Mississippi prisons were once again a topic of discussion during the 2020 legislative session. Before the state grappled with responding to the coronavirus pandemic, legislators were responding to a prison crisis that resulted in a record number of deaths and a federal investigation.
Prisons have never been pleasant places. But prisons do have a constitutional duty to protect inmates’ basic rights and physical well-being. Unfortunately, Mississippi prisons are notorious nationwide for poor conditions. While prisons are sometimes portrayed as comfortable places where inmates watch television all day, that image couldn’t be further from the truth here, where prisons are not air conditioned and inmates are packed in “bay housing” with dozens of other inmates. Because the state has the second highest incarceration rate in the country, these facilities are often overcrowded and understaffed.
These problems exploded to the forefront last summer, when a record number of deaths prompted questions about the state’s management of prison facilities. A spate of violence in several facilities later led to more deaths and generated headlines across the country. This crisis led the Department of Justice, under President Donald Trump’s leadership, to launch an investigation into Mississippi’s prison conditions. A similar investigation in Alabama has forced the state to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to upgrade their facilities or face a federal takeover of their system.
When prisons are governed by gang warfare and violence, people leave prison worse than they arrived. Failing to meaningfully address Mississippi’s prison environment is short-sighted, since 95% of prisoners will one day be released back into our communities. This fact highlights the importance of the Department of Corrections serving not only as a place to remove dangerous individuals from our streets, but in providing a setting that is conducive to rehabilitating individuals so that they can re-integrate upon release. Unsafe prisons create more hardened criminals and make our communities less safe.
By all accounts, it appears that Commissioner Burl Cain is taking the task before him seriously, but both he and the parole board need additional weapons that only the legislature can provide.
The legislature sought to do just that this session. SB 2123 was a bipartisan bill passed by the House and Senate to give the Department of Corrections the tools they need to safely reduce the prison population, while keeping dangerous offenders behind bars. It would have allowed the Parole Board to review old sentences to allow individuals to earn time off their sentences for good behavior. The Parole Board, which is appointed by Republican Governor Tate Reeves, would still be able to deny release to individuals who presented a danger to public safety, or in situations where victims, law enforcement, or community members objected to release.
By providing a path to restoration to model inmates, SB 2123 would have served as a carrot to encourage offenders to behave well while behind bars and to prepare for life outside of prison. Unfortunately, that bill was vetoed by Governor Reeves after unfounded last-minute objections. The legislature is now back to square one to figure out ways to avoid a federal takeover of the state’s prison system, costing taxpayers millions to build new prisons.
Another bill, HB 658, would have provided a limited path for record expungement that could have helped certain released offenders that pose little to no danger to the community find gainful employment. Ability to find a job after release is the number one indicator of whether a person will avoid future scrapes with the law. Unfortunately, this bill was also vetoed.Mississippi would not be treading new ground in making these reforms. Conservative states like Texas have already implemented similar parole reforms that have allowed the state to shut down a number of prisons while simultaneously watching its crime rate drop.
There is still time to address our problems, but the clock is ticking. Policymakers should consider solutions that strike at the root causes of the state’s prison woes. Mississippi is a poor state, with a limited number of tax dollars. We simply can’t afford to house the second highest prison population in the country. Nor can we afford a federal takeover of our prison system that would dramatically increase the cost of corrections. Our tax dollars would be better spent on education, roads, and a litany of other priorities. Doing nothing is not a solution.