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Mississippi prisons ‘a hotbed of corrupt officials’; FBI investigation underway

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Story by Jerry Mitchell, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

A federal investigation into allegations of corruption at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility has led to the removal of 10 employees.

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, Mississippi Department of Corrections officials charged Carl Arnold, head of the prison’s K-9 Unit, with embezzlement. Officials suspended Arnold without pay.

Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, located in Rankin County, has removed 10 employees from the prison in the wake of an FBI investigation. (Photo courtesy InmateAID)

“We are working with all law enforcement agencies to clean up the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Commissioner Burl Cain said in a statement released Friday, Sept. 18. “We are the ones who are supposed to be protecting society from the criminals, not be the criminals. So we will not tolerate bad behavior of any kind. Inmates, correctional officers and the public deserve that.”

The state Personnel Board confirmed Friday that Warden Wendell Banks and Dean Epps, chief of security and the second in command at the Rankin County prison, are no longer employed.

Cain said he cannot discuss why the chief of security and a warden were terminated, nor can he give reasons for suspending without pay a director and an associate warden. A sixth employee resigned effective immediately and can no longer come on prison grounds. The other four people, who are not state employees, have also been banned from the Rankin County prison.

It’s the second time the state Department of Corrections has been rocked by a federal corruption probe in a half-dozen years.

Two of those fired worked for Mississippi Prison Industries Corp. in Jackson. Bradley Lum, CEO of the nonprofit, confirmed they had been let go.

He said as soon as he learned of the FBI’s investigation, he told the agency the nonprofit would cooperate fully.

“Whatever needs to be cleaned up needs to be cleaned up,” he said. “Our commissioner (Cain) is laser focused on cleaning up the system.”

Ugly underbelly of corruption inside Mississippi’s prison system

In 2014, a federal indictment accused then-Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps of pocketing $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks to steer more than $800 million in state prison contracts. A year later, he pleaded guilty to bribery and filing a false income tax return and was later sentenced to nearly 20 years in federal prison.

The indictment exposed the ugly underbelly of corruption inside Mississippi’s prison system. A task force examined prison contracts, and reforms supposedly followed.

But the corruption never went away. In fact, some of those in charge of operating Mississippi’s prisons have admitted the gangs are the ones running them.

The Magnolia State remains decades behind progressive correctional practices with its “denial of any inmate rights and property, which leads to violence, extortion and proliferation of gang control,” said Matthew Naidow, who worked as chief of security and other positions in corrections in prisons in Michigan, California, Vermont and Mississippi.

Mississippi’s prisons are woefully underfunded, he said. In addition to the millions the state Legislature whacked from the MDOC budget, starting annual pay for correctional officers is $25,650 — the lowest in the nation, qualifying them and their families for food stamps.

That low pay, Naidow said, makes it easy for inmates to bribe staffers to smuggle in “contraband, money and become involved in larger schemes of corruption instituted by gangs who are supported inside and outside the prisons.”

Overall, he said, “Mississippi is a hotbed of corrupt officials, from top to bottom, who are hurting the lives of the real hardworking staff that work in those prisons from hell every day to support their families.”

Prison’s print shop reportedly became center for smuggling

This photo shows a steak and shrimp meal delivered to inmates at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. (Photo source MCIR)

With regard to the current investigation, an informant who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that the prison’s print shop was being used to smuggle in contraband. “Walking it in through the front door,” he said.

Marijuana, meth, tobacco, Xanax and Everclear alcohol came into the prison by way of the print shop, sometimes in 50-gallon drums, he said.

Following the lead of other states, Mississippi prisons banned smoking, leading to a huge illicit market behind bars. A pound of tobacco that might cost $15 on the street can fetch up to $500 behind bars.

Inmates are making their purchases through a cash app on their cellphones, the informant said. “There was so much money that pumped through there.”

The prison has been so wide-open to contraband — “like a sieve” — that inmates could even order a steak if they liked, he said.

One photo obtained by MCIR shows a long line of bags of takeout food, purportedly taken inside the print shop. Another photo shows a meal of steak and shrimp.

Experts say smartphone cash apps have made it easier than ever for inmates and officers to carry out corruption.

Nonprofit now focusing on inmates beyond bars

The prison’s print shop is run by Mississippi Prison Industries Corp.

In 1990, state lawmakers created the nonprofit to provide uniforms and socks to inmates, and the state has paid the nonprofit for that service.

But when the nonprofit began to lose millions, it shifted its focus from inmates to new product lines. In 2016, the nonprofit shut down its traditional housing program that had provided counseling, education, job training and substance abuse treatment for those leaving prison.

In 2018, the state Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee painted a picture of an out-of-control nonprofit, experiencing “a deterioration of its financial sustainability as the result of losses in long-term product lines, unsuccessful expansion into new product lines, and failure to control administrative overhead expenses, such as salaries and benefits, contractual services, and operating expenses.”

Since Lum took over last year, the nonprofit has begun to turn things around, producing PPE for those responding to emergencies and making uniforms for inmates, said PEER’s Executive Director James Barber. “They really are getting back to what the law said they were supposed to do.”

That law called on the nonprofit to provide work experience and skills that can help lead to the jobs after inmates are freed.

The nonprofit now has a department to ensure that those leaving prison have the skills to make the transition into the real world and is launching HOPE (Helping Offenders Prepare for Excellence) Alliance.

Lum said his dream is for the nonprofit to become the “superhighway for reentry” for those who are transitioning from prison back to society.

“Let’s not act like a $35 bus ticket is enough,” he said. “We’re not preparing these guys.”

The 600 inmates now working for the nonprofit get a head start on returning to society through savings accounts, he said. “That way, when they get out, they have money. It’s not just a few dollars, but real dollars they can use on housing, electric bills and other things they need.”

