Tupelo • The Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition and national advocates continued calls for immediate action to protect prisoners, including mass release of groups they name as eligible, less than a week after Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves rejected the concept of early release for inmates in Mississippi due to COVID-19.
In a Tuesday digital town hall sponsored by the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, advocates said that COVID-19 is emphasizing an ongoing crisis in prisons. In Mississippi, at least 40 people have died in prison since late December, according to the Associated Press.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, national co-chair for the Poor People’s Campaign, said that while “a prison sentence does not mean a death sentence,” the conditions of prison could make any sentence a death sentence. Concerns around social distancing and access to hand sanitizer make prison systems a petri dish, Barber said.
“Parchman, like so many other prisons around this country, was detrimental and deadly before the virus,” Barber said. “The coranvirus has made it lethal.”
Inmate deaths and violence prompted the U.S. Justice Department to announce in February it was investigating Mississippi’s prison system, and state health inspections at Parchman revealed continual issues such as moldy showers, broken sinks and toilets, the Associated Press reported.
Mississippi has the second highest rate of incarceration in the nation, said Alesha Judkins, the state director for criminal justice policy reform for Fwd.us. During the town hall, she also said that Mississippi has more severe sentences, meaning that a large number of incarcerated people may fit under the criteria of most-at-risk to COVID-19.
During the town hall, advocates emphasized the virus further highlighted systemic issues with prisons as the reason for why COVID-19 presented a bigger threat to their work. Organizers for marginalized groups, such as Color of Change, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, HEARD and others, as well as formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated people shared testimony of the current crisis within jails and detention centers.
Organizers with prison reform advocacy groups across the U.S. repeated demands for the release of all juveniles, elderly and medically fragile people from custody, all persons granted parole and awaiting release, all people with less than two years left on their sentences and all persons being held on immigration charges. Demands also included to provide testing to all incarcerated persons and staff, free protective gear, including masks, and proper medical treatment. The Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition is currently asking people to call Reeves to issue demands.
“We really have to rally together to hold the governor’s feet to the fire and our other electeds so they can do the right thing and make sure that people are being released,” Judkins said.
As of 6 p.m. March 12, the Mississippi State Department of Health reports 10,090 total coronavirus cases and 465 deaths in the state.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections website reported 10 total positive cases among inmates in state institutions and regional correctional facilities as of 5 p.m. May 11, including two confirmed positive inmates at Parchman, one at Carroll-Montgomery County Correctional Facility, five at Marion-Walthall County Correctional Facility and two at Winston-Choctaw County Correctional Facility. Eight employees also tested positive.
MDOC’s website reports that all inmates and correctional staff have been provided masks, with gloves and additional soap provided.
According to MDOC’s website, in addition to the positive tests, they have tested 37 other inmates and 38 other employees. Mississippi has more than 18,000 prisoners in custody.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.