Governor Tate Reeves answered questions on Thursday regarding the current crisis within the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
The situation has escalated in the last few days. Two inmates were pronounced dead at Parchman of what look to be homicides. Two other inmates were found hanged in their cells. Officials are classifying them as suicides.
Reeves visited the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to personally inspect the conditions. He was joined by Interim Corrections Commissioner Tommy Taylor and Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, who has been asked to lead a group of experienced, diverse Mississippi leaders conducting a nationwide search for a permanent head of the troubled Department.
“I was closer to prisoners in unit 29 today than I am to you right now. Something I mentioned to someone that was with me, while I understand that this is not possible, I wish we knew every Mississippian that was contemplating committing a crime and allow them before they made that mistake to do what I did today. I think we’d have a lot less crime,” said Reeves.
Reeves said while this is a prison, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that they are being housed in an environment that ensures that their safety is protected. He went on to say that the administration will continue to work hard to make that happen.
He told press that the conditions vary significantly from unit to unit, even down to the way that the units were constructed.
“There is a leadership crisis in our prison system. For too long, there has not been accountability. There has not been a steady hand on the wheel. I am grateful that Commissioner Taylor is beginning to make progress. These problems did not spring up overnight, and they will not be solved overnight, but the necessary work has begun. The lives and dignity of all within this system must be protected,” said Governor Reeves.
Since Commissioner Taylor’s first day on Monday, several important changes have already been implemented to protect the safety of officers and prisoners. They are aimed at addressing the administration’s immediate priority: restoring order at Parchman to prevent further needless death.
- Improving conditions: Maintenance teams from across the state of Mississippi have been deployed to immediately begin work to improve conditions at Parchman.
- Bringing leadership to the front lines: All Wardens and Deputy Wardens have been placed on twelve hour shifts to have leadership present and available to corrections officers at all times. A senior officer will be present on grounds at all times.
- Cracking down on contraband cell phones: During the recent series of killings, gangs were able to coordinate across the prison system through the use of contraband cell phones. This allowed one isolated incident to escalate into large-scale conflict that culminated in several deaths. The Managed Access System which blocks the signal of contraband cell phones is now being utilized at every Parchman housing unit.
- Fixing guard screening: In order to prevent corrections officers from assisting prisoners in violence, a tragic reality of the current circumstances, officers will be screened for signs of Security Threat Group (gang) affiliation.
- Relocating prisoners: Prisoners will be re-distributed throughout the prison—assigned to different jobs and housed in different facilities—to prevent the outbreak of additional violence.
- Increased transparency: MDOC staff have been instructed to provide as much information to the public as possible, as quickly as possible, about deadly incidents in the system.
Governor Reeves previously announced that he was deploying an agent from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations to Parchman in order to conduct a criminal investigation. That individual has been selected and is being deployed immediately.
To the families of victims from the violence at @MS_MDOC , @tatereeves said there are an awful lot of Mississippians praying for them, and he hopes they will pray for those trying to find solutions to this situation as well #msleg
— Yall Politics (@MSyallpolitics) January 23, 2020
Reeves also visited Walnut Grove’s facility and while he said it is currently not in use, the ‘foundation’ is good. When asked if he anticipated re-opening the facility and placing inmates currently at Parchman there, he said it is not in the current plan but that they are considering all options. If they were to do that, Reeves said Walnut Grove would likely be privately operated.
He plans to make a push for better and higher wages for correctional officers. Money had been allocated, but it did not trickle far enough down from the top positions to the officers in the facilities.
“Correctional officers received higher pay over a number of years now. Unfortunately as we increased funding for those purposes it seemed that there were a lot of people at the top who got big pay raises, including the Commissioner. Whereas many of the correctional officers didn’t see the kind of increases that they should have,” said Reeves.
Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann and Chairman of the Corrections Committee Juan Barnett echoed the Governor’s push to improve correctional facilities.
“We want to make sure that inmates are protected as well as those people who put on the uniform to do a days work. We want those individuals to be able to return home to their families too,” said Sen. Barnett. He added, that when the problem is solved they want it to be the whole thing and not just a portion.
Hosemann said the Legislature’s goal is not only to look at today’s current problems, but to also ensure that those currently incarcerated have an education, job and a place to go one they are released.
He said it is the duty of the Executive Branch of government handle the current crisis. However, it is the Legislative branch’s responsibility to make sure the corrections facilities are better off by the end of the 2020 Session. Hosemann said many of those responsibilities will fall on Sen. Wiggins in the Judiciary B committee.