State leadership acknowledges depth of prison problems

By WYATT EMMERICH,

Mississippi House Speaker Phillip Gunn said recently that “Corrections is the most pressing issue we have now.”

Governor Tate Reeves said in his inauguration address “it means cleaning up corrections—to provide for the safety of our citizens and the human dignity of all within the system.”

For years I have been clanging the alarm about the disaster in our prisons. It’s heartening to see our state leaders acknowledging the awful situation. Let’s hope they can figure out what to do.

Two years ago, several prison reform groups sued the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) in federal court. The trial went on for weeks.

I realized the trial would be an amazing opportunity to see inside our prisons. I don’t have much excess time, but I spent dozens of hours in Jackson’s downtown federal building listening to testimony. I was appalled.

I wrote at the time, plain and simple, that two Chicago-based gangs: The Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples are running our prisons. MDOC denied it.

Two years later, nobody is denying this awful truth. Mississippi Today, the Clarion-Ledger and Jerry Mitchell’s Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting have written excellent in-depth stories chronicling the horrible conditions of our prisons. We are moving backwards.

Back before Facebook and Google sucked all the ad dollars out of the traditional news industry, the federal trial would have been covered by a half-dozen reporters. They would have covered every minute of testimony.

As it was, I was usually the only reporter there. The Jackson Free Press showed up quite frequently. The Associated Press was in and out. But in general, the coverage was a shadow of what it once would have been. This is a sad state of affairs.

In other words, back in the day when we had twice as many reporters, back in the day when the Clarion-Ledger had 150 reporters, many with the time and freedom to do in depth reporting, the prison situation could never have gotten so bad.

Anyone who knows me, knows I favor efficient, limited government and free market solutions. But there are certain aspects of a civil society that the government simply must maintain. A functioning, fair legal system is probably at the top of the list. Without law and order, our society descends into chaos.

Prisons are the ultimate enforcement tool of law and order. If government loses control of its prisons, it loses control of law and order and it loses control of society. That’s where we are.

Nobody intended it to be this way. It was simply benign neglect. One Republican theory of government is to “starve the beast” as a means of controlling out-of-control government growth. But starving the prison beast didn’t make the problem shrink. The beast got hungry and broke its leash and is now running wild. It will be a much longer, harder and more expensive journey to get it back under control.

During the federal trial I was amazed that I never saw a single state leader in the gallery. Here was the perfect chance to hear sworn testimony and see documented evidence from dozens of key people, yet nobody cared enough to show up.

What did I learn? Half the people in the East Mississippi Correctional Facility are mentally ill. They were locked in solitary confinement without medications. They were beaten, starved and abused. They could go weeks in the dark. Rats, roaches, lice. Broken plumbing. No medical care.

The locks didn’t work. Prisoners roamed freely. The gangs ruled the roost and decided who stayed where. Half the guard positions were unfilled yet MDOC never once fined the private prison companies per the agreement. Melees were commonplace. Contraband was everywhere.

When you allow the gangs to function both in the free world and in prison, they have total control. If you want to know what the world looks like when you allow gangs total control, just look south to Mexico.

I have no doubt the skyrocketing Jackson murder rate is somehow related to the rise of gang power and violence now that they control our prisons.

Imagine taking a poor mentally ill person who needs medication and throwing them into a gang-controlled hell hole. You may recall our savior Jesus’ warning. What you do to the prisoner, you do to me.

How did this come to pass? First of all, prisons have always been hell holes, but we were making progress. In fact, a decade ago the feds gave control back to the state because so much progress had been made.

Then came the move toward private prisons. Not a bad idea in concept, but the execution was horrible. The state took the lowest bidder and then didn’t enforce the terms of the contract. To make money, the private companies cut staff and made a deal with the gangs. You help us run the prison, we will look the other way on contraband. It all occurred slowly, incrementally, like the lobster in the boiling pot.

In Alabama, the state lost its federal lawsuit. A special session was convened and the legislature is allocating hundreds of millions to hire more guards and raise their pay.

In Mississippi, the state won, thanks to federal district judge William Barbour, who said things were getting better since the Epps bribery scandal. Ironic that his ruling came just a few weeks before Parchman exploded and five inmates died.

I bet our Republican leadership was seriously bummed by Barbour’s decision. If the state had lost, the feds would have taken over and our state leaders could blame the feds on forced tax increases to fund our prisons. Now they have to do it themselves.

Mississippi is a poor rural state and we have little money. I get it. I am sympathetic. No one wants to live in a state with high taxes. But then no one wants to live in a state where gangs run wild either. Hard choices.

As it stands, it can be a death sentence to send someone to our decrepit prisons, yet Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, thanks to a variety of legislative mandatory sentences.

These legislative sentencing dictates have backfired. Judges and DAs are better equipped to know who needs to go to prison and who doesn’t, yet often their hands are tied by sentencing laws passed by the legislature.

It happened like this. People got upset about crime back during the crack cocaine craze. The legislature, being a political body, responded by passing a bunch of ill-conceived mandatory sentences. Now we have addicts on life sentences taking up valuable prison space while dangerous criminals run free.

Step one: Repeal the mandatory sentencing laws and let our judges and DAs, who are closer to the ground, make these judgement calls. Step two: Quit sending drug addicts to jail. Get them to treatment instead. Step Three: Use house arrest with tracking bracelets for non-violent offenders. Step Four: Turn our prisons into places of order, control and rehabilitation instead of gang-run free-for-alls.

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