Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Although the state of Mississippi's criminal-justice system always seems to be in the news, lately there's been a flurry of bad press for the state's jails and prison system.
In late September, U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour Jr. granted a request from prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian to go ahead with a class-action lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Judge Barbour wrote in his opinion that there was sufficient evidence that the prison, which is privately operated, and MDOC failed to address complaints that prisoners are routinely denied adequate food, shelter, medical care, mental-health care and safety.
A few weeks later, another group filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Jackson that "challenges the City's incarceration of hundreds of impoverished Jacksonians for failure to pay court debts from old traffic and misdemeanor cases, without conducting any meaningful inquiry into their ability to pay."
In one case, one man is alleged to owe some $20,000 in court fines and fees. Then, there's the case of Steven Willis, whom a judge released this week so that he could go to the hospital to get treatment for a gunshot wound. Willis' release came only after a small group of local activists and attorneys appealed to various court and law-enforcement officials and seemed to be held up by factors outlined in a Justice Department investigative report into conditions at the Raymond Detention Center: A combination of short staffing and underfunding that, too often, threatens the health and safety of the pre-trial detainees (and therefore, legally innocent) people.
Even in the age of multimillion-dollar private corrections contracts, funding for jails and prisons are at all-time lows. This may be an unpopular sentiment, but as long as we as a society decide we need jails and prisons, they, like our schools, also deserve adequate funding. Many of the problems that have put the local jails in headlines are a result of maintenance issues and the deteriorating conditions.
It's probably time to build a new county jail, but no elected official wants to raise taxes to better protect inmates. That's to say nothing of the diminished education and vocational programs at jails and prisons across the U.S. and not even mentioning the disparate salaries for public defenders when compared to prosecutors.
Yet, every election season, the No. 1 issue that comes up is crime. We should start by fully funding public schools in Mississippi and destroy the school-to-jail pipeline. It's also past time that we start realizing that investing in (and recognizing the human rights of) prisoners is one of the best things we can do to slow the cycle of poverty and crime in Mississippi.