In this March 20, 2019, photo, a watch tower stands high on the grounds of the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

On March 26, thousands of incarcerated people at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl congregated in the gymnasium for the start of a week-long revival. 

After Kenneth Copeland finished preaching, Burl Cain took the stage to deliver some news. The commissioner told the crowd that MDOC had decided to relocate the women at CMCF to a part of the prison that housed men, and the men would be moved to the unit where many women live.

Some of the men clapped. But from the back of the gym, where the women sat on folded chairs and raised bleachers, came boos. 

CMCF is the only state-run prison specifically for women and juveniles, but since the early 2000s, MDOC has housed more men than women there. Before the end of April, MDOC plans to move the women from their current housing in 1A Yard to 720, a men’s unit near the back of the prison. 

MDOC says the move will make CMCF safer by limiting interactions between incarcerated men and women. 

But some of the nearly 870 women living at CMCF are concerned the move will lead to MDOC taking away the programs they value. They say 720 is a “roach-infested, filthy, uninhabitable lockdown building with sewage problems” and that the impending move is reflective of a pattern of unequal treatment of women at CMCF. 

Earlier this month, some of the women decided to protest the decision by writing letters they circulated in the prison and delivered, via their families, to state senators. 

“Dear Women of CMCF,” reads one of the letters obtained by Mississippi Today. “This is the time. Women either stand together or we will certainly fall. This is about more than just housing. Women need to assess our situation carefully. This current administration certainly has. If we allow them to move us to 720, this will be the end for us.” 

In an interview with Mississippi Today, Cain characterized the move as an improvement for the women at CMCF. He says MDOC plans to expand, not limit, the women’s rehabilitation programs. 

“The women, in my opinion, should’ve never been in the same compound as the men,” Cain said. “Nowhere else do you see that in the country. We have a chance to separate them, and let them have their own prison, their own campus — that’s the right thing to do, period. If anybody doesn’t like it, they’ll like it, because they’re gonna see it’s good, and we’re gonna make it really good for them.” 

Cain also said the women seemed “happy” when he announced the move at the revival. 

“I don’t know that they booed me,” he said. “I couldn’t hear. Everybody was shouting at me and happy and having a good time.” 

The move was initially slated to take place the first week of April but was delayed, said Pauline Rogers, the president of the RECH Foundation, a religious nonprofit that provides reentry services. On April 5, a warden asked two women from each zone in 1A Yard to give their feedback on the move. 

MDOC has called CMCF “no typical prison” and “the most dynamic” due to its size and varying types of housing units and cells. The prison was built in 1986 by former Gov. William Winter to house women who up until then had been incarcerated alongside men at Parchman State Prison. 

Today, CMCF has the largest population of any state-run prison. About 1,800 men are housed at CMCF, which also serves as the reception and diagnostic center for the entire state prison system. 

In the letters, women at CMCF write that despite poor conditions at 1A Yard, they don’t want to lose the lives they’ve built at the unit. In some buildings at 1A Yard, mold grows on the walls, sewage backs up in the bathroom and the drinking water is brown. 

Still, the women write that 1A Yard is a “central location” to their daily activities. They are able to participate in a variety of programming and activities such as fine art painting, crochet classes, apparel and upholstery, photography club, choir, seminary school, cosmetology and gardening. 

“We have a life here, as dismal as it is,” one woman wrote. 

If relocated to 720, the women are concerned they will lose access to their programs and their overall quality of life will decrease. They say 720 has many of the same substandard housing conditions as 1A Yard yet it has less physical space for services. 720 is further away from the medical center at CMCF, which could negatively impact access to care for a number of frail, elderly women. The architecture of the unit is also set up for men, with open shower bays and urinals instead of single stalls. 

“There is absolutely no reason to take away our quality of life and give it to the men,” one of the letters says. 

Rogers talks to incarcerated people nearly every day through her work and described the proposed move as “a move of death for some of these women.” She is also worried about the potential for a riot if MDOC ignores the women’s concerns.

The women “know they’re convicted and doing time,” Rogers said. “But they (MDOC) keep adding punishment on top of punishment. Punishment seems to be the foundation of the prison system, not rehabilitation. And anything they can do to continue punishing is how they continue to operate. … After a while you get people to a boiling point and they explode.” 

Some of the women say the move to 720 is part of a broader pattern of discrimination at CMCF. They point to a series of changes that occurred last year after MDOC replaced the longtime superintendent who oversaw the facility. Women lost their jobs in the central kitchen, one of the letters says. Then, after an incarcerated man escaped, older women were relocated from their elderly-friendly housing. CMCF started holding programs and activities sporadically. 

“The real problem is one of unequal treatment,” one of the letters says. 

In 2020, the Department of Justice announced it was investigating conditions at CMCF. Five months later, Tate Reeves appointed Cain commissioner. 

Cain told Mississippi Today the move is part of his plan to make room for a GED program at Washington County Regional Correctional Facility by relocating the women there to CMCF. The letters say the move is also to accommodate a new men’s boxing program, on which Cain declined to comment.

In time, Cain said MDOC will rename 720, “and it’ll just be the ‘Mississippi Women’s Prison,’ or some good name for it. I don’t want to say ‘prison’ maybe.” He says MDOC will build a 6,000-square-foot church and a recreation center at 720 that will allow the prison to expand the programs it currently offers the women. 

“The point is, they will be happy because they’re worried that they’ll not have what they had before,” Cain said. “But our goal is for them to have more than they have before.” 

Rogers said it’s ironic that men at MDOC are making these decisions for the women incarcerated at CMCF. She called the move a way to marginalize women at the prison by “moving them out of more than moving them into.” 

She suggested that if the move must occur, then MDOC should “start releasing those women with health issues and elderly women. If you’re going to do any kind of move, make that move. If they have a support system and somewhere to go, move ‘em out.”

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Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on investigating higher education. Originally from Melbourne Beach, Florida, Molly reported on public housing and prosecutors in her home state and worked as a fact-checker at The Nation before joining Mississippi Today. Her story on Mississippi's only class on critical race theory was a finalist for the Education Writers Association National Awards for Education Reporting in 2023 in the feature reporting category.

Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.