New Jail in Mississippi is High-Tech, Rock Solid

The new Jackson County jail is a labyrinth of cell groupings that cluster around control rooms, which in turn form pods with the master control room over all the pods.

by Karen Nelson, The Sun Herald / August 13, 2015
(TNS) -- It's all about control.

The new Jackson County jail, set to open Oct. 1, has a master control room that will oversee control rooms, self-contained cells with individual locks and new ways to keep inmates contained and in place.

Very compartmentalized, the new jail -- which looks more like a state-of-the-art prison inside -- is 104,000 square feet. It's a labyrinth of cell groupings that cluster around control rooms, which in turn form pods with the master control room over all the pods.

From that central brain of the jail, control operators will be able to lock or unlock doors, cordon off hallways and even adjust air conditioning in a single cell -- or shut a shower off if needed.

There are a few traditional visitor rooms with glass partitions. But the plan is to have inmates schedule video chats with family members who can either come to the visiting room and log in or visit from a laptop at home. The inmates would chat from their pod's day rooms. Video chats would be monitored, but there is still a private room for meetings with attorneys.

"One of the positives is minimum inmate movement," said Capt. Michael Wright, director. "It keeps everyone safer."

To that end, there's also a built-in infirmary, dental office and virtual courtroom.

Doesn't look like a jail

The metal exterior forms a skin over a steel-girder-and-cement-block interior. It's a $27.6 million project, years in the making, but only about 1½ years in actual construction. Elevated to avoid storm surge, it's sitting on 818 cement pilings augered 60 feet into the ground. There will be no evacuation for hurricanes.

It's a shelter in itself, said project manager Jeff May with Michael Baker.

The price tag includes furnishings and, so far, it's coming in under budget.

The annual operating cost will be more than $8 million, not including the electric bill. Some of the costs to operate it will be a wait-and-see proposition. But initially, 12 additional deputies will be hired.

County Administrator Brian Fulton said the building's increased efficiency will make up for some additional cost and because of the design, increases in inmate population won't require more staff.

Law enforcement is excited

The kitchen, equipped to feed 750, is five to 10 times larger than the current one, which was designed in the 1970s to feed 70 inmates.

Wright has swapped one maintenance position for an IT wizard who will keep the electronics and technology running smoothly. The control-room panels display the touch-screen floor plan of what might be an elaborate video game, but it's no game.

There are isolation areas for difficult inmates and special cells and stations in the booking area.

The jail's interior has no windows to the outside. There will be no outside exercise yard.

There are frosted skylights in day rooms that let in natural light and vents in the indoor activity yards so inmates can get fresh air, but not see out.

Recreation will be scheduled all day.

The average stay at the county jail currently is 27 days, down from 101. On Wednesday, there were 260 inmates next door at the old jail, but when the new jail opens, the number is expected to increase. There were times in recent years when the ill-equipped old jail was overflowing with 500.

At those times, the county put inmate beds on the floors in hallways and tacked on temporary buildings to handle the less rowdy.

The new jail's interior has undergone a battery of security testing, Wright and others said.

No one will be able to tunnel out through the shower.

Training has already begun for the staff and as finishing touches are added to each cell, it's checked off and locked.

"It's buildings inside a building. It doesn't even look like a jail," Wright said. "We're excited. We've been told it's one of the most technologically advanced facilities in the Southeast."

©2015 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.