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MDOC seeks housing for 625 inmates in ‘unsafe’ conditions at Parchman’s Unit 29

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(photo by Chris Heller Parchman gate, CC BY-SA 2.0)

From the Mississippi Department of Corrections:

The Mississippi Department of Corrections still must find housing for 625 maximum-security inmates at Unit 29 of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman following the completion of moving 375 inmates to a nearby private prison.

“It is important to continue to address housing and infrastructure needs for the most violent offenders,” Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall said Monday in a statement. “Moving the 375 inmates to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler provided some relief to an overstressed system. However, there are additional close custody inmates at Unit 29.”

Up to 1,000 inmates usually are assigned to the unit, which can house up to 1,500 inmates.

The MDOC’s FY 2021 budget request of $419,110,853 includes $22,522,280 for significant improvements to Unit 29.

“This facility, originally constructed in 1980 and renovated in 1996, has become unsafe for staff and inmates due to age and general deterioration,” Commissioner Hall said in her budget letter dated Aug. 30, 2019. The request is also consistent with previous years’ requests for additional funding to address staffing, infrastructure and other agency needs.

The MDOC cannot move the remaining inmates to the vacant Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Leake County because the department lacks the staff and resources to operate the former private prison. The agency is experiencing critical understaffing at its three state prisons and needs at least 1,000 more officers for its current facilities. The number of officers has continued to dwindle as the agency’s pay has not kept pace with industry salaries and other professions.

The 23 percent increase in the department’s FY 2021 budget request also includes $8,349,913 for a realignment and $35,554,893 to fill 800 vacant positions at the three prisons. The realignment request is to move the current starting salary for correctional officers from $25,650.41 to $30,369.82, based on the average hiring salary in the four neighboring states.

“While we thank the Legislature for a 3 percent increase effective July 1, 2019, Mississippi’s salaries are still the lowest in the country,” Commissioner Hall said.

Additional correctional officers would allow the department to provide adequate coverage for its incarcerated population, Commissioner Hall said. The prison population on Monday was 18,895 inmates.

“Though I am no longer going to be corrections commissioner, I will still advocate for adequate funding for the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” said Commissioner Hall, whose last day on the job is this week.

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Family home burns to the ground on Birdsong Road

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The family stands in disbelief.

 

The family looks on in amazement as they comfort one another.

Just after noon today, January 19, the Vicksburg/Warren call center received a call of a structure fire on Birdsong Road in the county. The caller noted the home had flames showing.

The home was fully engulfed in flames when the first fire fighters showed up on scene.

Firefighters from the Bovina and Culkin fire departments responded along with 911 Director Shane Garrard and Warren County Fire Coordinator Jerry Briggs. Garrard and Briggs were first on scene and noted the house was 50% engulfed in flames along with a truck parked near the front of the home. While they awaited fire trucks to arrive there was little anyone could do beyond try to contain the fire to the home and truck already engulfed in flames.

Fire fighters from Culkin and Bovina work to extinguish the smoldering remains.

 

There was no one home but the family dog, Daisy. Daisy was a Jack Russell Rat Terrier and she did not survive the fire. Her body was removed with great care by firefighters so the family may properly bury their beloved pet.

The Vicksburg Daily News did two live videos from the scene that can be viewed here and here.

Firefighters hook up a chain to wench the heavy safe from the debris.

The homeowner, Edward Hays, was thankful for the efforts of the firefighters to contain the fire. He and his family were attending church when the fire started. “I walked out of church and got a phone call that my house was on fire” explained an anguished Hays.

Fire fighters also pulled Hays safe from the fire and opened it for him. The locking mechanism was destroyed by the fire so the fire fighters used their cutter and expander (more commonly called the “jaws of life”) to get into the safe. The Vicksburg Daily News featured the safe opening in a live report that you can see here.

Here are more photos from today’s tragic fire (all the photos in this story are by David Day):

A work truck has burned completely.

The safe can be seen standing as the remainder of the home has turned to ash.

Children’s toys are a reminder that the smokey pile was someones home.

Hays is on the portable fire pit in front of the home.

Flames are visible in this photo taken shortly after the Vicksburg Daily News arrived on scene.

The family had gone to church and came home to this.

The fire burned for almost 4 hours.

Fire fighters work to wench the safe from the fire.

Family and friends gather around to show support to the family.

The scene as fire fighters clean up their equipment and prepare for the next call.

The family looks on in amazement as a fire fighter works in the ashes to kill any hot spots.

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Justice King: 12-year sentence for possessing a cell phone ‘a failure of our criminal justice system’

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Willie Nash (photo via MDOC)

Mississippi stories of harsh injustices are making national headlines in light of the recent spate of deadly violence in its prisons.

One such story is that of Willie Nash, 39, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence for having a cell phone in county jail.

Judge Mark Duncan of Mississippi’s Eighth Circuit in Scott County pronounced the sentence in August 2018.

