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Senate bill to close most of Parchman hits snag over cost, logistics

A proposal to close most of Mississippi’s oldest and most infamous prison faced its first hurdle Tuesday afternoon in a state Senate committee where a majority of members decided to hold off voting on the bill until they receive better cost estimates. 

The Senate Corrections Committee discussed Senate Bill 2353, which proposes a four-year process to phase down the use of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman by moving incarcerated people, staff and programs to other prisons in the state. 

Committee chair and bill author Juan Barnett said a phasedown would be a better use of taxpayer money and a chance to reimagine the state’s approach to incarceration. 

Mississippi Sen. Juan Barnett, whose father was shot and killed, is working to shorten the sentences of many Mississippi inmates. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

“Parchman prison, a name that resonates with both notoriety and despair, has stood for decades as a symbol of systematic failures within our criminal justice system,” said Barnett, a Democrat from Heidelberg, before discussion began. 

“We cannot allow a facility to operate under conditions that are antithetical to the principles of fairness.”

Years of neglect and funding have led to deteriorating infrastructure and decrepit conditions at Parchman and fed into the violence and deaths that erupted at Unit 29 and at other state prison facilities, a 2020 investigation by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica found. 

The U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into Parchman and three other prisons several months later, and by 2022, the DOJ released a report detailing conditions that violate the Constitution.

Ted Booth, executive director of the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee, said the bill is in line with PEER’s recommendation to reduce operations at Parchman, which would help maintain a secure environment. 

Barnett gave a rough estimate of about $100 million over four years to phase down Parchman. In response to committee member questions, he said that cost wouldn’t include spending on the facilities that would remain on site. 

A major part of the phase down bill would involve the state purchasing the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility to house Parchman’s inmates. The private is located less than 10 miles away in Tutwiler and is run by CoreCivic. 

Through that purchase, Barnett said the staff at Parchman would be able to remain state employees with benefits, which would help keep jobs in the Delta. Moving Parchman staff over to Tallahatchie Correctional could also help close vacancies at both prisons and help reach full staffing, he said. 

Sen. Joey Fillingnane, R-Sumrall, asked whether there is any kind of binding memorandum of understanding or contract with the owner of Tallahatchie Correctional. Barnett said there is not, and added that the Appropriations Committee would not pass the bill if the financial situation is not figured out. 

“We’re just supposed to trust that it’s all going to work out in a sweet by-and-by and send it on down to Appropriations and hope that they take care of all of our miscues?” Fillingane asked. 

Instead of spending $100 million to phase down Parchman, that money could be used to update the building, Fillingane said, but Barnett pointed to a similar situation going on in Alabama, which is on the hook for $1 billion to build a new prison because the DOJ found its current ones are unconstitutional.

Fillingane also asked about the conditions at Tallahatchie Correctional, which has had similar problems with violence like Parchman. He wanted to know whether action has been taken to address those problems, to which Barnett replied yes. 

After an hour of discussion, a majority of the committee voted to lay the bill on the table with the ability for Barnett to bring it up at a later time. He said he will gather more financial information for the committee to review. 

If it passes the Corrections Committee, SB 2353 will also need approval from the Senate’s Appropriations Committee before the entire Senate chamber could vote on it. 

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