There are several reasons why Mississippi’s prisons have reached the crisis point they have.
The state went overboard in locking up offenders, sending too many to prison for too long. The Legislature failed to heed the repeated warnings that if they didn’t spend more on corrections, they were not going to be able to attract prison guards or keep the prisons in habitable shape. And the corruption scandal of former Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps didn’t help, as it resulted in then Gov. Phil Bryant selecting successive corrections chiefs who were high on integrity but low on corrections experience.
Epps knew corrections backwards and forwards, having started as a prison guard and worked his way up. He was the longest-serving corrections commissioner in state history, keeping the job even as governors and the political party of those in power changed from Democrat to Republican. He implemented enough improvements at the prisons that, even as the prison population soared, he was able in 2011 to get a federal judge to end its 40-year oversight of Mississippi’s corrections system.
Problem was, Epps was crooked, shaking down contractors for at least $1.4 million in kickbacks and bribes in return for steering the state’s prison business their way. Maybe he understood the inmate mentality so well because he had a similar criminal disposition.
In reaction to that scandal, Bryant first selected Marshall Fisher, a no-nonsense veteran lawman, to clean things up, followed by Pelicia Hall, a government attorney who worked with the Department of Corrections but really didn’t know how to run prisons. As the chaos built, Hall’s default response was to put prisons on indefinite lockdowns, which only contributed to the tensions within the cell blocks. As Hall’s tenure wound down, the prisons exploded with violence that claimed several lives and damaged one of the inmate housing units at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman so badly that it had to be abandoned.
Tate Reeves, Bryant’s successor, hopefully won’t repeat that mistake when he names the next permanent corrections chief, but he legally could. That’s because state law does not require the corrections commissioner to necessarily have corrections experience.
It’s a bad law and needs to be changed.
In the meantime, Reeves can learn from Bryant’s hiring mistakes. Mississippi needs a corrections professional in that job, someone who knows how to recruit and train guards, how to deal with gangs and how to persuade lawmakers to put the resources into prisons to keep them safe and fully staffed. It should go without saying that the other expectation is that the candidate be incorruptible.
This hire is going to be one of the most important ones that Reeves will make. He has to get it right.