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Foretold 'uprising' hits cash-starved Mississippi prisons

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The leader of Mississippi’s underfunded prison system was pleading with lawmakers for money to hire more guards and pay them better in 2012 when he warned, “I see trouble down the road.”

Christopher Epps, a longtime Mississippi Department of Corrections employee, would later go to prison himself for collecting $1.4 million in bribes. But during budget hearings in October 2012, he said keeping salaries for guards the lowest in the nation would only work “as long as we don’t have an uprising.”

The uprising arrived last week when five inmates died at the hands of fellow prisoners and two of the state’s largest prisons were rocked by what corrections officials called “major disturbances” between gangs. Some observers called them riots. Corrections officials have not said how many inmates were injured.

Now, with a new governor's inauguration looming and a new prison chief to be selected, Mississippi leaders face choices. They could pump tens of millions more dollars into a prison budget that already strains finances in the nation’s poorest state. They could try to resume stalled progress toward letting people out of prison in a state with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Or they could try to put a Band-Aid on the current crisis and keep locking people up without spending more money.

Phil Bryant, Mississippi’s outgoing governor, on Monday blamed gangs operating inside the prison system, saying prisons are difficult to manage “under the best of circumstances.” Bryant spoke specifically about the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

“Someone asked earlier, who’s responsible for what’s happening at Parchman? The inmates,” Bryant told reporters. “The inmates are the ones that take each other’s lives. The inmates are the ones that fashion weapons out of metal ... So, I would say look to the inmates.”

But others say it’s the state’s responsibility to keep prisoners safe.

“The Mississippi Department of Corrections needs to be responsible for this massacre,” said Malaika Canada, a prisoner advocate whose son is incarcerated at East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian.

After violence Thursday, guards and state troopers marched some prisoners at Parchman into Unit 32, a cell block closed in 2011 as part of a lawsuit settlement. In July 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union told a federal judge that Unit 32’s living conditions were “as bad as anywhere in the country.”

Bryant, a Republican who leaves office Jan. 14, said Monday that “inmates' needs are being met.”

“Bottled water was brought in this morning,” Bryant said. “Food service has intensified to make sure that we could get the necessary food to them. We talked earlier today about any prescription medication that the inmates may need.”

Two prisoners escaped from Parchman during the uproar. Both have been recaptured. Dillion Willams was caught Monday in a wooded area near Rossville, Tennessee, by officers from multiple agencies.

Statistics reveal stress at the three prisons directly run by the state. At Parchman, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl and South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville, only about half of security posts were filled in the budget year ending June 30, 2019, according to documents the Corrections Department submitted last summer to budget writers. More than 1,000 times, prison employees had to work a double shift because there was no one to take their place.

While Mississippi provides plenty of inmate alcohol and drug rehabilitation opportunities, prisons remain rife with drugs. At Central Mississippi, which in part takes in prisoners just sentenced, 72% of tests showed drugs. At South Mississippi, 30% of drug tests came back positive.

Drugs and violence at prisons that were supposed to be locked down raise questions about whether guards are involved. Some low-paid guards have been indicted for smuggling illegal drugs and cellphones to prisoners. Bribes to guards may come from money extorted from prisoners' families. Past reports have shown relatives sending cash cards after imprisoned kin were threatened with harm.

“When they're on lockdown, if they can't keep people safe, we've got some administrative issues,” said Scott Colom, a district attorney in northeast Mississippi.

“They're on lockdown,” said Canada. “You can't get out of lockdown without keys.”

More than two-thirds of inmates leave the institutions without a high-school degree or equivalent, yet the three state-run prisons provide adult basic education slots for less than 4% of inmates. Only 241 of more than 10,000 inmates completed an adult basic education course in the year ended June 30, 2019. Opportunities for vocational education are even fewer.

Mississippi's current corrections commissioner, Pelicia Hall, has repeatedly told legislators that prisons are understaffed. State corrections officials are seeking an additional $67 million in the budget year beginning July 1 at the three state-run prisons. That would hire 800 more guards, raise starting salaries for guards from the current $25,650 to $30,370, and increase pay for current employees.

The documents state the prisons need more guards to “provide adequate security coverage" for inmates.

Officials also ask $22.3 million to renovate Unit 29, a Parchman cell block that was one focus of rioting.

Bryant has sought some increased prison funding, but not as much as $67 million.

And top legislators are recommending the opposite — that Mississippi spend even less next year than this year.

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Amy reported from Atlanta.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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