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MDOC promotes inmate boxing program, but lawmakers say money could be better spent

Boxing in sanctioned matches in a ring donated by rapper Jay-Z. Throwing and catching a football in the yard. Facing off in table tennis matches.  

Sports teams have come to Missisisppi’s prison system, giving incarcerated people a creative way to stay active, change attitudes, build sportsmanship and help in their rehabilitation, corrections officials said. 

“We encourage our inmates to be involved in sports activities as it battles idleness in prison. We have created many different teams to allow them to get out of their dorms and participate in being active”, Commissioner Burl Cain said in a Wednesday news release. 

Research has found that prison sports programs have social, mental and physical benefits, and participation in sports can help lessen detrimental health impacts people experience through incarceration. 

But the bipartisan chairs of the Legislature’s corrections committees are questioning why incarcerated people have been allowed to participate in boxing, which they say could create a violent environment and put the state on the hook for the boxers’ medical care if they are injured.

House Corrections Chair Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, and Senate Corrections Chair Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, said there are better uses of MDOC’s budget than a sport as harmful as boxing. 

They would rather see the department focus on a number of other efforts, including drug and alcohol treatment, job training and housing placements to prepare people to leave prison and not return.

“We have to make sure we’re not teaching them to box,” said Currie, who is serving her first session as chair of the committee. “… This is not where we need to spend our time and our money.”

Barnett said incarcerated people should have access to recreation and time out in the yard, and he sees how supporters can see rehabilitative value in boxing and other sports teams. But those are less of a priority compared to MDOC’s main role: to correct people, he said.

Boxing programs exist around the country in state and federal prisons, including in Louisiana

The Angola State Penitentiary, where Cain served as warden, has a team. Henry Montgomery, who founded the program as an inmate, helped form the boxing teams there. Montgomery was released from prison in 2021 at the age of 75. His case led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that all states were required to retroactively apply the ban on mandatory death-in-prison sentences for juveniles that it announced in its earlier Miller v. Alabama ruling. 

In the news release, MDOC said the boxing team members are required to take drug tests and have a pre-match physical. 

During the matches, medical staff and ringside trainers are present along with referees, timekeepers and official judges. Mississippi Athletic Commission Chairman Randy Phillips has helped with boxing training and is ensuring that MDOC’s safety equipment meets standards, according to the news release. 

Parchman’s first boxing match was in November against incarcerated boxers who traveled to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman from the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, according to MDOC. Creation of a boxing program at CMCF has been cited as a reason why the women were relocated from the 1A-Yard to unit 720 in 2022. 

A pamphlet shared with Mississippi Today showcases a March 28 “Fight for the Title” event hosted at Parchman. Listed were the 22 members of the boxing team, 14 of whom fought in matches that day. 

Tangya Allen-Elliott attended both boxing events to support her nephew, Carlos Allen, who coaches the boxing team. She said the March event had a good atmosphere and the matches seemed professional and safe. 

Allen, 35, was appointed as the boxing team coach because of his leadership, Allen-Elliott said. Prior to incarceration, he played sports, refereed and coached. 

He has been in the state prison system for three years and at Parchman for over a year, his aunt said. Allen was sentenced to over 100 years for drug trafficking, sale of fentanyl and possession of other drugs. Additionally, he was sentenced as a habitual offender, meaning he is not eligible for parole.

Being part of the boxing team has helped her nephew have a positive impact on others and mentor younger men – all of which give him hope in prison. 

She said the sport is a great opportunity for the men, and she hopes it can serve as a guide for other states, such as Alabama, where she lives.

“They’re on the right track,” Allen-Elliot said about boxing in Mississippi prisons. 

“I had never seen a prison do something to this impact.” 

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