Mississippi governor tours prison rocked by deadly violence

Published 5:34 pm Thursday, January 23, 2020

JACKSON — Mississippi’s new governor says he and the interim corrections commissioner toured a troubled state prison to see conditions and to try to understand what led to an outburst of deadly violence in recent weeks.

Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday that he and the commissioner, Tommy Taylor, also toured an empty prison that the state owns. Reeves, who took office Jan. 14, said it’s possible the state could move some inmates into the empty prison in the central Mississippi town of Walnut Grove.

That prison was previously managed by a private company, and Reeves said it could be again. But he said no plans have been made to move prisoners and no timeline is set.

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“We know that there are problems in the system,” Reeves said. “We don’t want to hide them. We want to fix them.”

At least 10 inmates have died in Mississippi prisons since late December, most of them in violent confrontations at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman — one of the prisons Reeves and Taylor toured. Prison officials have attributed some of the violence to clashes between gangs.

Two inmates died by hanging, and prison officials said one of those was alone in a cell with the lock jammed from the inside. A Department of Corrections statement said the other hanging appeared to be a suicide.

Reeves said the state is taking immediate steps to try to improve living conditions at Parchman, which he described as “terrible.” Multiple health department inspections have shown problems there, such as broken sinks and toilets, holes in cell walls and widespread mold and mildew in showers.

In one of his first acts as governor, Reeves appointed a committee led by Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. to find a permanent corrections commissioner. Flaggs was also part of Thursday’s tour of Parchman.

“I applaud Gov. Reeves’ transparency and courage as he faced some of Mississippi’s most violent offenders and saw firsthand the challenges we’re up against,” Flaggs said. “I have the highest level of respect for the governor because of the expedited action he’s taken to correct the systemic issues facing Mississippi’s corrections system.”

Reeves said the Walnut Grove prison is newer and more solidly built than some of the buildings at Parchman. For example, the cell walls at Walnut Grove are made of poured concrete while some of the cell walls at Parchman are made of cinder blocks. Reeves said it would be more difficult for inmates to chip holes into the solid concrete walls to hide contraband items.

Reeves said inmates have found ways to jam the locks on some cells at Parchman, contributing to security problems.

All wardens and deputy wardens have been put on 12-hour shifts to ensure leaders are always present at Parchman, Reeves said. He said prison guards are being screened for indications that they might be involved in gangs. A Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agent has been assigned to work at Parchman to uncover criminal activity among inmates or employees that might have contributed to the violence, Reeves said.

Prison officials are evaluating whether some prisoners should be moved to a different level of security — either higher security if they are more of a risk or lower security if they are less of one.

“A lot of these things will seem like common sense,” Reeves said. “That’s because they are. They’ve been needed for a long time, but we are starting from where we are.”

Reeves said that during his tour of Parchman, he was near prisoners but did not speak with them. He said he was accompanied by security officers.

Department of Corrections officials have repeatedly told lawmakers in recent years that prison guards are underpaid and it’s difficult to fill the jobs. They also requested more money to improve some of the buildings at Parchman. Budget writers turned down those requests. Reeves was lieutenant governor for the past eight years and was one of the top budget writers.

Asked Thursday about his role in setting prison budgets, Reeves said he’s not looking back but is focusing on fixing problems going forward.

“I’ve been appalled by things that I’ve learned in the last week, but proud of the potential that I’ve seen from many of the people working to rebuild,” Reeves said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but I can tell you with confidence that everyone in our administration is taking this very, very seriously. I’m not here to make empty promises. The issues within the department didn’t happen overnight, and they won’t be fixed overnight.”