Prison reforms target contraband, conjugal visits, drones and guard pay

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Stan Fong, Wikimedia Commons

The hospital corridor at Alcatraz prison in California.

In recent weeks, state leaders have hinted at a set of criminal-justice reforms that will be introduced this legislative session, a package that could include revising lengthy prison sentences and adding ways to expunge prior criminal records.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is pushing for conservative lawmakers to support broad changes across the state’s justice system, citing the passage of the federal First Step Act, which President Donald Trump signed in December.

“Much work remains in this critical area, and this session I will ask you to take the next step in criminal justice reform,” Bryant said in his State of the State speech earlier this week. “As a former law enforcement officer, I realize some believe our innovations will somehow be soft on crime. Nothing could be further from reality.”

“If we hope to ever lower our crime rate, we must start with the 33 percent that leave our correctional system only to return within three years,” Bryant said. “If President Donald J. Trump can pass nationwide criminal justice reform through a gridlocked and hyper-partisan congress, surely we can do so right here in Mississippi.”

The House and Senate corrections committees will hold a joint hearing on Monday to discuss more details on priorities of the legislative leadership, which could include measures that make it easier for people leaving prison to return and front-end reforms like making drug courts more affordable.

In his budget recommendation, the governor called for $1 million for workforce-development programs in the Department of Corrections, $6 million toward repairing Unit 29 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman and over $7 million to put correctional officer salaries in line with those of neighboring states.

MDOC

Pelicia Hall, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections

Mississippi’s top prisons official, Pelicia Hall, supports such measures, telling lawmakers this week that she was seeking $22.3 million to renovate Parchman’s Unit 29 and that she wants the salaries of correctional officer jobs to be competitive with private firms like Nissan, Cooper Tire and Fedex.

At a Senate Corrections Committee hearing Wednesday morning, the corrections commissioner made a case for the rest of her wishlist this legislative session, which includes revamping prisoner uniforms to remove the “CONVICT” label from the back, removing the agency from under the state personnel board and relaxing some the requirements for complying with the state’s Public Records Act.

“A lot of the requesters want to hold us strictly to the Public Records Act” in terms of the deadlines the act sets, the commissioner told committee members. State law requires public agencies to provide documents responsive to a public records request within seven working days, although extensions are allowed by law.

Hall and a staff attorney for the agency, Andrea Barnes, believe requesters who are currently suing MDOC are circumventing the discovery process by requesting public records, and that requestors who file multiple requests in a short period of time are abusing the system. The agency is also concerned that releasing of the records people are asking for may pose safety concerns.

“There should be some limitations on what you’re transparent about,” Hall added.

In the last five years, Mississippi lawmakers have passed two rounds of criminal justice reforms aimed at cutting the state’s prison population and associated costs.

Here are some other criminal justice bills that have been filed in the last two weeks:

  • Several bills have been filed concerning conjugal and familial visits for state prisoners. One, H.B. 2o by Rep. William Shirley, R-Quitman, would ban conjugal visits altogether, while H.B. 56 by Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson, would require DOC to provide them for married inmates. Mississippi, which was the first state to offer conjugal visits at Parchman Farm, banned the visits as MDOC agency policy in 2012. In the last two years, MDOC has instituted special family visits for good behavior. H.B. 57, also by Banks, would require such a family visitation program for eligible inmates.
  • Private citizens considering using drones to capture aerial footage of state prisons could be hampered by S.B. 2262, introduced by Senate corrections chairman Sampson Jackson II, D-Preston. The bill would ban such devices “near and above” correctional facilities.
  • Rep. Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, wants to revive a controversial gang bill for the third year running that would revise the 1996 Mississippi Streetgang Act: H.B. 685 would define gangs as “three or more persons whose members are involved in criminal gang activity…and whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity” such as a common name, tattoo, clothing style, hairstyle or handsign. Similar bills authored by former Rep. and current Commissioner of Agriculture Andy Gipson have died in recent years.
  • House corrections chairman Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia, has introduced a bill that would allow judges to penalize inmates and correctional employees up to twice the current penalty if they are found guilty of possessing illegal drugs, cell phones, or cell phone components in correctional facilities. Current statute says that judges can sentence people guilty of possessing prohibited items to prison for three to 15 years and to a fine of up to $25,000.
  • People convicted of nonviolent offenses could have their sentences reduced by 10 percent for each twelfth-grade level, end-of-year subject test passed, per H.B. 198 by Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel.