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Parchman closure legislation dies in Senate committee

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.

FILE – In this July 21, 2010, photo, employees leave the front gate of the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss. An inmate at the Mississippi prison that was a focus of recent deadly unrest was found hanging in his cell by two corrections officers over the weekend and pronounced dead, a coroner said Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

  • Senate Corrections Chairman Sen. Barnett goes back to the drawing board, saying Mississippi must do something “if we hope to not become like Alabama.”

A bill proposing to address problems at one of the nation’s most notorious prisons by transferring them to another, more secure, prison died in a Mississippi legislative committee last week. 

The bill, SB 2353, was double referred to the Senate Corrections Committee as well as the Senate Appropriations Committee. It passed out of Corrections but died in Appropriations.

The legislation proposed moving nearly all of the current inmates held at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to a privately-run facility in Tutwiler. Only the inmates on death row and the medically frail were slated to remain. A small part of the facilities at Parchman would have also been used for training.

Senate Corrections Committee Chair Juan Barnett discusses SB 2353 during a committee meeting held Tuesday.
(Photo by Jeremy Pittari | Magnolia Tribune)

The bill’s author, State Senator Juan Barnett (D), chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee, was pushing for a 20-year lease at the Tutwiler facility, putting its maintenance on the owner, CoreCivic, and allowing the state to continue to collect property tax. Additionally, the state could have sold or leased some of the unused facilities at Parchman, leading to economic development opportunities in the Delta. 

The 7.9 mile, ten-minute ride to transfer the inmates to Tutwiler was proposed to not only address the longstanding safety issues at Parchman, but also ensure every current corrections officer employed at both facilities kept their jobs. Senator Barnett (D) added that the current corrections officers at Tutwiler would have even received state benefits.  

“It only would have improved the jobs, because all of those employees at Tutwiler would have become state employees and get the (state) benefits and no pay change,” Barnett told Magnolia Tribune on Friday.

Senator Barnett suspects the bill’s inability to make it out of the Senate Appropriations Committee was due to concerns lodged by members of the Delta delegation who feared employees at Tutwiler would have lost their jobs if it became law. 

“By no means do we want to take even one job away from the Delta,” Barnett said.

While he suspects there were detractors in the Delta delegation, Barnett said he is aware several of its members are upset the bill died.

Work on SB 2353 began in response to the prison riots that occurred in 2019-2020, which resulted in a number of deaths at Parchman that were reported as being due to gang-related violence. Issues at the facility were also cited in a 2022 Department of Justice report that stated conditions at Parchman violated the constitutional rights of its inmates. Acts of violence, inadequate medical and mental care of the inmates, and inadequate living conditions were all included in the report. Another DOJ report issued earlier this month found conditions at three other state prisons – Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, South Mississippi Correctional Institution and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility – also violated the constitutional rights of some 7,000 inmates.

Now that the bill is no longer moving through the Legislature, Senator Barnett says something needs to be done before Mississippi’s prisons become like those in a neighboring state. 

“We have to do something if we hope to not become like Alabama,” Barnett explained.

News agencies in Alabama report prison assaults in state’s facilities rose by more than 40 percent last year.

When asked about his future plans to try to address Parchman’s issues, Barnett told Magnolia Tribune he has some ideas, but isn’t ready to disclose them. 

“My whole thing is we just got to move past this and look at cleaning up our prison system,” Senator Barnett said. “I want to ensure the facilities are humane and make it safe for the people who go to work there every day.”

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Read original article by clicking here.

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