Cain promises to clean up prisons

MDOC officials say Arnold, who had worked for the Corrections Department since 1995, is charged with taking state-owned copper and stainless steel and selling the items to a private business for personal profit for almost a year.

Cain said he remains dedicated to cleaning up Mississippi’s correctional system.

“We continue to actively work with other state and federal law enforcement agencies to ensure the integrity of the department and remain committed to being transparent and open to the people of Mississippi,” he said. “As our investigation continues in conjunction with other agencies, we will announce charges at the appropriate time.”

News

Flaggs asks judges to assist in curbing crime

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Mayor George Flaggs Jr. in a May 15, 2020 interview with the Vicksburg Daily News. (Photo via video screen grab. Video by David Day)

In a letter sent to Vicksburg and Warren County judges Monday, Mayor George Flaggs Jr. asked for help to curb crime in the River City.

Flaggs wrote that crime is “running rampant” in Vicksburg, and he “prayerfully and humbly” requested the judges consider adding two criteria to bails for anyone arrested on firearm-related offenses: GPS monitoring devices and a 7 p.m. curfew.

“I believe the only exceptions to the curfew should be for travel to or from work or to seek necessary medical treatment,” the mayor wrote. “These conditions of bail will help in protecting the public from future violence and assist our law enforcement officers in reducing and preventing crimes in our city.”

He added that he believes the measures are “imperative for the safety and future of our city.”

Read the entire letter below.

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COVID-19

Mississippi’s seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases remains over 600 Monday

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Sunday and Monday saw the expected weekend drop in reported new COVID-19 cases and deaths. Mississippi’s seven-day average remains above 600.

The Mississippi State Department of Health reported three new COVID-19 cases Sunday in Warren County and no new cases Monday. No new deaths were reported either day. The cumulative number of cases in Warren County to date is 1,470, and the county’s death toll is 53.

Statewide, MSDH reported 294 new COVID-19 cases Sunday and 296 cases Monday, bringing the total cumulative confirmed cases in Mississippi to 105,228. The seven-day average of new cases is 646, higher by 197 cases from a month ago.

Most new cases are seen in younger people recently, and they are more likely to survive the virus than those 65 and older. By far, the age group reporting the most cases in Mississippi are young people from 18 to 29 years old.

MSDH reported Sunday that five additional Mississippians died of COVID-19 statewide. No new deaths were reported Monday. The cumulative number of deaths in the state is 3,101. The state’s rate of deaths to confirmed cases is about 3%.

Deaths are a lagging indicator. While July saw the highest number of new cases since the crisis began, August saw the highest number of deaths. The highest number of deaths in any one day was 67 reported Aug. 25.

MSDH reported Sunday that five deaths occurred between Oct. 5 and Oct. 10 in the following counties:

County Deaths reported Sunday
Lafayette 1
Leflore 1
Marion 1
Montgomery 1
Tate 1

New cases and deaths were reported to MSDH as of 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, and Sunday, Oct. 11. MSDH usually reports statistics on the COVID-19 coronavirus each day based on the previous day’s testing and death reports.

The primary metric concerning state health officials are the numbers of people hospitalized, and that number rose steadily with the rise of new cases in July and August. On June 6, the number of Mississippians hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 was at 358. Hospitalizations nearly tripled by late July. They leveled off in early August and began noticeably dropping in the middle of the month including critical cases and numbers of people requiring ventilators. Hospitalizations continued to drop in September but levelled off at the middle of the month. They continued to drop through Oct. 3; however, they began showing a definite rise last week.

The number of Mississippians hospitalized for the virus as of 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, is 600, about half of the late July peak of more than 1,200. The number includes 491 with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 109 people with suspected but unconfirmed cases. Of those with confirmed infections, 136 were critically ill and in intensive care units and 59 were on ventilators.

Source: MSDH

MSDH has estimated the number of people who can be presumed recovered from COVID-19 in Mississippi. That number is 90,577 through Sunday, Oct. 4. This figure is updated weekly. It represents about 86% of the cumulative 105,228 cases reported Monday, Oct. 11.

The number of cases in Warren County three weeks ago, Monday, Sept. 21, was 1,381, therefore the estimated number of people presumed recovered in the county is 1,328, or about 90.3% of the 1,470 cumulative cases reported as of Monday, Oct. 11. The county has an estimated 89 active cases.

These estimates are based on MSDH’s guidelines for calculating estimated recoveries when hospitalizations are not known, using the number of cases 21 days ago, less known outcomes (deaths).

The total number of Mississippians tested for COVID-19 (PCR and antigen tests identifying current infections) as of Sunday, Oct. 3, is 863,957 or about 29% of the state’s 2.976 million residents. The positivity rate (positive results to tests, seven-day average) was 6.3% Sunday according to Johns Hopkins University. The national rate is 5%, and 5% or lower indicates adequate testing.

The total number of outbreaks in long-term care facilities is 126 Monday. About 40.1%, or 1,258, of the state’s total deaths were people in long-term care facilities.

A total of 25 deaths in Warren County were residents of LTC facilities.

MSDH is no longer reporting outbreaks in individual long-term care facilities in Mississippi and has replaced it with access to a database from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. You can access and search the data here. The latest data available is for the week ending Sept. 27.

For additional information, visit the MSDH website.

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Events

Vicksburg High band holds fundraiser for new instruments

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The Vicksburg High School band is holding a garage-sale fundraiser for new musical instruments this coming weekend.

The event is Saturday, Oct. 17, from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Vicksburg City Park Pavilion located at 100 Army Navy Drive.

The sale will include clothing for men, women and children, furniture, food and many more items.

Vickie Baker, VHS band director and host for the event, is hoping for a big turnout to help the band purchase new instruments.

For further information, email Vickie Baker at [email protected].

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