Trend reverses previous administration’s prison reduction reforms; new efforts under way to treat addiction, reduce recidivism
Mississippi has become the world leader in locking up human beings. The per capita incarceration rate in Mississippi is now higher than any other state in the U.S. or any other country on the globe reported the Sun Herald Aug. 12.
Mississippi imprisons a higher percentage of its population than Russia, Iran, or even communist China, according to the World Population Review.
Under Gov. Tate Reeves, the state has recently reversed course away from reforms and returned to previous generations ‘lock-em-up’ approach, a move critics are calling dangerous and bad for Mississippi, the story stated.
“Is there a political price to be paid for foolishly sticking with a failed system that’s made us the world capital of mass incarceration?” asked Cliff Johnson, director of the University of Mississippi School of Law’s MacArthur Justice Center.
“What’s it going to take for Mississippians to realize that the mass incarceration we have carried out for decades has made us less safe, rather than safer?” he asked.
Over the last decade, with its Parole Board led by law enforcement veteran Steve Pickett, Mississippi instituted prison reforms and an “aggressive” parole policy that brought its prison population down as low as 16,500 earlier this year, the lowest number in 20 years, the Sun Herald reported.
Pickett’s leadership saw the earned release of roughly 60% of those who appeared before the Parole Board.
But Gov. Reeves appointed a new Parole Board chair this year, a former Chevron executive less bent on challenging mass incarceration. The percentage of parole supplicants who earn release has dropped significantly to about 25%, less than half what it was under Pickett.
The state prison population bloomed by nearly 1,600 in the six months between February and August, and Mississippi is on track to exceed 22,000 prisoners by the end of next year, a number not seen in the state since late 2013. If these projections prove true, taxpayers will foot the bill to the tune of an additional $100 million per year, according to the article.
Meanwhile, those who go to prison in Mississippi are forced to endure horrific and unconstitutional living conditions, the story said. The Department of Justice began an investigation of Parchman prison in 2020 following reports of brutal violence, subhuman conditions and gangs controlling the prison, the Sun Herald reported.
Many of the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ problems stem from mistakes made under previous administrations. In 2014, the state passed House Bill 585, a bipartisan law meant to cut the prison population, save $266 million, and invest in rehabilitation. Instead, the money went to cover enormous corporate tax cuts and prison programming was all but forgotten, the story said.
Other problems are a product of overcrowding and understaffing.
“The Mississippi Department of Corrections can’t have a rodeo or enough GED classes, because we don’t have the staffing,” Johnson said. “We probably can’t support more than about 12,000 incarcerated, but we’ve got 18,000.
“We’re stuck in this futile cycle of throwing more money at prisons,” Johnson said. “Even with the Department of Justice breathing down our necks, we can’t handle the people we have.”
Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain made a successful push to raise correctional officers’ salaries this year, a move that is expected to help address staffing shortages.
On another front, Cain is striving to address the three-quarters of Mississippi’s prisoners who battle addiction, recently repurposing a shuttered prison and turning it into a drug and alcohol treatment center, housing 32 prisoners for a 90-day program.
He is also working to create dozens of schools within the prisons to offer inmate certification programs in welding, engine repair and building trades such as plumbing and carpentry. In Louisiana, he ran a comparable program that dropped recidivism to under 10%.
“We’ll reduce recidivism and we’ll reduce violence,” Cain said. “About half of the 4,400 inmates, we release each year will have a skill or trade… We’re going to turn the curve.”
Cain’s new training program takes a unique approach and saves significant funds by using prisoners with relevant certifications as instructors rather than hiring teachers from the community.
Johnson hopes Mississippi’s new role will prompt meaningful dialogue about the future of mass incarceration in the state.
“Now that we’re number one in mass incarceration, we ought to stop and take a collective timeout and have a long conversation about whether we’re satisfied and whether we’ve had a good return on the billions we’ve invested,” he said.
“Are we locking up more people because there’s something about Mississippians that make them morally deficient or more likely to commit crime? Or is there something more to this story?”