Yearning to break free

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This man wants to “help you break free.” For several inmates in Mississippi and Alabama, that’s been a do-it-yourself project.

One of the worst local TV commercials in heavy rotation – it’s too difficult to narrow them down to just one, which is a blog post for another day – is for a criminal defense lawyer who cares deeply about helping you beat the rap if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the law in northeast Mississippi.

Even when you consider the sleaziness that’s to be expected from ambulance chasers, this ad takes the genre to a new, sub-basement level. Kerry M. Bryson, of the Bryson Law Firm right here in Tupelo, is so committed to helping you avoid the ignominy and perpetual unemployability wrought by a criminal record (or as he puts it, good people who find themselves in “unfortunate situations”) that he winds down his 30-second pitch by declaring that he wants to “help you break free.” He stands just outside the perimeter fence of what appears to be the Lee County Jail, brandishing a bolt cutter for added subtlety.

In the nearly six months I’ve spent in the Magnolia State, I’ve seen numerous examples of individuals here and in neighboring Alabama whose desire for freedom was so strong that by sheer force of will and the desperation of those with nothing left to lose, they achieved it without Mr. Bryson’s help, if only temporarily. Jail breaks, most commonly from county facilities or local lockups, are a staple of local news. 

The most recent one happened Friday night in Starkville, home to Mississippi State University. The escapee had been convicted just last week in a 2016 home invasion in which he and an accomplice tied up a man with shoelaces, beat him, locked him inside a closet, and then raped a woman. He liberated himself from the Oktibbeha County Jail at around 8:30 p.m. after worming his way through an exhaust fan in a shower ceiling, traversing a crawl space and the attic, then walking down the stairs to the sheriff’s office and casually exiting, no big deal. He had made it to a house in Okolona, less than 50 miles away, by the time authorities captured him the next morning.

In March, a burglar and a child pornographer joined forces to escape the Marion County Jail in northwest Alabama after overpowering a guard. Thanks to eight other people who were eventually charged with aiding and abetting them, they enjoyed a longer stretch of freedom, although at one point they apparently split up. One of them was caught four days later, but it took authorities nearly two weeks to catch up with the other one because, shockingly, “no one is really cooperating to the fullest percent, ‘cause they wanna call and say he’s been here but he’s already left by the time we get there,” the sheriff told WTVA.

Equipment failure, and possibly employee laziness or incompetence, emboldened three men to bust out of the Prentiss County Jail in June and steal a truck, setting off a manhunt in Mississippi and Alabama. One was apprehended within hours, while the other two enjoyed an additional day or two on the outside. The sheriff noted that a lightning strike disabled the jail’s surveillance cameras, control board, and locking mechanism. Two guards resigned after the escape.

The award for farthest distance traveled goes to two men who broke free from the Tishomingo County Jail, also in June. They forced open an outside door, scaled the fence, ran along the nearby railroad tracks, and made it all the way to Las Vegas over a week’s time, stealing cars just outside the jail, in Kansas City, and Vegas along the way. To add insult to injury for the county, this occurred a month after another escape involving a different inmate who was gone for about six days. A jailer who had performed a headcount the night of the escape but didn’t bother to report the missing inmate until the following morning was fired.

In the aftermath of the latest jailbreak, it finally occurred to county officials to trim an overgrowth of trees and brush at the rear of the property that provided an all too convenient hiding place for escapees and couriers of contraband. The sheriff also noted problems inherent in the prison’s construction — it’s a “fiberglass building with steel doors” – and having the building next to a train line. “Being next to the railroad tracks, the ground shakes and it has vibrated things loose over the years,” he told the Daily Journal.

I’m sure there will be plenty more of these escapades before the year is over. I suppose one thing I can take comfort in is that, even if the authorities don’t always excel at keeping these upstanding citizens behind bars, they manage to catch them eventually. But maybe if Kerry Bryson (I give him credit not to be pompous enough to use “Esq.” after his name) rethought his commercial’s imagery, that might be one less source of encouragement.

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