or received improper welfare payments. 

“The aim of MDHS’s civil suit is the same as any civil tort case: to recover damages, whether through settlement or through obtaining and executing on a judgment. It is in the public’s best interest that MDHS do so without unnecessary delays,” MDHS argued in its response.

Bufkin argued delaying the civil litigation until the criminal cases have concluded is necessary “to ensure the thorough, complete and efficient discovery of one of the most sprawling and complex cases in Mississippi history.”

The single largest purchase within the misspending scandal is the $5 million in welfare money that Mississippi Community Education Center paid the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation to build a volleyball stadium at the university on behalf of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. MCEC also paid Favre’s company an additional $1.1 million, which texts indicate was also intended for the volleyball project, bringing the possible total to $6.1 million. Reeves’ office and the welfare agency chose not to include the athletic foundation as a defendant when it filed the complaint in May.

MDHS then terminated the private attorney it had contracted, former U.S. Attorney Brad Pigott, who spent a year crafting the case, after Pigott filed a subpoena on the athletic foundation in July. Pigott was attempting to examine the events surrounding the volleyball stadium project, including Bryant’s involvement.

“Not only has MDHS refused to pursue recovery of this $6.1 million in welfare funds, but it has actively thwarted its former counsel’s efforts to uncover facts related to the expenditure of these funds,” Bufkin wrote.

If the purpose of the state’s civil suit is to recover as much welfare money as possible, Bufkin questions why it would not pursue the single largest purchase, which has already resulted in a criminal conviction. Zach New pleaded guilty in April to defrauding the government by paying for the volleyball stadium construction under a sham lease agreement.

“MDHS argues it ‘aims’ to recover money damages, and, therefore, Defendants should not be concerned with allegations of criminality in the Complaint. Whatever motives lurk beneath the civil suit, in the post-termination of former counsel Brad Pigott era, the efficient recovery of welfare money is not one of them,” Bufkin wrote.

Current MDHS Director Bob Anderson answered questions about Pigott’s firing Tuesday during the Mississippi Legislative Democratic Caucus hearing on the scandal. He told lawmakers that the agency terminated Pigott because the attorney subpoenaed the athletic foundation without discussing the filing with him first and while he was out of town. Pigott did email a copy of the subpoena to a MDHS attorney before filing it, but Anderson said that was not sufficient notice as he was not copied on the email. Anderson also said that the agency felt that Pigott did not have the capacity to handle the breadth of the case, which includes hundreds of thousands of pages of discovery documents.

Bufkin also represents the nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, that Nancy New founded and ran alongside Zach New.

Bufkin stated in his Tuesday response that even though MDHS filed the complaint in May, it did not request discovery from the nonprofit until October. He also said MDHS has not produced documents that MCEC requested through discovery in August. The court will address several motions and filings in the case, including multiple subpoenas on Bryant, at a hearing in early 2023.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi judge blocks private schools’ tax-funded grants

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www.wxxv25.com – WXXV Staff – 2022-10-13 19:35:04

Judge
FILE – Chancery Judge Crystal Wise Martin listens as lawyer Rob McDuff, attorney for Parents For , presents arguments in a that says the violates its own constitution with a grant program for private schools, during a hearing in Jackson, Miss., Aug. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – A Mississippi judge has blocked a state law that put $10 million of federal pandemic relief money into infrastructure grants for private schools.

The ruling by Hinds County Chancery…

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Judge rules public funds to private schools is unconstitutional

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Judge rules public funds to private schools is unconstitutional

A judge ruled on Thursday that the giving $10 million in pandemic relief funds to private schools for infrastructure improvements is unconstitutional.

The Legislature passed the bills appropriating this money at the end of the 2022 session in early April, a move that frustrated some advocates and legislators. The funding comes from the (ARPA), which gave the Mississippi Legislature $1.8 billion to spend on pandemic response, government services, and infrastructure improvements to water, sewer, and broadband. 

The was filed by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Democracy Forward, and the on behalf of Parents for , a Jackson-based national nonprofit. Attorneys from these three parties argued that Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution prohibits allocating any public funds for private schools, making the money allocated earlier this year unconstitutional. They asked the court to block the state from enforcing the law. 

Section 208, the portion of the Mississippi Constitution in question, reads in its entirety: 

“No religious or other sect or sects shall ever control any part of the school or other educational funds of this state; nor shall any funds be appropriated toward the support of any sectarian school, or to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.” 

READ MORE: Lawmakers spent public money on private schools. Does it violate the Mississippi Constitution?

At the Aug. 23 hearing, attorneys for the state argued that because the Legislature appropriated the money to the Department of Finance and Administration to a grant program for private schools, instead of directly to those private schools, these laws did not violate the state constitution. 

The decision from Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Crystal Wise Martin clearly rebukes this argument, pointing out that Section 208 does not specifically name the legislature and that the prohibition on allocating public money to private schools is not limited to any specific government body. 

“The state cannot avoid compliance with our Constitution simply by delegating the power to disburse appropriated funds to an executive agency,” the order reads. 

Joann Mickens, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools, testified at the hearing that any public money spent on private schools hurts public school students due to the historic underfunding of public schools. 

Martin incorporated this argument into the order, pointing to the recent infrastructure issues facing the Jackson Public School District as a symptom of that underfunding. She also referenced the competition between private and public schools, and its subsequent impact on public school enrollment and funding, when granting a permanent injunction in the case, prohibiting the state from dispersing the $10 million. 

The ’s office did not indicate whether they would appeal this decision, with a spokesperson for the agency saying that they are “still evaluating the State’s next steps.”

When asked about a possible appeal by the state, Will Bardwell, an attorney with Democracy Forward, said that he hopes they will let the case rest but are prepared to fight if necessary. 

“The Mississippi Legislature has a long, sad history of undermining public schools,” Bardwell said. “I would like to believe that the attorney general would allow this chapter to end here and now, but that’s up to her. If they go forward, we will fight them every step of the way.”

Bardwell also added that this victory is broader than the specific circumstances of the case. 

“This case is about more than $10 million dollars in infrastructure grants,” he said. “The constitution says that no public money can be appropriated to private schools, and if courts can make an exception for $10 million dollars, then they can make an exception for anything. Judge Martin’s decision made clear that there are no exceptions in the constitution.” 

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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