On his first day at work as the sheriff of Hinds County, Victor Mason found the door to his new office locked, and no one could find the keys.
"As funny as it sounds, I told somebody to go upstairs and get a house burglar," Mason joked, referring to the downtown jail, which the Hinds County Sheriff's Office runs. In the end, he thought better about using a prisoner and called a locksmith. The point Mason—who did have prisoners repaint the office, which had water damage—was making about the jail is this: "There are some talented people in this building."
Mason, 59, took over from Sheriff Tyrone Lewis on Dec. 30, becoming the second African American to serve as the top law-enforcement officer in the state's largest county by population.
But Mason's work had already begun. With Hinds County finalizing a settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that will require the county to improve conditions at both the downtown jail and the Raymond Detention Center, Mason received special permission to sit in on the talk before taking the oath office.
Arguably, problems with the jail over the years, which include a number of prisoner escapes, riots and prisoner-on-prisoner violence, cost Sheriff Lewis the election. Mason knows he will also be judged on how he manages the jail, which he says involves more than keeping cell doors locked.
Mason started his law-enforcement career with the Jackson Police Department, and worked for the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, JPD's vice and narcotics, intelligence and youth divisions. Before running for sheriff, he worked as an investigator for the Mississippi attorney general's office.
Sitting at a desk stacked with general orders to his on-deputy deputies on issues ranging from sexual harassment to the Mississippi flag controversy—"Keep your mouth closed," he said—Sheriff Mason discussed his policies on police chases and his plans for boosting morale, lowering staffing shortages, educating incarcerated kids and putting the talents of prisoners to work.
How did you prepare after becoming the presumptive sheriff?
I started organizing on my own. I was having meetings with potential staff. We knew what we needed to do on the first day.
Your transition had to take place off site.
We did our own transition, and we hit the ground running hard. ... My first day was meeting the staff, not only in Raymond but also here in Jackson at the detention center, because you know that the jail in Raymond is my pet peeve.
The person I have in place now is my jail administrator, Mary Rushing. She and I had meetings with the entire staff. I told them what I was expecting, and I told them to tell me what they were expecting. The thing was more training and the right to protect themselves. One of the biggest things was to try to get more people in that facility.
We're still running at a high shortage right now. As it stands, we're trying to get more males because there are a lot of females down there. We're very short-staffed.
The county got special permission from the U.S. Department of Justice to let you participate in the negotiations for the coming consent decree. What do you now know about what it takes to run the jail that you didn't know before?
You have to have somebody (in charge) that's certified and competent in running the jail. You can't just go out here and pick somebody you know to sit behind a desk and execute plans to run a big jail like that. What (DOJ was) looking for and what I was looking for is somebody who's been certified in all facets of jail procedure and monitoring.
She's in place now?
Yes, she started day one. She was a former employee here so she knew exactly what to do. We've been classifying because we hadn't been classifying the inmates. We're getting the pre-trial detainees moved, and I have meetings set up now with (Mississippi) Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher to see if we can possibly get our state inmates back.
What do you mean by classifying?
You have a jail with gang members. We've got to separate them to keep down violence. Then you have those that are in jail for this crime or that crime. Then you have juveniles. We're trying to get them out of there, too. They have no business (being) mixed with the big boys.
What's the youngest age group in the jail now?
I went in the cell with him, and I talked to him. I think the youngest I saw was 15 or 16, for a felony crime.
What needs to happen next?
They have to be classified. That's what we're doing now—looking over their charges, looking over their ages. They have to be separated, and a lot of them need to be at the youth detention center, depending on the crimes.
That's a problem of the physical space at the jail?
Well, yeah. One of the (housing) pods is still not operable. Pod A is still not operable, but they're working on it now. It should be complete within a week. As I've said, I've been going down there every other day and making sure the work is coming along because we need the space. We've got to have the space because when you think about it, everybody uses our jail—the surrounding municipalities use our jail. Jackson, Clinton, Bolton and everybody else. Then there are outside agencies. We have a fantastic warrants division, and they go get people back. So we need the space.
When it comes to running the jail, the district attorney's office, private attorneys, judges, the board of supervisors are involved and the sheriff's office is the traffic cop. How do you see yourself making sure all those parts work smoothly?
My role is to, first of all, keep costs down. Medical costs—that's your biggest cost. You also have to look at the safety of the inmates. You have ones who have been in there without any type of preliminary hearing. You've got to move them out of there. That's when the dialogue comes with the district attorney's office: How long has this guy been in here? Let's do something. Before long, judges are going to start releasing them. I've had meetings with the district attorney, and they have been good meetings. I've offered special investigators to move these cases expeditiously. We don't want anybody sitting in jail over 90 days that's not even been looked at. I've offered to him: Anything you need, I'll give it to you.
