MDOC faces long-term issues

By BRYAN DAVIS EDITOR,

Newly-inaugurated Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced in his first State of the State address on Monday the most radical change in the Mississippi Department of Corrections under his short tenure.

He has ordered MDOC to prepare to close the notorious Unit 29 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

This comes a week after Reeves announced that Boyle Mayor Tommy Taylor would take over MDOC in an interim role as a committee started a national search for a permanent replacement.

“There are many logistical questions that will need to be answered—we’re working through that right now. But I have seen enough. We have to turn the page. This is the first step, and I have asked the Department to begin the preparations to make it happen safely, justly, and quickly,” Reeves said in his speech this week.

Despite calls from Reeves and former Gov. Phil Bryant for more funding for the embattled agency, the Mississippi Legislature does not seem poised to reverse its habitual course of cutting the MDOC budget.

Riots, murders and escapes marred the first week of 2020 at Parchman, but there are more long-term and systemic issues at that prison and others around the state.

Prison labor has declined as fast as the agency’s budget, and that’s no surprise.

What’s also not surprising is the number of inmate suicides skyrocketing along with that statistic.

Studies have shown links between the decline in the number of prison guards and inmate suicides in single-man cells.

If there are not enough guards to regularly watch and check in on inmates, the likelihood goes up that there will be more suicides.

Parchman averaged two suicides a year until 2019, when that number shot up to five.

In an eight-day period starting on January 18, three Parchman inmates apparently took their own lives while in solitary confinement.

Former MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall repeatedly asked for more funding for the agency.

The former governor Bryant agreed more funding was needed for improvements.

Reeves says the state can do better.

Hopefully, it can.

Closing Unit 29 will be a popular political move, but unless the number of guards increases, no matter where those prisoners are redistributed, the same problems will persist.

In order for the state to recruit and retain qualified prison guards, there will likely need to be an increase in pay across the board, and there must be a better quality of life for the guards while they are at work.

People we have talked to inside the prison describe horrible conditions and extremely low morale for guards who must defend themselves against homemade weaponry with little more than Mace.

The state will also need to do a better job of recruiting talent and policing their guards.

During the height of the Parchman crisis earlier this month, many pointed to the noticeably low pay for the guards as the reason why so many were susceptible to falling into the corruption that has led to an increase in contraband and disorder.

While this is understandable, low pay should not be used as a justification for prison guards violating the law.

There are good people out there who will work with integrity, even if the pay is low. The state must find these individuals and figure out how to keep them.

Reeves is certainly on the right track in that big changes were needed at MDOC and Parchman in particular in the short term, but these actions will mean little if the Legislature does not agree to fund the long-term solutions.

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