If there’s anything positive about the recent violence in Mississippi prisons, it’s that the continuing news coverage makes it more likely that substantial assistance is coming soon.
It also helps that a new governor, Tate Reeves, has taken office. The prison problem, which included the deaths of at least five inmates over a period of six days, gives him a substantial opportunity to show the public he can be a governor of action.
Reeves last week called the prison situation a catastrophe and said the state will undertake a nationwide search for a new corrections commissioner.
The governor named Tommy Taylor, a former state legislator, as the interim corrections commissioner. The group searching for a permanent commissioner includes another former lawmaker, George Flaggs, who like Taylor once served as chairman of the House Corrections Committee.
Other developments include a lawsuit filed last week by former Parchman inmates, who allege that Mississippi’s prisons are understaffed and plagued by violence. The Department of Corrections also has had to find temporary housing for up to 1,000 inmates because of damage to prison facilities during the recent disturbances.
All of this makes it far more likely that this year’s Legislature will increase the budget for corrections. Given everything that’s being reported, they would be foolish not to do it.
Corrections officials want the state to provide another $67 million for Mississippi’s three prisons in the coming budget year. The money would be used to hire 800 more guards, raise the starting pay for guards by more than $4,000 to $30,000 a year, and increase pay for other corrections employees.
Reeves deserves credit for making decisive moves in his first couple of days as governor. However, he and Republican lawmakers who made the budget decisions in prior years also deserve the blame for letting the prison problems get so bad.
Corrections officials warned the Legislature for several years that a lack of manpower was making things dangerous in prisons. But lawmakers chose not to do anything.
Mississippi’s new corrections commissioner needs to be someone who can manage the challenge of finding and keeping competent guards, and who can choke off the lawlessness that has been reported in state facilities. The new commissioner also must persuade lawmakers to open the state’s checkbook.
There is another element of corrections that needs continued attention: Figuring out which prisoners are truly dangerous and need to be behind bars, and which ones would benefit more from alternative (and less expensive) punishments such as drug court and house arrest.
Reforms that greatly reduce the inmate count while preserving public safety will be the best way to bring order to the state’s prisons.