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.