Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

It’s easy to blame the Mississippi Legislature for the state’s current prison system woes, but the truth is that such finger-pointing is inaccurate. The state’s current prison mess has been at least 25 years in the making.

Back in 1995, the current legislature’s predecessors thought they were “getting tough on crime” by adopting the so-called “85 percent rule” which mandated that all state convicts must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole. Mississippi’s law was in sharp contrast to other states, where the 85 percent rule applied only to violent offenders.

There were other factors for adoption of the law as well. First, lawmakers were scrambling to help the state qualify for federal funding under a federal crime bill. Second, lawmakers had grown frustrated with erratic discretionary swings by former Parole Boards between periods of tough and then lax parole standards. That brought pressure on lawmakers to stabilize paroles. Many believed the “truth-in-sentencing law” would accomplish that. Not so.

But in fact, what the Legislature did in 1995 was get tough on taxpayers as the 85 percent rule dramatically increased the state’s prison population and therefore the operating costs of the state prison system. The truth is that “the 85-percent rule” should have applied only to criminals convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, or felony drug crimes.

Corrections officials loudly warned that such a program would create massive prison overcrowding in the state that would force either the rapid need for expensive new prison construction, U.S. Justice Department intervention in the operation of the state’s prison system, or both.

Mississippi reacted to the swelling prison ranks beginning in the early 2000s with following other states into the private prison experiment. The state contracted with private prison companies for a total of six private prisons. Those facilities took on a rather mythic status in some communities as economic development projects.

But around 2008, the state adopted new parole guidelines which began to ease the overcrowding caused by the 85 percent rule. And in 2014, the Legislature In 2014, Gov. Phil Bryant signed prison sentence reform legislation that supporters claimed could save Mississippi some $266 million over the next decade. But the savings realized have not been reinvested in the prison system.

House Bill 585 required those convicted of violent offenses to serve at least 50 percent of their sentences, while those convicted of nonviolent offenses would serve at least 25 percent before being eligible for parole. That saw the state back away from reliance on private prisons until the recent spate of prison violence led MDOC to move some prisons from Parchman to a private facility.

A stable economy has made it harder than ever to hired qualified correctional officers for low wages. The lack of staffing in state prisons and private prisons has led to gang violence stepping into the control void inside the prisons.

Current Mississippi lawmakers don’t have easy solutions before them. Use of the private prisons will come with much higher per inmate costs. Beefing up staff in state prisons will require significant pay hikes. Technology like electronic monitoring isn’t cheap in initial costs, either.

Clearly, solutions will come at the intersection of managing the intake of new prisoners, effective parole policies, and investing in a cadre of correctional officers sufficient to control existing state prison facilities. That will be complex mix for lawmakers to navigate.

The late U.S. District Judge William C. Keady of Greenville, the father of substantive modern prison reform in Mississippi, observed late in his life: “Throughout my handling of the penitentiary case, I endeavored to push but not exasperate the Mississippi Legislature which was the only source of funds with which to operate and improve the penitentiary.”

Keady died in 1989, but his measure of how Mississippi prison reform is financed remains true today.