Jay Shaw takes a deep breath as he stares down at the metallic sword on his office desk. Surrounded by work orders and other files, the makeshift weapon was just taken from an accused murderer who was about it use it during a fight.
It’s just another day on the job for the local correctional facility warden. It’s a job that not many are prepared to do. And the slim budget isn’t appealing to those brave enough to do it.
With ceiling tiles falling in and stained with footprints, the inmates are using the ceiling space as a labyrinth to move contraband. The fence surrounding the facility is scattered with repaired holes from outsiders cutting the fence to get in the jail. The cameras are either not working or so blurry that each image appears like a smudged fingerprint. Only one guard is walking the halls that house hundreds of inmates. And bolts shaved into knives and metal pieces contorted into swords are some of the inmates’ preferred communication.
This isn’t a jail found in the inner city. This is in your backyard. This is the Yazoo County jail.
Warden Jay Shaw gave The Yazoo Herald a look inside the facility he has been in charge of for the past two years. The answer to what could bring improvements to the local facility? “Money,” Shaw said, looking down at the shank. “We have to have the funds to do what we need to do. Our experienced officers are looking to work in Madison County, which pays $14 an hour. They are not going to come to Yazoo for $9.50 an hour.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average hourly wage for corrections officers in Mississippi is $14.83 an hour, which reports show is the lowest in the nation. Yazoo officers are paid $5.33 an hour less.
Shaw has been in the correctional field for close to two decades. He arrived at the Yazoo County Regional Correctional Facility two years ago. He understands the risks that come with the job. No matter where you are, the inner world of a prison system is filled with contraband, unruly inmates and daily obstacles.
But Shaw said the situation at the Yazoo jail is different. It’s more than uncertain. It’s dangerous.
“We are trying to go home every day,” he said. “We have families at home. Yes, we picked this career. But we have to be safe. I am just begging to give us what we need out here.”
There is a total of 342 inmates at the local facility, which houses both county and state inmates. But the number of guards working the zones are no comparison.
On Monday’s afternoon shift, the facility had one sergeant, a guard in the tower, a booking officer, one male guard walking the floors on the state side and one other male guard covering the county side. There was one guard working an entire pod filled with inmates. Some of those inmates are there for petty crimes. Some are there for murder. In fact, one inmate is accused of murdering at least five people.
The Yazoo Herald was given a tour of the facility. Surrounded by pods filled with inmates, one guard was working the floor.
“We have been this short-staffed since I got here two years ago,” Shaw said. “And I have asked for money in the budget to keep good help since I got here two years ago. The state contract would like for us to have a total of 43 employees, from administrators on down. But we don’t. For example, I had three employees call in today so I have one guard in the yard with the inmates. That means that no one is walking the floor.”
Shaw said he barely has time to handle his administrative duties because he is working the floors with his guards in an effort to alleviate the work load and increase safety.
“When we have a code red, which is an inmate on an officer, the other guard has to come assist in the other side,” Shaw said. “That means an entire side of inmates is left without a guard. And trust me, the inmates know that.”
Shaw said the outdated camera system is a major concern at the facility. Some cameras don’t even work. Some are so damaged that images appear like blobs on the screen.
“The cameras need to be high-definition,” Shaw said. “But it is not just that. It’s our lighting too.”
Shaw shows The Herald a photograph with an image circled with red ink. The dark shadow is a culprit outside the jail’s fence with contraband to sneak over. The lighting around the fence line is so bad that the shadow can barely be seen.
“When you see the federal prison at night, it looks like daytime over there,” Shaw said. “Out there, you can put your hand in front of your face, and you can’t even see it. It is so dark out here that an officer was hit in the head with contraband being thrown over the fence. He didn’t see the man throwing the contraband over, and the man throwing the contraband didn’t even see the guard.”
In an effort to keep culprits from cutting the fence, Shaw asked the county board to install razor wire along the ground. Contraband coming over the fence is the biggest problem at the jail, he said.
“They told me it cost too much,” he said. “Every time I have requested for more money, it has been denied. I asked for radios, which is our lifeline. If it wasn’t for (county emergency management director) Jack Willingham, I wouldn’t have radios. I answer to Sheriff Jacob Sheriff and MDOC, but when it comes to giving us more money in our budget, that is the county supervisors.”
Shaw said that is why he frequently appears before the county board to make requests, talk finances and explain the issues at hand. He and Sheriff both appeared to the county board last week with three shanks constructed from bolts about the length of your arm.
“We need to do something,” said Supervisor Willie Wright. “That’s dangerous.”
“But it is almost like it goes in one ear and out the other,” Shaw said, to The Herald. “I really wish they would see the problems we are having out here. I know that the county does what it can when it comes to roads and equipment. But we are begging for help. My guys work in Yazoo County, and they are keeping their money here. It is not like the federal prison with workers going back home all over the place. Even if you can’t put more money in our budget, allow me to pay overtime. These guys are literally out here in the dark, and we need some help.”