Lee County's consultant outlines major problems with county's current justice system

Taylor Vance, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo
·4 min read

Apr. 19—TUPELO — A consultant has put a nearly $80 million price tag on the construction of a comprehensive law enforcement complex — which includes a jail, administration and court facilities — that would replace the outdated Lee County Adult Jail.

Construction of a new jail facility alone — with 320 beds for the bulk of inmates and an additional 80 for inmates with specializes needs — could cost $50 million, jail operations consultant Tom Weber advised the Lee County Board of Supervisors on Monday.

New administrative offices for the sheriff could add an additional $18 million, with a new work release center, a morgue and court facilities driving the cost to $78 million in very early estimates. Weber emphasized that these are rough numbers and could change change based upon any final design decisions.

Hired last year by supervisors to study historic jail population numbers and forecast future trends, Weber ultimately exceeded his original scope of work and offered a bleak assessment of the local jail, which he called both outdated and inefficient.

Current jail can't be fixed, consultant says

Weber told the Lee County officials at their Monday meeting that the current jail — built in 1997 — does not meet modern-day standards and that the facility was poorly designed from the start.

Weber said he found serious problems with the jail, including an extremely high turnover rate among jail employees, insufficient administrative space, historic overcrowding and limited programming space.

"Your jail here is not safe," the Wisconsin-based consultant said. "Your jail here is a high risk to operate."

In a nearly two-hour presentation, Weber advised supervisors that comprehensive improvements to the county's justice system — including new facilities for some courts, the coroner and 911 dispatching — could be in order.

"As I was doing this, I was having conversations with everyone else, and lots of different officials from the justice system — not just the sheriffs office — were telling me about other needs that exist in Lee County," Weber said.

Weber later told the Daily Journal that while the estimates costs may alarm some Lee County taxpayers, he believes that a more effective facility can contribute toward the rehabilitation of offenders.

He also highlighted risks and hardships for the employees of the jail.

"It's difficult a lot of times to have compassion for offenders, but the staff that work in that jail are also doing a lot of time in that jail," Weber said. "They deserve better accommodations."

Supervisors eye next steps

The county next needs to hire an architectural firm to devise a master plan, specifically outlining which buildings will be constructed and where they will go, Weber recommended.

In response to the consultant's presentation and recommendations, supervisors offered a scattershot array of responses.

"It's inevitable that we build a jail," District 1 Supervisor Phil Morgan told the Daily Journal.

District 5 Supervisor Billy Joe Holland — the current Board of Supervisors president — has long been supportive of efforts to replace the current jail and sounded that theme again Monday.

"I'm a jail man, and I'm supporting a jail," Holland said. "I've been in that jail several times. I wouldn't want my dog working down there."

If supervisors agree to fund a multi-million dollar facility, a property tax increase would likely be required. Holland agreed that a price tag in the neighborhood of $80 million could stir some public backlash.

"That figure scares people to death," he said.

District 3 Supervisor Todd Jordan, who is also the Republican nominee for mayor of Tupelo, remained noncommittal on taking any substantive action on the jail.

"It appears we need something more than just maintenance at the jail," Jordan said. "I think it's something we need to look into."

District 2 Supervisor Mike Smith said he was still thinking about the information presented to the board and did not know how the county should proceed. He said he wanted to solicit input from his constituents and discuss the issue more with fellow supervisors.

"I guess we're going to have to get together and think about it," Smith said.

District 4 Supervisor Tommie Lee Ivy voiced the most serious objections, telling the Daily Journal that anything near $80 million is far too expensive.

taylor.vance@djournal.com