With No Freedom in Sight, Illegally Jailed Inmates in Mississippi Demand Answers
Octavius Burks has been locked in jail for three years. He has not been charged. He is still waiting for an attorney. He is still waiting to find out why this is happening to him—for the third time in as many years. Several other people in the same jail, caged indefinitely, are wondering the same thing.
The one shared fact among their cases is that they live in Scott County, Mississippi.
Officials in Scott County have illegally allowed those incarcerated to languish in jail, in some cases for years, without being charged, waiting indefinitely for trial or counsel, in an unconstitutional policy that might be occurring throughout the state, according to a lawsuit (pdf) filed by the ACLU on Tuesday.
“Octavious has spent over three years of his life locked in a cell without ever being formally charged—let alone found guilty—of a crime,” said Brandon Buskey, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project attorney. “That’s how it works in Scott County: No one gets a public defender until they’ve been indicted… Mississippi doesn’t limit how long a prosecutor has to indict someone, even if that someone is wasting away in jail.”
These practices violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee rights to counsel, a speedy trial, and fair bail hearings, the ACLU charges.
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“This is indefinite detention, pure and simple. Scott County jail routinely holds people without giving them a lawyer and without formally charging them for months, with no end in sight,” Buskey said after filing the lawsuit. “For those waiting for indictment, the county has created its own Constitution-free zone.”
Burks and other plaintiffs, like Joshua Bassett, face additional challenges: they cannot afford to pay their bail.
Judge Bill Freeman, who presided over Burks’ case, set the 37-year-old poultry plant worker’s bail at $30,000 “without any individualized hearings or consideration of bail factors,” the lawsuit states. Although the court approved Burks’ application for a public defender, who might have been able to help lower his bail, no attorney was ever appointed to him in the 10 months that have passed since his arrest.
Burks was arrested for attempted armed robbery, possession of a weapon by a felon, disorderly conduct and possession of paraphernalia. Bassett, who is waiting for help in the same county jail, was arrested for grand larceny and possession of methamphetamine, with his bond set at $100,000.
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