As lawmakers decide what to do with the struggling corrections system, members from the Clergy for Prison Reform organization met at the Capitol on Thursday to share their hopes for prison reform before the end of the 2020 Legislative Session.

Mayor of Magnolia, and formerly incarcerated Dr. Anthony Witherspoon, spoke of the great need to forumlate a progressive agenda that will attempt to reduce the overcrowded population in the prison system.

“We fully support the Legislative agenda that was rolled out by Sen. Turner-Ford and the Legislative Black Caucus with their efforts to reduce recidivism and those bills that are sponsored by Sen. Juan Barnett, SB 2123,” said Witherspoon.

However, he said they are still only small steps. He believes that the Legislature should put their full support toward rehabilitation. He added that work needs to be done to remove the barriers put in front of released inmates to become productive citizens.

“One thing I haven’t lost is my hope,” said Pauline Rogers, but she said many inmates have lost theirs. Rogers was also formerly incarcerated. “What we intend to do, we need to speed up the pace. The Lord forgave me and he will also forgive you.”

Rogers said she hopes Legislators revisit HB 585 (passed in 2014) and pass SB 2123 that was brought forth by Sen. Barnett.

One speaker, Will Harrell who serves as a civil rights attorney and Director of the Justice Collaborative based out of New Orleans, spoke of what he called a “horrific experience” in Thursday’s Senate Corrections meeting.

“One of the representatives of the Department of Corrections stood up and bestowed the virtues of their horticulture program. I sat there thinking, people are being stabbed to death in the prisons of Mississippi and we are listening to the virtue of a horticulture program and it demonstrated to me the disconnect of this agency,” said Harrell. He said he believes the state should create a third party entity, tasked with providing oversight and reviewing the climate in which inmates live.

He added that when sending someone to these facilities, how can you expect them to come out as a rehabilitated person when they are simply concerned with survival.

“No prison system should operate behind closed walls,” said Harrell. Besides overall conditions of areas like Unit 29, The MDOC continues to struggle with filling officer positions to maintain order within prisons.

Harrell said you can look at the problem from two angles, hire enough officers or allow more prisoners to be released contingent upon parole.

CEO Wesley Bridges wrapped up the press conference by reminding people that the bible says to remember prisoners as if we ourselves are also imprisoned.

Clergy for Prison Reform (CPR) is a group of faith leaders in Mississippi who believe the criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform. Members include faith leaders of different races, denominations and ideologies.