Mississippi’s prison system is at a tipping point. Gov. Reeves and lawmakers need to act.
Mississippi’s prisons are in crisis. Fires and riots broke out in facilities across the state Dec. 29, and since then, much of the system has been on extended lockdown. At least twelve incarcerated persons have died.
Mississippi Gov.Tate Reeves has taken an important first step to fix the problem by ordering the closure of Unit 29 at the Parchman prison. This must occur immediately. Next, state officials should take additional steps to create a safer and more rehabilitative corrections system throughout Mississippi. Failure to act could cause the federal courts and the federal government to impose reforms upon Mississippi — a scenario the state should want to avoid.
More generally, the state’s prisons suffer from appalling conditions. Mold, flooding and rat infestations are not uncommon. Recent reports reveal a shadow system of “restitution centers” that force people in prison to work off fines and court fees at below-market wages. Up to one-third of prison guard jobs remain unfilled because of low pay and terrible conditions. Just a few weeks ago, the state prison commissioner resigned.
The crisis in Mississippi’s prisons can’t go on forever; it will be stopped. The question is whether the Mississippi governor and legislature will take the lead in ending this crisis, or whether their inaction will force the federal government to step in.
This crisis has many peripheral causes, including inadequate state funding, low pay for prison staff, an unchecked gang culture, and a refusal to address the educational, mental health and medical needs of incarcerated persons. But the root cause of this month’s unrest has nothing to do with funding or gangs or low pay for guards; it’s Mississippi’s harsh, tough-on-crime policies.
These policies caused a massive influx of prisoners in the 1980s and ’90s, which led to overcrowding and ultimately to deteriorating prison conditions. Today, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, Mississippi has the third-highest incarceration rate in the United States. If it were its own nation, Mississippi would have the third-highest incarceration rate in the world—more than twice the rate of authoritarian states such as Turkmenistan, Cuba and Russia. Mississippi’s failed experiment with over-incarceration cannot be addressed by building more prisons or maintaining failed policies from the past and hoping that somehow, this time, they’ll work.
Under Reeves, the state should chart the course followed by President Trump and conservative leaders in states like Texas and Georgia. Rather than build more prisons or increase criminal penalties, Trump and Republicans in these deep red states have enacted smart-on-crime, soft-on-taxpayers reforms rooted in the concept that inmates should be treated with dignity, afforded opportunities to rehabilitate themselves, and given an ability to earn a second chance after they’ve paid their debt to society. This approach has been proven to reduce crime, increase public safety and save money.
To further reduce overcrowding, the state should also look closely at releasing eligible incarcerated persons who pose no threat to public safety. Warehousing these folks in prisons — which tend to harden rather than reform anti-social attitudes and habits — makes no sense at all.
And Mississippi should use evidence-based techniques to reduce the number of people on probation and parole. In 2017, 45 percent of admissions to Mississippi prisons were for people who had failed a condition of probation or parole, costing the state $128 million. The vast majority of those admissions weren’t for new crimes, but for technical violations of conditions that don’t have anything to do with public safety. Mississippi can save money without risking any harm to public safety by reforming its probation laws so that people who don’t need to be supervised any longer aren’t contributing to its over-incarceration crisis.
Finally, in a state where two-thirds of citizens earn less than $20,000 per year, legislators should consider reducing the $55-per-month supervision fee. That fee impedes supervisees’ progress toward self-sufficiency and puts people at risk of being re-incarcerated simply for being poor.
Gov. Reeves and Mississippi legislators have a golden opportunity to follow in the footsteps of President Trump by passing commonsense criminal justice reform. Let’s work together to write a new chapter for criminal justice in Mississippi. Otherwise, the state risks having that chapter written for it.