Transparency needed for reform

Incoming Gov. Tate Reeves has apparently decided to change the direction of several state agencies, including the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC).

Among the handful of agency heads to announce their departure in recent days is Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall.

Her announcement unwittingly coincided with a significant outbreak of violence within the corrections system, with at least four inmates killed and a number of others injured in less than a week at two state-operated facilities and one county-run regional jail that also holds state inmates.

One can only speculate as to what’s going on in the prison system to spark this rash of violence, since the Mississippi Department of Corrections chronically does not provide the public with much information when there are disturbances. Most of what has been learned since the first killing has come from county officials — sheriffs and coroners — where the lockups are located.

Based on past incidents, chances are good that these latest fatal fights among inmates are the result of gang warfare, staffing shortages and corrupt guards.

Mississippi’s corrections system is a mess. Even though U.S. District Judge William Barbour ruled last week that conditions at one beleaguered prison have improved enough that a federal takeover is unjustified, the violence elsewhere suggests that Mississippi is playing whack-a-mole with its prisons. It may improve the facilities, services and staffing enough in one place to satisfy a judge, but the conditions that made that prison nearly intolerable may pop up somewhere else.

Whoever is picked as the next corrections commissioner — the fourth in just a little more than five years — is inheriting a tough situation. That’s due in part to the inherently difficult job of warehousing criminals, in part because of underfunding by the Legislature, and in part because of putting the wrong people in charge as corrections commissioner.

Chris Epps was a good schmoozer but a crook who demanded kickbacks from most of the folks with whom MDOC did business. Marshall Fisher was a by-the-book lawman but didn’t have the corrections experience. Hall, a lawyer by background, has been in over her head, using lockdowns way too much and way too widespread in an effort to secure a short-lived peace.

Reeves’ choice for corrections commissioner is going to be one of the bigger appointments he will make. As he’s considering his options, he should examine the candidates’ views and track record on openness and transparency.

MDOC has for years been trying to keep a lid on what’s really going on behind its bars. It shares as little as it can get away with, using the lame excuse that to tell the public more could compromise safety.

What it compromises is the public’s grasp — and that of lawmakers and other elected officials — of just how grim the situation is. It takes lawsuits, sleuthing by journalists and even inmate uprisings to get the word out.

Improving the corrections system is a daunting task, but it starts with being forthright over what the problems are.

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