If there's a guy in jail who's been there 91 days and hasn't been to the grand jury, what will do you, personally, as sheriff?
We have a system in place where we notify the DA and the (assistant district attorneys) and other agencies. We have a liaison over there where we are now starting to talk and say: 'Here they are, I've got to have the space. Let's get him on the docket, let's move him on.
Does the sheriff have the statutory authority to release people who have been at the jail too long?
He really doesn't, but my thing is this: I'm just letting them know.
That you'll release people ...
According to the judges, yeah. I've had a couple of judges tell me they're going to review all the arrests and all these cases, and their thing is if they're here too long, they're going to start RORing them—releasing them on their own recognizance.
How do you keep medical costs down when staff can't make medical decisions for prisoners?
We try to keep what we can down to a minimum. If any an inmate is sick, we have to take him to a medical facility. If it's deemed that we can't treat him (at the jail), we have to take him. If you have an inmate who's going to be here 12 days, why buy a bottle of 30 pills? We have a system (that) we're monitoring that with the insurance people. If an inmate needs to go to Whitfield, then we go ahead and do what we need to do with that.
There's no room at Whitfield.
No, not right now. The only thing we can do is keep them in isolation.
That's not unique to this jail or any jail, but it's something the sheriff's department been dealing with. How do you handle the challenges of mental illness in the jail?
It's tough. As you said, Whitfield doesn't have the space. The only thing we can do is see to it that that person is comfortable and taken care of. I ran across a guy the another night—I was taking a tour—this young man is in jail for two homicides. I've talked to him, and he said They're supposed to be taking me to Whitfield.' All we can do is keep him comfortable and keep him fed until they say bring him on. I can't turn him loose.
We hear things about medical issues going untreated for a variety of reasons—because staff is unsure whether they're actually sick or because they can't been seen by medical staff.
We tell (staff) don't ignore them because it may be a problem. The last thing I want is an inmate that complained about his chest hurting and somebody giving him some Rolaids, and we later find out it was a heart attack. So whatever the complaint is, go ahead and see to the complaint. You have to do it. By law, you have to do it. When an inmate is brought in here, we make it plain and clear that you interview him on the entrance interview: Do you have any medical problems, whether you have a cold or asthma, and it's noted on the sheet. We're held accountable for that.
During your campaign, you said you want to perform a formal evaluation of the jail. Is that still your plan, or will the Justice Department report stand as that assessment?
I'm doing it on my own. Of course, we have to go by the DOJ's report because they'll have to report monthly on what we're doing, but I'd rather do it on my own. If I see anything wrong or irregular, that's when I report it to my jail administrator.
Very good because we're hands on. I've told my people that I want them walking and talking. I look at us as a different group. We're so personal. Don't get me wrong, when I went in there the other night, a lot of those guys knew me because I went to school with their parents. The only complaint they had was it's a little cold, and they wanted mattresses. They got mattresses the next morning. So you can't neglect them. You have to take care of them.
Why is that important?
Because they're human. Yes, they may be inmates, but they're still people. When you have a guy saying 'I'm cold,' you give him the tools to get through the night.
Are deputies still filling in shifts there?
No, sir. We need them on the road. Right now, we're trying to fill that jail up with men. In fact, we're hiring five today.
It was either Judge Green's order or the DOJ that said to use deputies to fill in shortages.
I have a problem putting road deputies down there. Don't me wrong, we will be flexible, but when I need them on the road to protect the citizens of Hinds County, I need them on the road.
Considering the staffing difficulties over the years, how is marketing the job of detention officer? How did you get five guys to apply?
We had more than that. It's just that I want them on board now. We had a lot of people apply. I don't know how they did it. We had people who were dispatchers who applied. I wanted to see the hole that was in the wall. They've done some fantastic work there. They have system where if even if they got out, they have Plexiglas on the front window where even if they busted the glass, they have bars outside the actual cages where they still couldn't get out.
Is that a temporary solution?
That's permanent. I try to make my rounds myself. I went inside the cell and talked to about seven guys. They got to know me, and I got to know them. The thing was, OK, we're not going to tear up this jail. ... One guy admitted that we would get angry, and I put a cup in the toilet and flushed the toilet. I asked him why, and he said they asked for this and that and never got it. So they were acting like spoiled children. We have a system now, and they know they can't tear up my jail because if you mess it up, you mess it up for all of us.
During your campaign, you also said that you would no longer patrol in the city of Jackson. Are you sticking with that plan?
