Gov. Tate Reeves tours Walnut Grove Correctional Facility

JACKSON — Fresh off a visit to two state prisons, Gov. Tate Reeves outlined a series of immediate steps his administration is taking to “restore order” at the embattled Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman  Thursday.

Among the changes include a pledge of greater transparency as well as restricting contraband cellphones, screening correctional officers for gang affiliation and performing maintenance work on facilities, Reeves told reporters. Reeves said he currently has no plans to ask the Legislature for increased funding to the corrections department.

“A lot of these changes seem like common sense,” Reeves said. “That’s because they are.”

Rooting out corruption at the Mississippi Department of Corrections is key as well, he said, adding that “99.9 percent” of problems are “inmate-caused.”

State officials now face a federal lawsuit over Parchman’s Unit 29 and reports of a Department of Justice investigation as they attempt to resolve longstanding issues with a prisons system that has seen millions of dollars slashed from its budget and significant drops in correctional officer staffing in recent years.

Still, the new governor’s law-and-order approach to cleaning up the system faces mounting pressure from prisoners’ advocates, many of whom rallied at the Capitol Thursday to call for structural changes to how and why people are sent to prison and what kinds of conditions they experience there.

Though Reeves avoided describing a correctional system as in crisis, speakers at the rally spoke of feces-covered floors and exposed wiring, and a mounting death toll. At least 10 people have died while incarcerated since Dec. 29.

“If these conditions were known to exist at any one of the Mississippi animal rescue centers, the operator would be jailed and the facility would be closed,” said Velesha Williams, most recently a Democratic candidate for governor. “Yet for decades, this has gone on in Mississippi.”

Earlier that day, Reeves toured Parchman, where at least seven prisoners have died since reports of violence in the facility surfaced beginning New Year’s Eve. Reeves described conditions at Unit 29 there “pretty rough.”

Reeves also visited Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which the state abruptly closed in 2016 following litigation from civil rights groups that resulted in a consent decree after years of violence and allegations of corruption.

Reeves didn’t rule out the possibility of re-opening Walnut Grove to house prisoners from Parchman, a facility widely acknowledged to be structurally in disrepair. If the state chooses to relocate inmates to Walnut Grove, it would likely hire a private contractor to run the facility, Reeves said.

A law passed in the 2019 legislative session authorized Walnut Grove to hold prisoners at any custody level. Previously, Utah-based Management and Training Corp. operated the prison.

Among the other changes Reeves said MDOC is implementing after the appointment of interim Commissioner Tommy Taylor last week are: deploying an agent from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to Parchman to investigate criminal activity within the system or by prisoners; re-locating prisoners across the facility; and placing wardens and deputy wardens to 12-hour shifts.

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.

Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.