July 19, 2014 10:45:38 PM
TUPELO -- When 13 women were arrested for prostitution in Tupelo in June the Lee County Jail had to act quickly to move temporary bedding into the women's detention area and create new spaces where female inmates could be housed.
When the jail was built in 1997, there was a very small need for female inmate beds but due to a rise in female prison populations beginning in the early 2000s, the women's dormitory has stayed mostly full and large influxes force jail staff to get creative. Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said there has been a 50 percent increase in his administration compared to previous administrations, "and you can't stretch concrete."
The rise is not just in Lee County. Local, state and national detention facilities have seen larger female populations in recent years.
The number of incarcerated women in Mississippi prisons has grown by a third since 2001 and at one point, in 2008, had grown by 44 percent with a peak of 2,538 women incarcerated in Mississippi prisons, according the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Nationally, the number of women in prison increased from 15,118 to 112,797 between 1980 and 2010.
The Lee County Jail can hold around 200 prisoners at any time but that doesn't mean any inmate can be put in any of the 200 beds. Populations have to be segregated in order to maintain inmate safety and meet jail guidelines.
"One cell with two beds doesn't mean I can hold two prisoners," said Johnson. "If I have a female and a male, I have to split them and I'm using two beds on one prisoner. You have to separate sex, violent from non-violent, sick from not-sick."
Jail administrators can use past admissions to help plot where to place future inmates but when a female dormitory was built to house only 20 women, only so many temporary beds can be added to accommodate the growing population.
Johnson said he would move the women into one of the larger dormitories inhabited by male inmates but since those dormitories also stay full there would be nowhere to put the men.
"The men's housing units have 35 beds in each," Johnson said. "You would have to completely move all 35 prisoners somewhere else first and there is no somewhere else. I would have to be down 35 male prisoners before I could move the women. In the last 15 years that's never been the case."
Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar said shortly after he took office in 2000 he had to begin repurposing space for female inmates.
"We had to actually switch zones in our housing unit," Tolar said. "Our women's zone had 10 beds in it and when (the female population) got into the 20s we had to switch around how our zones were designated."
The new zone, previously used for other male populations, has 19 beds.
Johnson and Tolar both said the large and steady increase in the female prison population also offers a different set of inmate care obstacles. Johnson has multiple pregnant women in his jail and said he has had to send a detention officer to the hospital to wait with the inmate in recent weeks.
To help with female inmate care and liability concerns, Johnson and Tolar keep plenty of women on staff and make sure to schedule female correctional officers for each shift.
In Lee County, most two-guard shifts in the guard tower and at the booking desk consist of a male and female. Tolar said he also schedules at least one woman per shift to make sure any sensitive or high-liability situations can be handled properly.
Reducing liability with the growing population of women is a major concern for jail administrators with the Sentencing Project reporting women in prison are more likely than men to be victims of staff sexual misconduct.
The sheriffs also said they have to attend more often to mental and medical problems with female prisoners, a claim backed up by a Sentencing Project report which shows nationally women are 59 percent more likely than men to have chronic and/or communicable medical problems. The same study showed almost three quarters of women in state prison in 2004 had symptoms of a current mental health problem compared to 55 percent of men.
At each level the majority of women are incarcerated for drug and property crimes. Tolar said they see mostly drug and drug-motivated property crimes as the cause for incarceration in female inmates and because of that they rely on the Drug Court to help rehabilitate the women and keep the jail population lower.
Not every jail is experiencing the uptick, Marshall County Sheriff Kenny Dickerson said his jail averages three to five female inmates per month, lower than the eight or nine seen when the jail was constructed in 1999.
Johnson and Tolar said a large population of female prisoners was not a concern when their jails were being built over a decade ago but moving forward the female housing unit and female inmate care will be a much larger part of a jail construction conversation.
Tolar said if he were building a new jail today, he would ask for more female bed space, a larger female staff and more dedicated mental health beds for male and female inmates. Johnson said the female population has been a large part of his ongoing conversation in building a new jail facility for Lee County.
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