That's JPD's domain. Chief (Lee) Vance and I had a meeting, and the agreement is: We will assist you. If you need us, call us. If you go through this town now, you won't see any of us in this town, and that's because this is JPD's domain, and I'm not here to take over. We have a unit called civil process, and they serve summonses all over the Hinds County, including the city of Jackson. We have a narcotics unit, but you don't know them because they're in plain clothes. We have a warrants division, but as far as roadblocks in the city. We need them in the county. That's another thing I did, moved patrol (division) from the Metrocenter back to Raymond where we were.
How did Chief Vance take the news that the sheriffs would no longer double up patrols?
Very well. In fact, our SWAT teams are still together, so that's not going to change. We hire people to patrol the county. We're county police. We're not city police.
You don't believe that helping Jackson police, especially in hot spots, can keep crime down in the county as well?
I'm not against that. As I said, when you have small towns like Raymond, they only have limited resources. We have towns like Bolton—they only have limited resources, so during periods at a time in Bolton, for example, if it wasn't for (the sheriff's office), you may have one or two patrolmen to cover that whole area. Our job is to assist them in patrolling that area because they're rural.
What crime trends are you seeing in the county?
Mostly house burglaries. I've instructed all my people to be as aggressive as you need to be when it comes to policing. Be seen. Get out the car. Go into businesses. Go to houses and let folks know you're there. At night, shine a light. Wave at them. And they're doing it.
Overall, is there an upward or downward trend? In Jackson, crime is down—are we seeing any correlation with county crime?
It's still early for me. This is my second week, but I'm hearing that people are very satisfied. We did a checkpoint in Terry last week, and a couple came through and thanked my guys for being there. I like hearing that. I get calls all the time—we see you guys, thank you. So again, I've given them the go-ahead to be as aggressive in prevention as you can be.
You mentioned training earlier. What are deputies asking for?
Taser training. In fact, the gentleman that told you to come in, he's over the court system, and he's getting Taser training for his people. I've instructed my training staff to have something every month, not just for us, but civilians also. I get women ask me all the time, 'Do you have any self-defense training?' They're going to crank up around April. We have a part-time academy, and we're trying to get the firearms range back up. Part of my promise during my campaign was to have training not just for us but for the public as well.
The department doesn't already have Tasers?
We do. I don't know why they weren't issued, but I went down there last week and saw (a) wall full of them. Why aren't they being used? They're about to crank them up now. In this environment, this climate, we have to be vigilant. Although law enforcement now are targets all over this country, I have vowed not to let any of my people be disrespected, much less harmed. In my first meeting with all shifts, I let them know to pick your choice of what you want, pepper spray or Taser. It's up to you. I can't have a female going into a cell block by herself with 35 men. That's a big no-no. But if she's trained to use a Taser or pepper spray, I wont feel as skittish. Keep in mind, we're still short staffed, and we have a lot of women who work there, and that worries me.
Do the deputies feel that they're a target? And how do you balance aggressive policing with offering good customer service to citizens?
I've had meetings with all shifts. They say all they want to do is their jobs. I tell them don't be afraid to do your job because you took oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Now, we're going to think outside the box but not outside the law. I'm not going to have people abused.
I know that now is not like it was in the early '80s. We're dealing with people that are on spice (and) crack. We're dealing with people that just have attitude. We have to go with the flow, but I'm not going to have my officers disrespected or hurt. People have to realize we're the county boys; we're going to get our respect back.
You describe your leadership as hands on. What are you doing day-to-day?
Well, I'm not a micromanager. My day-to-day activities consist of going out and (saying) hi to the guys, patting them on the back, going upstairs and checking on the detention centers, walking around, touching everybody. Micromanaging to me is taking it personally. If you can do your job and can do it well, I ask for three things—don't embarrass me ... this county ... and don't embarrass yourselves.
It sounds like you're still putting your command staff together.
I am. They are all on a 90-day grace period. It's about business. It's not about friendship. If I feel like you're not up to my par, I'm going to replace you.
Who's your deputy chief?
Cheryl Matory—she's No. 2 in command.
Do you have a public-information officer?
You're looking at him.
Really? What if there's an emergency and the media needs information ...
Call me. I'll give you my numbers.
So how do you plan to communicate with the public?
On my Facebook page; I do the weekly update. Every Saturday, you can look at it. As I've told other media outlets, we're not hiding anything. You know as well as I know, in some departments, things are controlled. Eventually, you're going to find out the truth, so just be up front with it. There are occasions, if I find corruption in this place, and I feel that it is an ongoing thing, I'll tell you it's a personnel matter.
