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Governor outlines plan to restore order in Mississippi prisons

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Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves at a press conference Thursday, Jan. 23. (photo via video screen grab)

Gov. Tate Reeves toured the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Thursday to assess prison conditions and visited the shuttered facility at Walnut Grove on Wednesday.

At a press conference Thursday, Reeves outlined his plan to restore order in the wake of weeks of prison violence that has claimed the lives of at least nine men and has had Parchman on lockdown since Dec. 30. An untold number of inmates were injured.

Since taking office on Jan. 15, Reeves has promised greater transparency in the operations of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

“We know there are problems in the system,” he said. “We don’t want to hide them. We want to fix them.”

Reeves said several steps are already in process since his naming Tommy Taylor as interim commissioner of MDOC Jan. 20. Among them are improving conditions for the inmates—which Reeves called “terrible”—cracking down on contraband cell phones, screening guards for gang affiliations, investigating criminal activity and relocating prisoners.

“A lot of these changes will seem like common sense,” Reeves said. “That’s because they are. They’ve been needed for a long time, but we are starting from where we are.”

Among the facilities Reeves is considering for prisoner relocations is the 1,260-bed Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which the state closed in 2016. The closure came after years of violence and lawsuits alleging guards’ physically abusing inmates, including juveniles who were convicted as adults. The facility was privately run for the state, and Mississippi will be paying through 2028 on a $154 million bond that financed the facility.

“While the past corruption led to its closing, the foundation is something we can build on,” Reeves said, adding that its physical condition is better than what some inmates are experiencing at Parchman.

Reeves said he has no plans to request additional funding for the system from the legislature, although former Gov. Phil Bryant and others identified underfunding as a significant factor in the current deterioration of conditions in the state’s prisons. After years of budget cuts, guard strength is less than half of what it should be, for example, and their starting salaries are the lowest in the country.

Instead, Reeves said that rooting out corruption at MDOC is key, and said inmates caused “99.99 percent” of the prisons’ physical issues.

In December, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which was chaired by Reeves,  recommended cutting MDOC’s budget by 2.5 percent, or $8.3 million, for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2020, including cuts for Parchman of more than $2.6 million. It recommended no cuts for private prisons.

Reeves said Thursday that there were a number of guard positions that are funded and not filled, and the number of inmates has decreased from about 22,000 in 2013 to 19,000 today, a reduction of about 14 percent.

Corrections officials with the state have asked lawmakers for a budget increase of $67 million to hire additional guards, raise starting salaries about $4,700 to be more competitive with other states and increase the pay of existing prison employees. The state’s starting salary for guards, $25,600, is among the lowest in the nation, and the average hourly pay, $14.83, is the lowest.

Reeves also hinted that interim commissioner Tommy Taylor could become the permanent MDOC commissioner when he said “he is the right person to lead this agency,” near the beginning of the press conference. Recently, Reeves appointed Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. to head a committee searching nationwide for a new MDOC commissioner.

Mississippi is facing a federal lawsuit alleging “inhumane conditions” at Parchman, and the Department of Justice has launched criminal and civil investigations into the Mississippi prison system.

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Early morning fire destroys Warren County mobile home – VIDEO

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Photo by Thomas Parker

A Warren County family lost their home and vehicle to a fire Thursday morning, but escaped the blaze unharmed.

Warren County firefighters responded to an early morning structure fire at Pecanwood Mobile Home Park at 2460 Old Highway 27, Lot 10 for a residential fire. The call was dispatched at 4:40 a.m.

According to Warren County Fire Coordinator Jerry Briggs, early arriving firefighters found the single-wide mobile home heavily involved and the residents’ vehicle approximately 50% involved.

Photo by Thomas Parker

Firefighters concentrated their early efforts on extinguishing the vehicle and protecting the adjacent structures as they were extremely close to the blaze. An additional issue was the large amount of leaves and trees that were fueling the fire.

Briggs said the three occupants were safely evacuated. A Vicksburg Fire Medic Unit responded to the scene to examine the residents for possible smoke inhalation, but all refused transport to a medical facility.

Photo by Thomas Parker

Briggs said the cause and origin of the fire is under investigation, but it appears the fire started in the central area of the mobile home. He went on to remind the public that with the change in weather conditions to please use caution with heating devices. Plug electric heaters directly into the wall outlet. He also encourages everyone to have working smoke detectors throughout their homes.

Engines 303 (Fisher Ferry) and 205 (Culkin) responded to battle the blaze along with firefighters from throughout the county.

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Key education groups call Gov. Reeves’ budget priorities hypocritical, ‘extremely disappointing’

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Gov. Tate Reeves during a March press conference. (Photo by Eric Shelton, Mississippi Today, used with permission)

As COVID-19 cases in students and teachers hit their highest point yet and schools across the state are forced to close their doors, educators received an additional blow this week from Gov. Tate Reeves.

