It’s been stomach-turning to follow the coverage of Mississippi’s abhorrent prison system over the past few months.
As of Monday, 15 inmates have died in less than two months across four prisons – the Southern Mississippi Correctional Institute in Leakesville, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County, the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility in Woodville, and the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
Two inmates died by hanging, but others were killed in gang-related attacks. The Mississippi Department of Corrections reports that 29 staff members have been assaulted in the same amount of time.
Most of the deaths happened at Parchman, Mississippi’s oldest prison which sits on 28 square miles of land in Sunflower County. This whole investigative saga was sparked by a riot at Parchman near the end of December.
Parchman’s Unit 29, which has now been closed, is the highlight and emblem of conditions within Mississippi’s prisons. Inspections by the Health Department report the proliferation of mold and mildew, rats, flooding, a lack of running water and electricity, as well as unsanitary kitchen facilities. Relatives of Parchman inmates have come forward with stories about prisoners relieving themselves in plastic bags when toilets weren’t working – which seems to be often. Last month, the Clarion Ledger released photos from inside the prison, and that’ll make you sick.
It’s no wonder things are going badly. Our prisons are understaffed by half, even as the prison population rises. At SMCI, the prisoner-to-officer ratio is 23-to-1. Compare that to a national average of just over 9-to-1.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, Mississippi pays jail staff less than any other state in the nation – less than half of the average. To put it in perspective, a kitchen manager at Hardee’s earns $10,000 more per year than a new guard making $12.33 an hour.
The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into Mississippi’s prison system, which will, I’m sure, find that things are even worse than it already seems.
Don’t get me wrong, prison shouldn’t be a cakewalk. The most recent inmate to die was serving a 20-year sentence for capital rape. No, I’m not saying the comfort of prisoners should be prioritized over other needs in our state – if prisoners can get three hots and a cot, it shouldn’t be too much to ask to fully fund school lunches for our kids, but that’s a column for another day.
However, at a point, these conditions reflect more on our state than they do on offenders.
We talk a fair bit in my house about not letting others control the way we conduct ourselves. I’m not talking about turning the other cheek here, but holding ourselves as individuals to a standard of conduct and dignity in the face of hardship or meanness. You might call that having some pride.
These conditions offer no redemptive qualities; they spit on the concept of restorative justice. Prisons aren’t supposed to be warehouses for humans, nor are they supposed to be lawless, gang-run circuses. I hope, as always, that we can be better.