“Consider yourself fortunate,” Duncan told Nash. The maximum penalty for the crime is 15 years. Based on prior burglary convictions, Nash could have also received a three-strikes “habitual offender” penalty, which would have put him behind bars for the rest of his life. As it is, Nash could get an early release in as soon as three years, after serving 25 percent of his sentence.

Arrested in August of 2017 on a misdemeanor, Nash was in the Newtown County Jail in Decatur, Miss., when he asked for “juice” for his cellphone. Booking procedures mandate that jailers should have strip-searched Nash and seized the phone before they ever put him behind bars. Instead, a jailer seized the phone only after Nash asked him to charge it so he could text his wife.

The Mississippi Supreme Court unanimously upheld the sentence earlier this month, saying the sentence falls within the statutory range of three to 15 years for the crime of possessing a cell phone in a correctional facility.

Nash did not appeal the guilty verdict, only the “grossly disproportionate” sentence, according to court documents.

“While obviously harsh, Nash’s twelve-year sentence for possessing a cell phone in a correctional facility is not grossly disproportionate,” the court ruled.

Not all the justices were happy with the ruling. Justice Leslie King, the only African American member of the nine-member court, wrote in a concurring opinion that although the decision was correct under case law, “it seems to demonstrate a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”

King pointed specifically to three facets of the case:

  1. The jail didn’t follow its procedures. “Nash went into the jail with a large smartphone that would have likely been impossible to hide during a strip search,” King wrote. A witness stated that “all inmates were told during booking that they could not bring phones into the jail. But Nash’s behavior was that of a person who did not know this, as he voluntarily showed the officer his phone and asked the officer to charge it for him.”
  2. The officer who booked Nash didn’t testify, and therefore, couldn’t be cross-examined about how he missed the “large smartphone” during the mandated strip search. “It seems problematic to potentially allow someone into the jail with a cell phone, and then to prosecute that person for such action,” King wrote.
  3. Nash had not been in any trouble for nearly a decade, demonstrating “a change in behavior.” With “a wife and three children who depend on him,” and the “seemingly innocuous, victimless nature of his crime,” King wrote that both the prosecutor and the judge could have used their discretion to make other choices, including not prosecuting the case at all.

Justice Leslie D. King of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

“Cases like Nash’s are exactly why prosecutors and judges are given wide discretion,” King wrote in his conclusion. “and the facts of the case lend themselves to an interpretation that his crime was accidental and likely caused by a failure in booking procedures. Nash did not do anything nefarious with his phone, and he certainly did not hide his phone from law enforcement. … [I]n my opinion, both the prosecutor and the trial court should have taken a more rehabilitative, rather than punitive, stance.”

Mississippi’s law regarding contraband in prisons is one of the strictest in the country. Under the law, cellphones and even chargers are the same as heroin or guns, and all prisoners face three to 15 years if they’re caught. In comparison, federal law provides a maximum sentence of one year for contraband cellphones, and in some states, possession of a cellphone isn’t punishable with prison time.

That’s not to say that cellphones in prison aren’t problematic; they are. As Judge Duncan told Nash when he sentenced him, there is a reason that it was “such a serious charge.” Cellphones allow unmonitored communication within and outside of prisons by hardcore felons and gang members, and they’re a temptation for guards and visitors to smuggle into the prisons in exchange for cash or favors.

During the recent violence that left five inmates dead and an undisclosed number of inmates injured, prisoners posted photos and videos of the violence on social media, including bloody bodies and setting bodies on fire.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections has not verified any of the media coming from inside the prison. Other than a few press releases, MDOC is essentially maintaining silence about the incidents.

But Willie Nash was in a county lockup for a misdemeanor—reportedly disorderly conduct—not doing hard time in state prison.

Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Ole Miss, told the Associated Press Thursday that overly harsh sentences in Mississippi are part of the state’s prison problem.

“Anybody who thinks there’s not a connection between sentences like this and the recent violence in our prisons hasn’t been paying attention,” Johnson said.

Read the Mississippi Supreme Court decision.

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Vicksburg Junior High football asking for support to purchase championship rings

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(photo by Keith Phillips)

The Vicksburg Junior High school football team had a historic 8-0 season last year, and the Gators are reaching out to the community for help to gain every player a championship ring.

During the 2019 football season, the Gators showed their talents to everyone they faced, and they went on to become the Little Six Champions. The Gators were known for their shutdown defense as they rarely let their opponents score.

Click to expand image.

The season marked the first time that the Gators won the Little Six title. Now that the Gators are the champions, they are in search of championship rings to show off their success.

The team is the first undefeated team in 30 years, and the Gators are looking forward to having something to show off for their hard work.

The goal for the team is to raise $9,000 for the purchase of the rings. The community has shown major support for the Gators this season as fans showed up to cheer the team on, and the team is asking their fans to show up again.

To support the Gators in their efforts to purchase their rings, assistant coach Chris Lacey has set up the Vicksburg Junior High Championship Rings Go Fund Me page. Click the link to contribute.

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