JACKSON, Miss. -- As Mississippi lawmakers seek ways to improve a prison system shaken by recent deadly violence, a related problem is looming: A judge said Tuesday that parole officers are “woefully underpaid and overworked."
Circuit Judge Prentiss Harrell said parole officers often handle hundreds of cases each. That has contributed to an increase in the prison population, because a growing number of ex-inmates are being returned to prison for parole violations.
Mississippi remains one of the nation's poorest states, with one of the highest incarceration rates.
At least 15 inmates have died in the Mississippi prison system since late December. Most were in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, and many died amid violent conflicts between inmates. Some were suicides.
Some of Mississippi's prisons also have had longstanding problems with holes in cell walls, broken sinks and toilets in cells and widespread mold in showers.
Mississippi's prison population decreased between early 2012 and early 2016 because of some policy changes. But the prisons' population has crept back up in the past four years because some former inmates are returning to custody for violating terms of their parole, said Harrell, who leads a group that evaluates the state's criminal justice system.
Mississippi prisons held nearly 21,500 inmates in January 2012. Legislators enacted criminal justice system changes in mid-2014. By January 2016, the prison population had decreased to just over 18,600. But by the end of 2019, it was back up to almost 19,200.
Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Brice Wiggins said Tuesday that it's too early to know whether legislators will set aside money for the state to hire more probation and parole officers.
"We realize that this is a significant issue and we've got to look at that,” said Wiggins, a Republican from Pascagoula.
Harrell said he has toured all Mississippi prisons. He said many are in bad shape, and the state should spend money to improve them.
The task force recommends that the state do more to help inmates make the transition from prison to the outside world as they finish their terms or are released on parole. It says the state should provide more transitional housing to help inmates who would otherwise be homeless.
“For many years, we were guilty in this state of giving them 20 bucks and a bus ticket and saying, ‘Go be good,’" Harrell said.
The task force also recommends that the state ease the process for some former inmates to receive help through “intervention courts." Such courts provide guidance for people who have mental health issues or problems with drug use.
Matthew Charles is a former Tennessee prisoner who advocates for sentencing reform for a national group called FAMM, previously known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums. He says Mississippi needs to offer better programs to rehabilitate prisoners.
“They're not learning anything while they're incarcerated because there's no real programming that is able to benefit them so they can actually get out, get a job and make a living wage,” Charles said Tuesday at the Mississippi Capitol.
In 2014, Mississippi legislators and then-Gov. Phil Bryant sought to control prison costs and to reduce the incarceration rate. Republican Bryant signed a law modeled on criminal-justice changes enacted in Texas, Georgia and other states with Republican governors who campaigned as being tough on crime.
The Mississippi law said anyone convicted of a violent offense will be required to serve at least 50% of a sentence, and anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense will have to serve at least 25%. It gave judges more flexibility to impose alternate sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users.
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.
This story has been updated to correct the national group name to Families Against Mandatory Minimums from Families for Mandatory Minimums.