Will you do a version of Comstat for reporting crime stats?
We have what I call staff development. I'm bringing on an analyst to compile everything that we do.
Will the department continue using the text-messaging alert system?
We're reevaluating that right now because some people say it worked, some people say it didn't. In fact, I met with the (emergency-operations center) director because you know we're going to a new radio system.
What other changes are you proposing?
Everybody who's hired will go through our background investigation.
Is that mainly for prospective detention-center staff?
It's really for all employees, but mainly them because I don't know what's going on now (as) you and I speak. There could be a bottle of Hennessey being passed over the fence by officer so-and-so. Later on, when the inmate gets mad, he's going to tell. Well, I needed to know that day. If you have a shady background, we'll know about it.
What will be a red flag in someone's background?
A felony or several misdemeanor arrests.
You don't look at that now?
We're just looking at it now. We all make mistakes, but why should I hire you if you have an arrest in grand larceny? Why should I hire you if you want to apply for the evidence and you know what's back there—dope, cash, guns, TVs. It makes no sense, so we want to hire the clean, the lean and the mean.
To what extent will you be able to bring educational programs into the jail?
I just got a commitment from Cade Chapel the other day, where we're going to have teachers taking these juveniles back to school.
Taking them where?
To Raymond. We have a school down there.
Who runs it?
No one now. Under the (Malcolm) McMillin administration, George Smith was the head of it. There were 15 or 16 boys in there. After he left, the new administration came in and nothing else (happened).
What funding will you need?
What funding do you need if people ask you, 'Can I teach?' There was no funding. George was the only one getting paid, and he was over the whole school. He had an assistant, but she didn't get a big salary. Like I said, we got a commitment from Cade Chapel. We're going to get all our churches involved. You have retired instructors at home right now who are scratching at the door (asking), 'Can I come help with your program?'
Is that only for juveniles?
For now, yes. But an inmate painted this office. We have some talented people in this building. The first day, I couldn't get in my office. As funny as it sounds, I told somebody to go upstairs and get a house burglar.
We called a locksmith, but like I said, there are some talented people in this building.
I think the president talked about re-entry programs in his State of the Union speech. You've got so many of these folks sitting in jail for months, sometimes years at a time.
One of the things I've been thinking about is picking out these guys who have these talents and putting them in a program. My barber has his own business, but there are just two of them. What I discussed with him is, why don't I start with four guys who are good at cutting hair? If they can pass our program, he said he would take two of them to run his shop so he can take a day off.
I'll sign off on it: Putting these guys to work. Putting money in their pocket. Putting pride in their kids' hearts so they can say my daddy is a barber and not a convict. I'm looking at a lot of stuff right now.
What would you say is your mandate?
Yesterday, I went to the (gubernatorial) inauguration. and I was sitting on the platform with everybody. Before I could get out of there, people were coming up to me saying, 'We want to work with you, what can we do to help you?' We're talking about the agriculture commissioner to the corrections commissioner. I'm looking to open the door to all these people. I want help. I'm not going to turn anybody away.
When I can get a solution to solving our juvenile problem with volunteer, then I've done my job. Having a young man work when he gets out this jail, that's my long-term goal right now. Not everybody who's in jail is a bad person. They just made a mistake and got caught, and if you sit and listen to some of them, they did it to feed their families. I'm not talking about going out here and robbing a bank, but for the guys that went to the store and put a steak under his coat, he was hungry. People make mistakes. They're going to continue to making them.
What's your policy on hot pursuits?
My policy is if it's someone who committed a murder, let's get him. Now, if we're going into another agency, that supervisor has to make sure ... [phone rings]. That was MHP (Mississippi Highway Patrol). They want to work with us. If it's a piece of bubble gum, there's always tomorrow.
I have a zero tolerance when it comes to us getting the bad guy who just took a life. If he just took a tricycle from Walmart, come on, that's not
Is that also your policy within Hinds County?
Yes. We just adopted a procedure. We're adopting a lot of policies now.
Elections are obviously referendums, but the next one is four years away. How do you want people to measure your success? How will you measure success for yourself and the department?
I want them to look at me as fixing what was broken. I want them to look at me as the guy who came and had lunch. I want them to look at me as Andy from Mayberry—he just walks the street and talks to people.
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Update: After this story was published Sheriff Victor Mason said through a representative that he incorrectly stated that Hinds County Detention Center Mary Rushing is not a sworn officer. Mason said Rushing is a sworn certified officer. Mason added: "I do apologize and wanted to correct this and make it perfectly clear. Thank you Warden Rushing for your leadership and dedication to the Hinds County Detention Center. We appreciate you!"