Gov. Reeves, in first State of the State, vows to shutter Parchman’s Unit 29; highlights ‘school choice’ and trade skills

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Gov. Tate Reeves delivers his first State of the State Address at the State Capitol Monday, January 27, 2020.

JACKSON — Amid mounting pressure from advocates, families, federal officials and even rappers, Gov. Tate Reeves announced Monday that he intends to shut down the most dangerous unit in Mississippi’s most notorious prison.

“I have instructed the Mississippi Department of Corrections to begin the necessary work to start closing Parchman’s most notorious unit — Unit 29,” Reeves said during his inaugural State of the State address on the south steps of the Capitol.

The announcement comes on the heels of a chaotic month for Mississippi’s correctional system. To date, at least 12 people have died in state correctional facilities. At least seven deaths occurred in Parchman alone, in the unit Reeves said he intends to close.

“There are many logistical questions that will need to be answered—we’re working through that right now. But I have seen enough. We have to turn the page.”

The state is currently facing a lawsuit over Parchman’s Unit 29 as well as reports of a Department of Justice investigation amid attempts to resolve longstanding issues with a prison system that has seen millions of dollars in budget cuts and a declining roster of correctional staff.

The Parchman news was the biggest revelation from Reeves’ first State of the State address, which he delivered Monday evening on the south steps of the Mississippi Capitol. The state’s Supreme Court justices, appeals court judges, statewide elected officials and legislators gathered under a chilly breeze as the new governor laid out his agenda for the first time since his election.

During the 35-minute speech, Reeves, a Republican, covered much of the same ground as his 2019 campaign for governor and his previous two terms as lieutenant governor.

He spoke in support of what he called school choice efforts, a cause he championed during his past two terms in office. He praised advocates who worked to create “more opportunity, choice and access” for the state’s most vulnerable students.

During his tenure as lieutenant governor, Republican leaders ushered in a host of school choice legislation that paved the way for charter schools n Mississippi and created the Education Scholarship Account program. Known by critics as “vouchers,” the ESA program has proven controversial because it provides parents with public funds to send their special needs children to private schools. The law expires this year, meaning if the Legislature does not extend the program during this session the program will die.

“There has been a concerted effort to undermine and attack those reforms,” he said. “We must hold the line against those who would undo the very reforms that are lifting children up.”

Reeves focused a portion of his speech on boosting workforce development and skills training in the state, blaming “the arrogance of an elite class” and “metropolitan narcissists” for insisting that all Mississippi students should pursue a four-year college degree. While saying that “we’re proud of our universities” and “we need bankers and doctors, journalists and lawyers,” Reeves said the state must invest in training Mississippians to match skills with vacant jobs.

“The big lie is that every American must embark on the same path,” Reeves said. “We can take advantage of this national myth. Because in Mississippi, we know that there is pride in a trade. We know that there is money to be made. We can let the east coast have their ivory towers. We can let the west coast have a generation of gender studies majors. We will take more jobs and higher pay.”

Rep. John Faulkner, D-Holly Springs, said he was disappointed to hear Reeves still appeared to voice opposition to expanding Medicaid as allowed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, to provide health coverage to primarily the working poor.

“In my opinion, the way to improve health care in Mississippi is to expand Medicaid, which he has been fighting for years,” Faulkner said. “It seems that the way to invest in health care is to take $9 in federal money for every $1 in state money through Medicaid expansion to cover 300,000 Mississippians.”

During his speech, Reeves fired another warning shot to leaders who have floated the idea but did not acknowledge that some in his own party, including Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, have pitched it. Earlier in the speech he referred to Obamacare as a big government “trap.”

“We can invest in health care. We should invest in health care,” Reeves said. “We can protect rural hospitals. We can protect the people of Mississippi. I am eager to work with each of you to do so. We can and we should do all of this without succumbing to the siren song of big government.”

In both his inauguration speech and State of the State address, Reeves touched on the notion of unity and his desire to reflect the state and defend “the loving culture that underpins our quality of life.”

In the Democratic response, Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez questioned those statements.

“All of Mississippi should not just mean Madison, Rankin and DeSoto counties. All of Mississippi should not just mean people of one race, one faith, one gender, one sexual orientation or one political party. One Mississippi should truly mean all of Mississippi.”

The Democrats offered their own solutions for infrastructure, corrections and teacher pay, repeatedly noting their willingness to work together and collaborate with the Republican majority which controls the House and Senate.

Johnson said the state has a responsibility to provide the funds to ensure that both inmates and correctional staff are protected. In addition, he bemoaned the continued exit of educated young Mississippians from the state and said more must be done to address the issue.

Both the Democrats and Reeves agreed that a good point to start work in the 2020 session is on increasing teacher pay.

“We are ready to shed our labels and reach across the aisle and work with Gov. Reeves,” Johnson said. “Mississippians are in a fight for the survival of our state.”

After the speech, several Republicans rated Reeves’ speech favorably.

Rep. Dan Eubanks, R-Walls, said Reeves “touched on most of the things I care about most, and I look forward to the next four years to see if it pans out.”

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said he thought the speech “hit on the (relevant) issues and it set out a good course.”

“We won’t always get it right the first time, and we won’t always agree on everything,” Reeves said near the end of his speech. “But I know that all of you care about the people we serve. You share that Mississippi spirit which unites every citizen of this precious state. I know that Mississippi’s best days are ahead of us.”