Parchman prison. Jan. 10, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Visitation at all Mississippi Department of Corrections prisons has been suspended, Commissioner Burl Cain said in an internal memo Monday.

MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain sent out an internal memo on Monday announcing updates to the department’s COVID-19 precautions, including cancelling visitations.

Visitation had just been reinstated in May 2021 after nearly 15 months. The Mississippi Department of Corrections had suspended all visitation in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. Now, as COVID-19 variants grip Mississippi, MDOC closes its doors to visitors once again.

Mississippi is currently facing a “fourth wave” of COVID infections spurred in large part by the highly contagious Delta variant. On Tuesday, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 1,291 new cases, a much higher figure than the daily case reports in May.

“We are trying to protect inmates from the current surge of the Delta variant,” MDOC Deputy Commissioner Leo Honeycutt told Mississippi Today.

MDOC will quarantine people in prison for 10 days before transferring them to new facilities, and “masks will be worn by staff and inmates while indoors,” Cain said in Monday’s memo. He also said movement from county jails to prisons “will be done in a limited, controlled, and safe manner” with COVID-19 screenings conducted daily.

“With two-thirds of the state still unvaccinated, we have to protect inmates from outbreaks on the outside,” Cain said in a release.

Loved ones of incarcerated people said they are upset with visitation being cancelled again. When MDOC reinstated visitation in May, the department had only done so after mandating that people in prison be vaccinated against COVID-19

According to MDOC, 99% of incarcerated people at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility are fully vaccinated; 93% at the Missisippi State Penitentiary and 82% at the South Mississippi Correctional Institute.

While MDOC has required incarcerated people to be vaccinated, the department is not requiring staff or correctional officers, who enter and exit the prisons daily, to be vaccinated.

When visitation began again in May, many loved ones of incarcerated people said the new visitation policy was too restrictive. MDOC did not allow children under 18 to visit the prisons, and the department only allowed two people to visit once a month.

“I have been crying about it,” Rebecca Ellis, whose husband is in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, said. “I have gotten to see him three times in the past three months. Before that, it was over a year.”

“And (my husband and I) are both vaccinated, so it seems unfair,” Ellis said.

As of July 8, MDOC reported no active confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the 15,066 people in the department’s state, private and regional prisons, though MDOC reported 1,467 cases to date. Last week, facilities in Raymond operated by the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office saw 74 staff and detained people test positive in a COVID-19 outbreak. The Hinds County Sheriff Lee Vance later tested positive and had to quarantine, according to the Clarion Ledger.

“Resuming visitation depends entirely on how quickly the Delta variant is under control,” Cain said.

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Brittany Brown was Mississippi Today’s Justice Reporter, covering the state’s justice system with an eye for racial justice and inequity. Brittany formerly served as Mississippi Today's inaugural Emerging Reporters Fellow.