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Analysis: Troubled prison system requires intense attention

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

Top Mississippi officials acknowledge the state is facing a crisis with its prison system, with five inmates killed and others injured in recent mayhem.

Two days after he was inaugurated last week, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves described the violence as a “catastrophe.” He appointed a group to conduct a nationwide search for a new commissioner to lead the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Although the flash of violence was shocking, prison problems festered over time and many were well documented. Corrections commissioners have told lawmakers for years that prisons are understaffed, largely because of low pay and dangerous working conditions for guards.

Even as the corrections department requested more money, legislative budget writers went the opposite direction by shrinking prisons’ budgets in recent years.

Reeves was lieutenant governor the past eight years and served on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, alternating chairmanship of that group with Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn. The committee makes the first recommendations each year for how the state should spend its money, and the speaker and lieutenant governor are hugely influential throughout the long budget-writing process.

Reeves said Thursday that some leaders lost confidence in the budget requests made by the Department of Corrections, believing that the department’s spending should have been more efficient.

Back in 2014, Mississippi legislators and then-Gov. Phil Bryant sought to control prison costs and to reduce an incarceration rate that was one of the highest in the nation. Republican Bryant signed House Bill 585 into law to make several changes in the criminal justice system.

The measure became law July 1, 2014. It was modeled on criminal-justice changes enacted in Texas, Georgia and other states with Republican governors who campaigned as being tough on crime.

The Mississippi law said anyone convicted of a violent offense will be required to serve at least 50% of a sentence, and anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense will have to serve at least 25%.

It gave judges more flexibility to impose alternate sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users. Circuit courts were authorized to establish treatment programs for military veterans who might have traumatic brain injuries, depression or drug and alcohol problems.

For the first time, Mississippi law specified which crimes are classified as violent, for sentencing purposes.

A criminal justice task force has been meeting for years to evaluate how Mississippi is applying the 2014 law and to make recommendations for improvements. The group is led by Circuit Judge Prentiss Harrell of Hattiesburg and includes representatives from the attorney general’s office, the state public defender’s office, prosecutors, the Department of Corrections and law enforcement agencies.

“The Department of Corrections is overworked and overburdened,” Harrell said when the task force met Friday.

The group’s members are considering recommendations to make to the Legislature this year, including one to improve transitional housing to help inmates as they leave prison and return to communities.

Ricky Smith is district attorney for Warren, Sharkey and Issaquena counties, and he represented prosecutors at Friday’s meeting. He said Mississippi also needs to strengthen mental health counseling and drug counseling for inmates as they leave prison.

“I’m a prosecutor. It’s my job to put people in the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Smith said. “But they should be treated fairly.”

The task force on Friday heard from inmates’ relatives and others who pleaded for the state to quickly improve conditions inside prisons. Photos from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman have shown broken toilets, moldy walls and discolored drinking water.

Sharon Brown, an advocate for inmate safety, said she understands that the task force members don’t have the ultimate control over policy-making and state spending. Those decisions are made by members of the House and Senate, with approval of the governor.

“We must put pressure on the legislators,” Brown told other advocates.

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» EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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