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Bill to shutter most of Parchman passes first committee hurdle

After facing initial pushback, a proposal to close most of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman passed its first hurdle in the Senate Corrections Committee Friday morning. 

Senate Bill 2353 by Committee chair Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, proposes shutting down most operations at the state’s oldest and most infamous prison by sending incarcerated people, staff and programs to other facilities. 

The vote comes days after the U.S. Department of Justice released a report slamming unconstitutional conditions at three Mississippi prisons. Parchman was not the focus of the report, but Barnett said two years after the DOJ’s initial report about Parchman, conditions there have not improved much.  

“I know this bill is not the fix-all but we have to start somewhere,” he said. “… Even yesterday was too late and tomorrow will definitely be too late.” 

A key point of the phase down plan is for the state to gain operation of the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility, which is located less than 10 miles away in Tutwiler and run by CoreCivic. 

Earlier this week, committee members asked for more information about how much it would cost for the state to gain operation of the Tutwiler prison and how that compares to the cost to repair Parchman. 

On Friday, Barnett said there is not a contract or memorandum of understanding between the Department of Corrections and CoreCivic in writing yet, but the prison prison company gave an estimate of $14 million a year to lease Tallahatchie Correctional, including the cost of maintenance and upkeep of the facility. 

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, said problems with violence and gang control are present beyond Parchman and failure to address staffing won’t get the prisons under control. 

“Moving the inmates seven miles up the road is not going to solve our problem,” she said before the committee approved the bill. 

Barnett agreed, but added that the reason why the prisons are that way is because money hasn’t been invested to make sure they are secure

He noted that during the riots at the end of 2019 and early 2020, about 1,000 inmates were transferred from Parchman to Tallahatchie Correctional, and there were no problems. 

A committee substitute version of SB 2353 passed, including a name change for Parchman. In the meeting, Barnett said he consulted with members of the Delta delegation about renaming the prison because of its current and historical negative association. 

As of Friday morning, a copy of the committee substitute was not available online. 

The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is scheduled to meet Tuesday. Appropriations Chair Briggs Hopson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After reporting on prison conditions in 2019 by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, the U.S. Department of Justice, at the urging of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and others, began an investigation into four Mississippi prisons, starting with Parchman. It concluded in April 2022 that those imprisoned at Parchman were being subjected to violence, inadequate medical care and lack of suicide prevention.

In a 60-page report released this week, the Justice Department found the state is also violating the constitutional rights of those held in the other three prisons: the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, the South Mississippi Correctional Institution and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.

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