Prison disaster

Of all the major issues being discussed in this year’s statewide campaigns, one that is largely being neglected is Mississippi’s prison system.

It is a disaster.

Private or public, the places where people are warehoused for their crimes are back to being the kind of hellholes they were before the federal government intervened in the 1970s and told Mississippi it had to do better than this.

Jerry Mitchell, a veteran journalist now calling his own shots at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, has been zeroing in most recently on the state’s prison system.

His latest installment — which focuses on the state-operated South Mississippi Correctional Institution — is an indictment against the state’s Department of Corrections, the lawmakers who poorly fund the prisons and most of those who have occupied the Governor’s Mansion for the past couple of decades.

When it comes to incarceration, Mississippi has a history of turning a blind eye to the abuses that go on behind bars. Mitchell writes of just how bad it has gotten at the isolated prison in Leakesville, where inmates are beaten, burned, sometimes killed by other inmates while prison guards do nothing. He tells of one particularly gruesome incident in which an inmate is charged with beating and strangling to death his cellmate. The accused inmate, who argues self-defense, corroborated a report that, despite the loud ruckus during the fight to the death, no one came to the cell until several hours after the killing occurred.

A major problem in the corrections system is understaffing. Pelicia Hall has been saying for nearly her entire two years as corrections commissioner that she can’t find and keep prison guards due to low pay. Mitchell reports that the number of guards at the three state-run prisons has fallen from 905 two years ago to 627 today, a drop of about 30 percent. The prison in Leakesville is the most understaffed, with just one officer for every 23 inmates, a ratio that is two to four times higher than the average in neighboring states and the federal prison system.

What happens when the staffing levels get so low at a prison? The gangs take over, the guards get scared or corrupted, and prison authorities try to keep the lid on the chaos and protect their employees by locking inmates into their cells for the entire day. According to Mitchell, roughly half of the inmates at the Leakesville prison have been on lockdown for seven months straight, and the other half recently joined them. You keep a human being in a cage without relief for long enough, you bar family and friends from visiting, and if the inmates aren’t already mean and crazy, they will be.

One response to the problems in the prisons is to send fewer inmates to them. Mississippi has been making some modest progress there by emphasizing sentencing alternatives, such as drug (or intervention) courts, house arrest and probation.

The prisons, though, never will be emptied, nor should they be. There are certain criminals, particularly those who are violent or incorrigible, from which society must be protected. But it needs to lock people up humanely and not subject them, because of neglect, to unspeakable horrors committed by other inmates or, sometimes, the prison guards themselves.

The legislature should put more money into paying prison guards commensurate with the dangers they face, but it also needs to hold the Department of Corrections to higher standards and greater accountability.

MDOC has a history of stonewalling when there are obvious problems. It usually gets away with it because lawmakers and governors would rather not know what goes on behind those prison walls. Such apathy, though, also breeds the kind of inhumane conditions that now exist.

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