JACKSON, Miss. (WMC) - Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves spoke Thursday about how his administration is trying to improve the safety and conditions inside Mississippi prisons after a spate of violence that resulted in inmate deaths and a statewide lockdown.
Reeves took the oath of office just last week and promptly launched a nationwide search for a new MDOC commissioner.
“We know that there are problems in the system,” said Reeves. “We don’t want to hide them, we want to fix them.”
Fresh off visits to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman and the now-shuttered Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, the governor outlined the immediate changes his administration has made to improve safety for staff and prisoners.
“The first thing that struck me was that there are good people there trying to make a difference," Reeves said of his visit to Parchman. "I want to thank them. I want to make sure that we don’t forget them. They are doing their absolute best in tough circumstances. As we work to root out corruption and incompetence, we can’t forget those that are maintaining order today.”
Reeves said he witnessed the poor conditions at Parchman with his own eyes and immediately deployed maintenance teams to make improvements. He visited Unit 29 where “some inmates have torn the place apart." He said there are maintenance teams on site, but there are tactical problems in the prison making it hard to keep up.
Reeves said they are currently looking at other facilities that may offer better housing options. He said Walnut Grove, which closed in 2016, is in better condition than Parchman and could house inmates almost immediately if necessary.
Reeves said cell walls at Walnut Grove are made of poured concrete, which would prevent the ability to chip away at mortar like inmates have done at Parchman in an effort to pass contraband.
The governor said they are cracking down on criminal coordination using contraband cellphones. He attributes much of the violence in MDOC facilities earlier this year to smuggled cellphones that prisoners use to coordinate gang activity throughout MDOC and the country.
Reeves said they are making sure a senior officer is present at all times, screening guards for signs of gang affiliation and looking at potential jobs for inmates within the prison.
Additionally, MDOC is looking at prisoner distribution, making sure violent inmates aren’t in jobs or positions that give them access to potential weapons or targets.
Reeves said they are currently in the process of reclassifying certain inmates according to their associated risks. Right now, he said there are dangerous inmates housed together without the structure to prevent violence.
An agent is also investigating criminal activity at Parchman.
“I’ve been appalled by things I have learned in the last week,” said Reeves. “This is not about the problems of the past, this is about paving the way for a better future. For the system and for Mississippi.”
The governor said everyone in his administration is taking this seriously, but they understand the issues didn’t happen overnight. He said they are making progress, but they have a long road ahead, and he wants to be as transparent with the public as possible throughout the process.
Since Dec. 29, 10 inmates have died in MDOC prisons. Eight of those occurred at Parchman, two of which were suicides, according to MDOC.