The Mississippi Department of Corrections claimed the State Penitentiary at Parchman was on lockdown last week.
The prison wasn't the only thing on lockdown, however. So was nearly the entire communications apparatus of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Updates have been sparse since the violence began last Wednesday.
The E-T reached out to MDOC’s communications team numerous times from Sunday until Tuesday, requesting interviews with Commissioner Pelicia Hall and Parchman Superintendent Marshal Turner.
MDOC Communications officer Grace Fisher told The E-T she would make sure we were included on updates, but we were granted no interview.
All of this is nothing new under Hall’s administration, which thankfully will come to an end next week.
Almost exactly a year ago, the Clarion Ledger in Jackson wrote a scathing editorial about Hall’s lack of transparency.
The Clarion Ledger’s editorial can be summed up simply that Hall does not like the press, and she has zero respect for the taxpayers’ right to access public information about her agency and the prisons she oversees.
The spatter of Facebook issued press releases over the past week was a joke.
MDOC even took time out of its busy day on Friday to tell the media how to do its job, even as two of its prisoners were apparently on the loose without its knowledge.
This is not surprising.
We cannot expect a public agency that has consistently shucked its responsibility to be answerable to the taxpayers and has asked the Legislature to make it more difficult for media outlets to probe MDOC’s public records to snap into the model of transparency when a crisis occurs.
On the contrary, it’s what we have come to expect.
Hall and her agency don’t know how to be transparent and answerable to the people. That’s why their feeble attempts to do so are so laughable.
“I understand the public’s right and need to know,” Commissioner Hall said in a Facebook post on Friday afternoon, just before 3 p.m. “But my department will not rush to release information for the sake of perpetuating rumors. Contrary to what is being said, we are providing information. There is a process to releasing accurate information and that takes time.”
At the same time she was lecturing people, two inmates under her watch were making their way out of Sunflower County toward Shelby in Bolivar County.
In fact, a time stamped game cam photo of one of the individuals was taken at 11:45 a.m. on Friday morning, the same morning the third inmate in three days was killed due to a gang fight at the prison, while under “lockdown.”
By 5 p.m. on Friday, the two escaped inmates had shed MDOC clothes and had stolen a truck in Shelby and eventually made it 130 miles into Tennessee before being captured.
Most people who live around Parchman who have social media were aware of the escape long before MDOC finally confirmed it at 4:40 a.m. on Saturday, but they received no word of caution from MDOC during that time.
Hall said she would not rush to release information because it would perpetuate rumors.
The opposite happened.
Our own timeline of events shows MDOC had some idea that there was at least one inmate missing hours before they notified the media, and they said nothing. That silence is what perpetuated rumors on social media all weekend, including one that said 28 people were missing from Parchman, which was false.
Once the rumor mill gained credibility after it was confirmed there were inmates on the loose, anything posted to social media was taken as fact by people in the community who had lost trust in MDOC over its repeated silence.
The only people battling those rumors, the press, were treated to dead air.
Photos of Hall and Gov. Phil Bryant posed in a conference room, solving all the world’s problems in a single afternoon, were neither reassuring nor informative to the public.
We sincerely hope that whoever takes over MDOC after Hall’s scheduled departure this month will not only try to address the prison conditions and the gang violence but also bring true transparency to this public agency.