Parchman’s Unit 29 to be closed in weeks, Reeves says

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

A sate penitentiary warning sign located near the community of Rome, Miss. Rome is located less than five miles from Parchman.

The process of closing what Gov. Tate Reeves’ administration called Parchman penitentiary’s “infamous” Unit 29 will be completed in the coming weeks.

Reeves, the former lieutenant governor, in his first months as governor, announced in his January State of the State speech intentions to close Unit 29, the primary site of violence that overwhelmed the state Department of Corrections in December and January, resulting in multiple prisoner deaths.

Reeves announced during a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the Sillers Building in Jackson that the process began Wednesday with the transfer of 50 prisoners. The inmates are being moved to the private Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, about five miles from Parchman in the Delta.

He described the transfer, which is being aided by the Mississippi Highway Patrol, as a “time consuming” process. He said cells phones, weapons and marijuana were confiscated during the first round of transfers.

More than 600 prisoners will be moved to the private prison. When that process is complete, the only inmates remaining in Unit 29 will be those on death row and a group of inmates who provide support services for the state penitentiary at Parchman, which includes more than just Unit 29.

In Phil Bryant’s final days as governor, he signed an executive order transferring about 375 inmates from Unit 29 to Tallahatchie County in part, he said, to separate some of the inmates involved in the violence. The Bryant administration negotiated a price of $65 per day per inmate with Nashville-based CoreCivic, which owns the Tallahatchie County prison. A new price of $62.50 daily per inmate will be paid for those being transferred under the Reeves administration.

(Editor’s note: Mississippi Today board member and donor Charles Overby has served on the CoreCivic board of directors since December 2001.)

At the time, it was believed that state law limited the cost that could be paid to the private company at about $49 per day, thus necessitating the emergency order. Some legislators expressed concern with the contract the Bryant administration signed with the private company.

But the Reeves administration believes that the $49 per day cap is an average for all inmates and that the higher cost per day for those classified as the highest risk, those being moved to Tallahatchie County, is allowable. Still, Reeves is leaving the emergency order in effect.

“Justice must be our focus for all Mississippians,” Reeves said. “We have never forgotten that during our work to restore order, and it will be an ongoing effort throughout our time in office.”

Reeves said called the move a short-term solution and is eyeing reopening Walnut Grove in Leake County, in central Mississippi, as a permanent fix. Walnut Grove was originally a juvenile prison, but was converted to an adult facility after a court found a pattern of sexual and physical abuse of the children housed there. The facility was eventually shuttered after a federal judge said the prison was rampant with abuse, violence and mismanagement.

A bill currently making its way through the legislative process authorizes state officials to assess the cost to reopen the prison.

Both Walnut Grove and the Tallahatchie prison have individual cells where one or two inmates can be housed, thus providing more control than Unit 29, which has what are called “open bays” allowing inmates more freedom to move about at all times.

The Reeves administration has indicated that it might request a step up in funding for the Department of Corrections during the current legislative session. But on Wednesday Reeves said he believes his administration’s scrutiny of the agency will result in financial savings that can be used for “just purposes,” including additional pay for corrections officers. There also has been talk in the Legislature in recent days of the need to hire more parole officers and to reduce the size of the inmate population, which is about 19,000.

“We have people in prison today that do not need to be there,” Reeves said.

Part of the conversation has centered on changing the state’s habitual criminal laws, which have resulted in long sentences for non-violent criminals.

Only Louisiana and Oklahoma have larger prison populations per capita than Mississippi.