Northside state senator David Blount tours Parchman prisonBy WYATT EMMERICH,
The following is a report from Northside state senator David Blount on his tour of Parchman prison:
On Friday I joined a group of legislators led by Sen. Angela Turner Ford, Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, on a tour of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. At least eight people have died at Parchman in the past month; more than a dozen have died in Mississippi prisons this year. It is a crisis.
We met with the Superintendent of the prison who reports to the Commissioner of Corrections and to the Governor. We asked lots of questions, and he answered all of them in a straightforward manner. We were accompanied by MDOC staff and armed officers from the Special Operations Group of the Mississippi Highway Patrol / Department of Public Safety who have been on-site since the recent disturbances began.
In round numbers, Parchman houses about 2,700 inmates. About 900 are in Unit 29 -- the most dangerous offenders. Gov. Reeves has announced that he is closing this Unit. In January, the state (taxpayers) began paying a private prison in Tallahatchie County to house some of the inmates from Unit 29 on a temporary basis.
Only with the population of Parchman reduced by one-third (the most violent from Unit 29) would staffing be close to adequate. There are about 250 staff at Parchman to cover the penitentiary 24/7.
The pictures below do not show any scenes from within the walls or anyone incarcerated. We toured the hospital and psychiatric ward, which provides medical care to inmates in Parchman and from other MDOC facilities. We visited Unit 30, where 160 men sleep in one large room under the supervision of one MDOC staff officer. The starting pay for an officer is $24,000 a year.
We went inside the notorious Unit 29. We went inside blocks where inmates are one to a cell and another where two men share a cell. We saw two of the blocks that have been closed due to recent rioting and deaths. In one of those blocks 64 men from rival gangs or with no gang affiliation shared one room and slept on bunk beds. They were supervised by one officer.
We were told that the recidivism rate for men discharged from some of these blocks (those who are eligible to be discharged) is 100%.
It was a soul-wrenching day.
The problems with Mississippi’s correctional system are complex and demand a response. The crisis at Parchman and in our prisons is immense, but the real problem is even bigger than that. We need to re-think what prison is for (public safety and keeping violent and dangerous people out of society) and what are effective means of punishment and justice. Our prison system must meet a basic level of decency to which every person created in the image of God has a right. Victims of crime must have confidence that the system is fair.
We need to change our sentencing laws. Last week, The Clarion-Ledger reported that a man arrested on a misdemeanor charge was sentenced to 12 years in prison because he had a cell phone in jail. Mississippi has the third highest incarceration rate in the United States. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Is working? Is it just? How much do we want to spend on prisons and can we afford it? What do we want prisons to accomplish? What do we owe the innocent and what do the guilty deserve?
We need to provide an opportunity for education and rehabilitation for people who will be released back into society. We need to pay a competitive wage to attract and keep qualified officers who work in extremely challenging circumstances. There are people who are dangerous and need to be behind bars. It takes trained people and adequate facilities to keep them there.
The Legislature needs to do its job. Next year’s budget recommended by legislative leaders in December called for more budget cuts to MDOC. Already, the amount appropriated annually for corrections has been cut more than $20 million from five years ago. Increasing tax cuts will put further strains on the budget. In the past, the Legislature did not exercise sufficient oversight of the system.
The Governor needs to appoint a capable leader of MDOC. We will need the Governor’s support to make the big systemic changes that are needed.
The people of Mississippi need to hold the elected leadership of our state accountable. Like it or not, our criminal justice system and our prison system are top issues before the Mississippi Legislature. Now is the time to demand change.