Mississippi prisons take unfortunate center stage

By EDITORIAL,

This is not the issue Gov. Tate Reeves expected to dominate his first month in office. But as the state prison system’s inmate death count continues to rise, it’s clear the governor faces an early test of his crisis management abilities.

Fifteen inmates have died in Mississippi prisons during the past month, including one earlier this week, and most of the deaths have occurred at the Parchman state penitentiary.

This has sparked a celebrity-funded lawsuit that claims the state’s prisons are understaffed and plagued by violence, and that inmates are forced to live in horrible conditions.

Reeves loves to tweak out-of-state critics, but in his State of the State address to the Legislature on Monday, he effectively conceded their lawsuit’s argument that the prisons need badly overdue attention.

He said he’s instructed the Department of Corrections to begin the process of closing the infamous Unit 29 at Parchman, where three inmates were found hanged in their cells in a week’s time.

Reeves visited the prison shortly after taking office, and described the problems there as infuriating.

“I have seen enough,” he told lawmakers. “We have to turn the page.”

Reeves described the closing of Unit 29 as a first step in prison improvements. It’s obvious what else will be required.

Strong leadership of the Department of Corrections is essential. Not just the agency’s director, but second-level leaders and facility managers as well.

Let’s face it: This problem has become so extreme because the Legislature made the choice to ignore warnings from corrections officials of manpower shortages, deteriorating facilities and inmate violence. At the very least, lawmakers need to pay more attention to what the next director tells them.

Another step must be a substantial pay raise for prison guards, with the hope of restocking the ranks.

The manpower shortage has been blamed for a significant number of the prison system’s problems, and it’s impossible to convince capable people to take on a guard’s job when the risk of violence is rising. The low pay also encourages some guards to take payoffs from inmates and ignore violence.

Reeves deserves credit for addressing the issue forthrightly. He told lawmakers that corrections officers need the proper tools to do their jobs, and they need to be paid fairly.

If he can accomplish that, change MDOC’s penchant for secrecy and keep the state experimenting with less expensive alternative sentences for non-violent convicts, Mississippi’s prisons are bound to improve.

But the other side of this equation is that, in his prior job as lieutenant governor, Reeves had the chance to start solving these problems.

As president of the Senate for eight years, he was the Legislature’s most powerful lawmaker. Difficult budget decisions had to be made, but Reeves and other Republicans got this one wrong.

Now’s the time to remedy that.