ACLU Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Mississipians Who Have Been Jailed Indefinitely without Being Indicted or Given Access to Counsel

Mississippi-StateSeal.svgBy Elaine Magliaro

Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a class action suit “against the Scott County (Mississippi) sheriff, district attorney, and judges…” The three organizations did so after learning that the Scott County Detention Center has been holding “people for as long as a year without appointing counsel and without indicting them.” The groups involved in the lawsuit claim that the “county’s practices violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments’ rights to counsel, to a speedy trial, and to a fair bail hearing.”

Excerpt from the ACLU’s press release:

“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. For those waiting for indictment, the county has created its own Constitution-free zone,” said Brandon Buskey, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “These prisoners’ cases are frozen, their lives outside the jail are disintegrating, and they haven’t even been charged with a crime. The county has tossed these people into a legal black hole.”

The ACLU said that Joshua Bassett, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, has been held in the detention center since January 16 of this year. He has been denied both an attorney and a grand jury hearing. Octavious Burks, another plaintiff, “has been in the jail since November 18, 2013.” Neither man could afford his bail. The ACLU added that “Mr. Burks has been through this ordeal twice before. Since 2009, he has been jailed in Scott County on three separate charges without indictment or counsel.”

The ACLU reportedly has evidence that many other individuals have also “been trapped in the Scott County Detention Center for months at a time because they couldn’t pay bail and, like Mr. Bassett and Mr. Burks, were denied counsel and a grand jury hearing.”

Why are some people wasting away in jail in Scott County—as well as in other parts of Mississippi? Because they have never been formally charged with a crime. The ACLU said that’s how it works in that state. The ACLU added, “No one gets a public defender until they’ve been indicted. In other places, this might not be a big deal. In Colorado, prosecutors have 72 hours after an arrest to formally indict someone. In Kansas, it’s two weeks. But in Scott County and throughout Mississippi, the wait could last forever. That’s because Mississippi doesn’t limit how long a prosecutor has to indict someone…”


The Constitution protects you from being arbitrarily imprisoned on a mere allegation. When you’re accused of a crime, you have a right to an attorney, even if you can’t afford one. You have a right to a speedy trial. Scott County cannot pretend as if the Constitution doesn’t apply in its courts. That’s why the ACLU yesterday filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Octavious and others trapped in the Scott County jail, demanding that local judges, sheriffs, and district attorneys change the way they do business.

Charlie Pierce (Esquire) said that—according to the ACLU’s complaint—this is how it works in Scott County, Mississippi:

…You get busted. You are poor. You are likely black, but this is not about race because nothing ever is about race. The judge in your case sets a bail figure far beyond your ability either to pay it, or to get someone to go your bond. You sit in jail. You declare yourself indigent. The judge fails to assign you legal counsel. You sit in jail. The judge and prosecutors don’t indict you. The judge says you can’t be indicted until you have a lawyer, which he has neglected to assign you. You sit in jail. Joseph Heller’s ghost comes to Mississippi and sues for copyright infringement.


Mississippi, Goddamn, Cont’d (Charles Pierce/Esquire)

ACLU Sues Scott County on Behalf of Mississippians Jailed Indefinitely Without Lawyer or Indictment (ACLU)

Burks, et al. v. Scott County, Mississippi (ACLU)

Three Years in a Cage. No Charges and No Lawyer. (ACLU)

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8 Responses to ACLU Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Mississipians Who Have Been Jailed Indefinitely without Being Indicted or Given Access to Counsel

  1. buckaroo says:

    Why not provide a qualified attorney to represent those involved ? Just asking ??

  2. James Knauer says:

    Meanwhile, Jim Crowe smiles in Hell.

  3. I don’t know if it is still the case in Scott County, but I once had a client sentenced to one year in jail there. Part way through his sentence, I was asked to go check on him. When talking to him, I discovered he was unaware of several major news events. That’s when I learned they were not allowed to read newspapers or magazines. Also, no TV. The only reading material they could have was the bible. That, and letters from their attorney and immediate family.

  4. pete says:

    this from wikipedia,_Mississippi

    In 2010 the Scott County Sheriff’s office opened a new state of the art correction facility. The facility can handle 150 prisoners. Incorporated also into the facility is a new sheriff’s office. The new sheriff’s provides offices for all administrative personnel as well as investigations offices

    you might be unlawfully detained, but you’re in a new jail.

  5. Pete,
    Almost anything would be an improvement over the old jail.

  6. Mike Spindell says:

    The criminal justice system is not only corrupt in its bias towards those of means and connections, but in its dealing with those whose have been arrested but not convicted. Inordinately long waits towards arraignments and then trials has routinely seen people in jail for long months and years with no trial.

    I summed up my thoughts here:

  7. Elaine M. says:


    Holder Backs Suit in New York Faulting Legal Service for Poor

    WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who last year declared a crisis in America’s legal-defense system for the poor, is supporting a class-action lawsuit that accuses Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State of New York of perpetuating a system that violates the rights of people who cannot afford to hire lawyers.

    The lawsuit claims that public defenders in New York are so overworked and overmatched that poor people essentially receive no legal defense at all. It describes a system in which indigent defendants navigate courts nearly alone, relying on spotty advice from lawyers who do not have the time or money to investigate their cases or advise them properly.

    Because of substandard legal aid, children are taken from their parents, defendants in minor cases are jailed for long periods and people are imprisoned for crimes for which they might have been acquitted, the civil rights lawyers who filed the suit said.

  8. Mike Spindell says:


    One of my wife’s cousins is a public defender in NYC. He is a wonderful person who certainly could earn more in private practice, yet he is socially committed and I admire him for it. In NY they have been way underfunding public defenders for years, which to me means the system is rotten and corrupt.

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