Four weeks ago, Tate Reeves likely did not suspect his first press conference as governor would be addressing problems in state prisons.
But that’s just what Reeves did on Thursday, his second full day as governor, as he rolled out his prison plan. Its first phase involved Reeves’ appointing a seven-member search committee to find the department’s next leader, who will be charged with stabilizing the beleaguered agency that employs more than 2,000 people and has roughly 20,000 prisoners under its care.
“We’ve all seen the catastrophe that the current state of our prison system has allowed for,” Reeves said on Thursday. “There will always be bad people in the world who wish to inflict pain on others… We will never fully eradicate evil, but we can do better than this. In fact, we must do better than this.”
Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, a former House Corrections Committee chairman, will lead the search for a new commissioner beginning immediately, Reeves said.
Other members of the committee include retired Leake County Sheriff Greg Waggoner, Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, Harrison County District Attorney Joel Smith, former Parole Board member Kathy Henry, Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing and Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Sean Tindell.
Owens, the Hinds County D.A., formerly headed the Southern Poverty Law Center of Mississippi, which represented prisoners in several lawsuits against the state. Waggoner helped initiate a federal investigation that led to the indictment of former corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and businessman Cecil McCrory for orchestrating a bribery and kickback scheme.
Reeves also announced that Tommy Taylor, another corrections committee chairman and current mayor of Boyle, will serve as interim commissioner. Taylor and three search committee members were not present at Thursday’s announcement.
The interim and permanent commissioners will walk into a mess at the department.
Years of state underfunding and overcrowding preceded several violent outbreaks inside the state’s prisons in recent months, including one that killed at least five inmates during the first week of January.
The U.S. Department of Justice was summoned by advocacy groups, and a high-profile lawsuit filed this week has brought international attention to the crisis.
Hundreds of correctional officer positions within the department remain vacant as low salaries and a high stress work environment deter potential employees. The physical conditions of the actual prisons do not meet basic needs and have at times allowed inmates to roam units, upping the risk of violent outbreaks.
Advocates and family members of incarcerated Mississippians blame the Legislature, where Reeves was a top leader the past eight year, and other elected officials for ignoring pleas for additional resources and sentencing reforms. In many cases, those pleas came from Department of Corrections officials themselves.
With mounting problems, some have expressed concern the state could move to privatize its prison systems. When asked on Thursday if long term privatization was on the table, Reeves said: “I’m not going to stand before you today and take anything off the table.”
When asked on Thursday how the prison system got to its current state, Reeves deflected.
“I’m less interested in what’s happened in the past and more interested in what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “There’s nothing that can be done or changed about the past… While I know a lot of people want to play the blame game and point fingers, none of that really matters. We are where we are today, and our job as leaders is to develop a plan and a path forward.”
But during other moments in his 32-minute press conference on Thursday, Reeves pointed fingers. He said that “the former administration,” led by former Gov. Phil Bryant, earned little trust at the Legislature and vowed to appoint a commissioner who “I can trust and members of the Legislature and the people of Mississippi can trust.”
He questioned how “the previous administration” spent appropriated funds and suggested the corrections department might not have adhered to sentencing reforms mandated by the Mississippi Parole Board.
Citing his short time on the job, Reeves was unable to give detailed answers to several questions, including whether other buildings were available to accommodate inmates in the deteriorating Unit 29 and what exactly led to the recent violence in Unit 29 at Parchman.
Reeves said he has set no specific timetable for the search for a permanent commissioner, adding, “we’d much rather get it done right than get it done quick.”
“We will make progress, day by day, until we have a system we can trust,” Reeves said. “It’ll be a long road, but it starts here today.”