MERIDIAN — Mississippi’s prison crisis is about to teach new legislators a hard lesson.
“Prison brass warned of dangerous conditions a year ago, but lawmakers did not act,” read the headline in Mississippi Today following gang violence and deaths in Mississippi prisons. That was just the latest warning.
In 2012, then Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, now in prison for bribery, pleaded with legislators for more prison guards and higher pay. As reported by The Associated Press, he told legislators that lowest-in-the-nation salaries for his undermanned workforce would only work “as long as we don’t have an uprising.”
In 2015, then MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher told the governor’s Task Force on Contracting and Procurement in the Department of Corrections his top priority would be to transform MDOC’s low-paid, poorly trained correctional officers into a highly trained, professional force. He took his transformation plan to the Legislature, asking that his appropriation be increased by $11 million. What did they do? They cut his appropriation by $12 million.
Last year, outgoing MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall told legislators her department couldn’t adequately staff the state’s prisons and guarantee the safety of more than 19,000 inmates or prison workers unless funding was increased. Again, legislators did little to address the problem.
“The uprising arrived last week when five inmates died at the hands of fellow prisoners and two of the state’s largest prisons were rocked by what corrections officials called ‘major disturbances’ between gangs,” said the AP report. “Some observers call them riots.” Mississippi Today reported over 100 sheriffs’ deputies were sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County to help stop the outbreak of violence.
The AP reported severe stress at the three prisons directly run by the state. Only about half of security posts were filled in the budget year ending June 30, 2019, at the main prison at Parchman, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, and the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville. More than 1,000 times, prison employees had to work a double shift because there was no one to take their place.
Hall told legislators MDOC now needs a budget bump of $67 million to hire more than 800 guards. To get those guards, starting salaries would have to be raised. To retain good ones, salaries for existing guards need to be raised.
These are all issues stressed by Fisher in 2015 and Epps in 2012, but ignored by legislators.
Mississippi’s prison system was under federal court orders to improve deplorable conditions from 1972 to 2011. In 2011, sufficient improvements had been made for the court to end its oversight. That was the same year Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves took office. Ignoring prison needs began and continued through their terms of office.
Reeves chaired the Joint Legislative Budget Committee last year. Notably, in December it recommended cutting MDOC’s budget again this year. Funding prisons, of course, is not as popular as tax cuts, tax breaks for major industries, or nifty new but nonessential programs.
New legislators will now learn that ignored problems don’t disappear, they become crises. Today the crisis is prisons, tomorrow it will be PERS, health care, the plight of rural communities, roads and bridges, or higher education.
• Bill Crawford is a Republican former state lawmaker from Meridian.