Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Our story last week about the Mississippi Department of Corrections' decision to end its longstanding practice of allowing conjugal visits has been getting a lot of attention in and outside the state. Certainly, the history of conjugal visitation is fascinating and represents Mississippi's own extraordinary and complicated racial history.
Although some evidence shows that conjugal visits have positive benefits, conjugal visits are low on the list of things that prisons need to do to become more than warehouses for people who run afoul of the law.
In explaining his decision for axing the visits, MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps cited costs and birth control. Coordinating them involved too much staff time and resulted in too many babies, Epps said, even though he did not provide documentation to support either claim.
Considering that Mississippi has the nation's second-highest incarceration rate, next to only Louisiana, it's not hard to believe that it would be expensive to run our prisons.
We suspect Epps had other motivations in cutting out conjugal visits. In recent years, despite Epps' best efforts to keep costs down, MDOC has run deficits of more than $30 million. In the summer of 2013, Epps criticized Malcolm McMillin, then-chairman of the state parole board and a former Hinds County sheriff, for granting too few paroles.
Gov. Phil Bryant and a joint legislative commission have each offered up a long list of reforms for Mississippi prisons for the 2014 legislative session. So it's entirely possible that conjugal visits were a sacrifice to the gods of the Legislature.
Some of the proposals range from giving judges more flexibility to impose less harsh sentences for certain kinds of crimes to relying more on drug courts and alternative sentencing programs to using electronic monitoring to help curb the prison population.
As the recent Mississippi Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force report notes, Mississippi's prison population of more than 22,000 people has grown by 17 percent in the past 10 years and is expected to grow by nearly 2,000 more by 2024, representing a total cost to taxpayers of about $266 million in the next decade.
Last week's incident at the privately run Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility is a prime example of why real reforms are needed. Prison officials and local media have cast the event as a "riot" likely sparked by warring "gangs." Of course, there are gangs in prisons. And people in prison, just like people who are not incarcerated, sometimes behave badly.
The incident remains under investigation, but in our past experience with prison conditions, so-called riots are often ignited by lack of access to programs, health concerns and staff abuse. We hope that the reforms proposed for Mississippi prisons this year focus on addressing these often-ignored problems and not just dollars and cents.