Prison Reform Mississippi Style?

Given the South’s problematic history with equal justice issues, this may be surprising: a Mississippi county may be on its way to becoming a national leader in local prison reform. In May 2015, the Justice Department found that Hinds County, Mississippi’s jails were “in crisis” (which says a lot, considering the very low bar of our poor prison system generally). Hinds County Jail, made up of multiple facilities in and near Jackson, has seen riots, horrific violence, excessive use of solitary confinement, inhumane conditions, and serious understaffing – basically, a more extreme version of the frequent problems seen in prisons all around the country. But what is interesting about the Justice Department’s findings is that Hinds County decided to cooperate to reform itself. And, as a result, some basic and effective prison reform may be forthcoming.

As is common in prisons across the country, overcrowding in Hinds County Jail led to predicable consequences. According to the Department of Justice report, both inmate-on-inmate and guards-on-inmate violence was rampant, and the prisons were so understaffed that inmates were frequently held past their release dates due to the bureaucratic backlog. To give a sense of level of the incompetence, a 13-year-old middle schooler was erroneously held there for an extra 70 days, (jailed for almost 6 months) without ever even being charged with a crime. That’s a broken system.

But consider some of the basic prison reform solutions Hinds County is implementing. One of the simple changes to stop over-incarceration is a flat out ban on jailing people for failing to pay court fines and fees unless the court first determines that the person can afford to pay. This seems pretty basic – no more debtors’ prison. Hinds County is also shifting away from using solitary confinement and is implementing early intervention programs so that juveniles and mentally ill people are generally directed to more useful services and programs, rather than just locked away in prison. The County will work on court diversion programs, to keep people out of prison in the first place, and on rehabilitation programs, so that released prisoners have a chance of making it on the outside, rather than a quick return to prison. Given the County’s history, it’s hard not to temper my optimism with skepticism, but if Hinds County follows through, this may be important and meaningful prison reform.

As we’ve discussed frequently here, mass incarceration is absurdly expensive to taxpayers, has done little to deter crime, and has led to a lost generation, disproportionately comprised of black men, locked away and all but forgotten. Local reforms like these, focusing on basic, commonsense ways to address the problem, are needed to help chisel away at this monumental problem.

A recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice describes that in 2014 and 2015, 46 states enacted over 200 bills, executive orders and ballot initiatives to address mass incarceration. These local reforms often include one or more of the three types of initiatives Hinds County is implementing: (1) court diversion programs, which allow first time or low-level offenders alternatives to a criminal conviction, like making amends through a restorative justice program or participating in treatment; (2) efforts to reduce sentences, use more graduated sentences, and impose more community-based sentences instead of prison; and/or (3) prisoner re-entry programs, trying to help prisoners with a successful transition from prison to the community, so they don’t just end up right back in, as is often the case.

With public opinion and both political parties finally starting to recognize the unproductive damage inflicted by mass incarceration, Congress has been looking to overhaul the criminal justice system on a federal level. But even police chiefs, corrections officials, judges and prosecutors are calling for reforms on a local level. It is time for sensible prison reform on all levels.

Prisoner rights attorney Ron Welch says this photo depicts conditions in the Hinds County Detention Center’s temporary holding tanks before any reforms.


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