Reeves released his first fiscal year budget recommendation as governor on Monday and, despite promising to raise teacher pay during his 2019 campaign, made no mention of a salary increase. He did, however, recommend limiting funding to schools that do not teach in-person during the pandemic, and setting aside $3 million for a “Patriotic Education Fund” to combat “revisionist history” that is “poisoning a generation.”

During the 2020 session, it appeared Reeves and legislative leadership were poised to provide teachers a $1,000 salary increase, but those plans were put on hold by an anticipated decrease in state revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The average salary for a public school teacher in Mississippi in 2019 was $45,105, according to the Mississippi Department of Education, and Mississippi’s average salary is the lowest in the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

When Mississippi Today reached out to Reeves’ press secretary after his budget recommendation was released publicly, she said in a statement: “We believe strongly that we can still find the funds to administer teacher pay raises.”

Reeves’ budget recommendation also stated that schools that do not offer in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic should have their funding limited. He said that because their budgets include funds to support services geared to in-person learning such as food service and transportation, school districts providing traditional learning are at “a financial disadvantage.”

“For this reason, I propose limiting funding for school districts unwilling to provide the option of essential classroom instruction,” the recommendation stated. 

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said districts were given three options for operating this school year in an effort to allow each district to respond specifically to what was going on in their communities during the pandemic. She also pointed to the $200 million allocated by the Legislature to ensure every student in the state has access to a device and connectivity in order to be able to learn remotely. 

“There is no replacement for a good teacher; however, districts that provide distance learning in accordance with public health guidelines cannot afford to have their funds limited,” Wright said in a statement to Mississippi Today. 

The state’s teachers union released a lengthy statement pointing to what they say is hypocrisy on the part of the governor.

“When we requested statewide COVID reporting standards and guidance on how to address teacher absences during the pandemic, we were told unequivocally that districts best knew how to handle their response,” the statement from the Mississippi Association of Educators read. “Now that some districts have elected to keep buildings closed because they do not have the staff and resources to safely serve their district’s students and families, the governor has decided that they can no longer be trusted to do what’s best.”

The group references the Greenville Public School District, where schools were operating virtually at the beginning of the semester and just this month, after the death of a teacher, announced it would return to virtual learning.

“Following an outbreak, they have decided to return to virtual instruction. And now, after being assured that the state government would play no role in their district’s COVID plan, Governor Reeves is threatening to withhold critically-needed funding when districts need it most,” the statement continued. 

The governor also recommends spending $3 million to create a Patriotic Education Fund. The fund would be used to pay for teaching that combats what Reeves says is “indoctrination in far-left socialist teachings that emphasize America’s shortcomings over the exceptional achievements of this country.”

The fund is reminiscent of the 1776 Commission, an executive order by President Donald Trump establishing a commission to promote “patriotic education” in the United States. This came about in response to the 1619 Project, an initiative launched by the New York Times Magazine in 2019 which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

On Wednesday, Bailey Martin, a spokesperson for Reeves, said the idea was original though the mission is similar to Trump’s. She said the funds could be used as an “addition” to students’ education, though in the budget recommendation Reeves said the program is necessary because “We need to combat the dramatic shift in education.”

“Field trips, after-school clubs, the development of new interesting lesson plans, and more could be funded with these dollars — we are hoping teachers, administrators and non-profits are creative in their ideas of how to take advantage of the opportunity,” she said in a statement. “It would be a great bonus for Mississippi’s youth, in addition to their typical education.”

In response, officials at the Mississippi Department of Education pointed out that the social studies standards, or grade-level goals for learning, were developed by Mississippi teachers and adopted by the State Board of Education in 2018.

“The standards take an unbiased look at U.S. History that allows students to examine multiple viewpoints of a historic event or period. Students explored the pride and resilience of the American spirit through study of civics, democracy, capitalism and major events that have shaped our country,” a statement from the department said. 

Kelly Riley, executive director of the Mississippi Professional Educators, called the governor’s budget recommendation and the statements made to support the creation of the Patriotic Education Fund “extremely disappointing.”

“Mississippi educators are teaching the curriculum standards adopted by the State Board of Education, members of whom Governor Reeves appoints,” Riley said. “Such unfounded generalizations that attack the pedagogy and character of teachers across our state are certainly not an encouraging way to begin the upcoming (legislative) session.” 

Reeves also recommended: $3 million for math coaches across the state; $2 million to train teachers in computer science and coding; and fully funding the School Recognition Program, which financially rewards teachers in A-rated schools and schools that improve a letter grade. 

The 14-member Legislative Budget Committee will make its budget recommendation in December.


This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Blood donations needed from former COVID-19 patients

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Mississippi Blood Services is asking people who have fully recovered from COVID-19 to donate convalescent plasma to help those who are now seriously ill with the virus.

For information and qualifications, please call MBS at 601-368-2692 or email [email protected].

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