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Investigative reporting on Mississippi prisons prompts officials to press for reforms



Mississippi Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Jim Hood says he'll institute an audit of the state's prison system if he's elected. Photo from his campaign website.
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This story was originally published by ProPublica on Sept. 6, 2019

Story by Jerry Mitchell, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Top Mississippi officials called for a review of the state’s increasingly troubled prison system, following stories by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica that documented chaotic conditions in the facilities.

“As governor, one of the first actions I’ll take is a full audit of the system to figure out why we keep seeing problems like this, and identify solutions to prevent them from happening in the future,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Attorney General Jim Hood said in a statement.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica showed how prisoners have been beaten and burned by fellow inmates at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution. At that prison, inmates outnumber guards 23 to 1, a ratio far higher than that of other state and federal prison systems.

After the most recent story on Aug. 19, inmates at the prison in Leakesville were searched and moved, and one gang operating inside the state’s prisons said it is disarming.

Hood’s Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, acknowledged there is “still much more work to be done to strengthen Mississippi prisons,” according to spokeswoman Laura Hipp.

She said Reeves, locked in a tight race with Hood, was committed to a measure signed into law in 2014 by Gov. Phil Bryant. The initiative promised to reduce the prison population, save millions and reinvest some of the money into programs for offenders.

“We have passed prison reform that encourages nonviolent offenders to be productive citizens who can work to support their families,” Hipp said. “Tate is dedicated to that effort.”

But a May story by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica showed how implementation of the 2014 law has been marked by broken promises and funding shortfalls, according to interviews, data and documents.

Instead of investing money into programs for offenders, the story found, the savings have gone back into the state’s coffers, helping to pay for huge corporate tax cuts at a time the state was struggling to meet revenue estimates.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections’ spending has declined by $185 million since 2014. The department’s $347 million budget for this fiscal year is $30 million less than it was in 2014.

A spokeswoman for Bryant said the governor remains confident that Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall, the state’s top prison official, is taking the steps needed to improve the system.

“He trusts the commissioner to navigate challenges and to properly manage the state’s correctional facilities,” Rivers Ormon said.

In an unusual display of bipartisanship, Hood’s concern over the state’s struggling reform effort was echoed by other top Mississippi officials.

State Rep. Jay Hughes, a Democrat who toured SMCI in April and is running for lieutenant governor, called on state lawmakers to hold hearings focusing on Mississippi prisons to address the kinds of problems he witnessed in the facility. “The legislative committee process has a heightened degree of attention,” he said.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Hughes’ Republican opponent in the race for lieutenant governor, recently toured the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and left concerned. “Our corrections officers are underpaid and working significant overtime,” he said, “and conditions inside our facilities are deteriorating.”

More reform is needed, he said. “We want productive, tax-paying citizens and not recidivism.”

In the days following the story about SMCI, corrections officers began moving inmates to different units within the prison, according to families and inmates. They also searched inmates and cellblocks for contraband. Such techniques are often used by corrections officials to break down gangs’ ability to operate.

Self-described leaders of the Gangster Disciples, one of several groups operating inside the prisons, told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica that their members are turning in their weapons to show they are against violence and that they want to transition to “the war against illiteracy.”

Shawn Davis, who identified himself as an “outstanding representative” for the Gangster Disciples, wrote that the group had turned in at least 255 weapons at Mississippi prisons since Aug. 26.

Davis, a 32-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for murder at Parchman, wrote that he surrendered five weapons. On the same day that the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting asked corrections officials to confirm Davis’ account, the prison put Davis in lockdown for belonging to a gang, according to inmates. Prison officials did not return requests for comment.

A top Gangster Disciples leader, who asked not to be named over concerns about retribution from prison officials, said prison classes sometimes have waiting lists. He said the group has begun teaching its own courses on topics such as real estate, journalism, corporate thinking, time management, business development and entrepreneurship.

“One time we were part of the problem,” he said. “Now we want to be part of the solution.”

The prisoner movements, weapons surrender and educational offerings could not be officially confirmed. Corrections officials did not return requests for comment.

Outside experts expressed skepticism. Jimmy Anthony, a vice president of the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators, said the Gangster Disciples have made such promises before.

“They would be in a low-income community, cleaning up garbage,” he said.

But by night, “the same people would be selling crack cocaine.”


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