Reeves, who has called that violence a “catastrophe,” said he has instructed the Department of Corrections to start work on closing the “most notorious” place in Parchman.
“I’ve seen enough,” he said. “We have to turn the page.”
This year’s deaths have fueled long-standing concerns about inmates’ treatment at Parchman and across Mississippi’s correctional system. A congressman joined a host of civil rights groups earlier this month asking the Justice Department to investigate, accusing Mississippi officials of “deliberately and systematically” putting prisoners at risk, the Clarion-Ledger reported. Rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti are also supporting a recent lawsuit against the Department of Correction’s embattled then-commissioner, who stepped down this month to join the private sector.
“Plaintiffs’ lives are in peril,” the lawsuit filed on behalf of 29 inmates states, according to the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. “Individuals held in Mississippi’s prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed.”
The governor acknowledged a “leadership crisis” on Monday, saying the Corrections Department’s interim head already has made changes as a group of experts look nationwide for a permanent successor. The department’s second-in-command also left this month, retiring.
Reeves, who visited Parchman last week amid growing concerns, has said new measures include making sure correctional system leaders are always available to officers; cracking down on contraband cellphones that helped coordinate gang violence and screening guards for gang affiliations, local news station WDAM 7 reported.
“The problems were infuriating,” Reeves said Monday. “There is no excuse. We can do better."
Violence flared early this month as three inmates were reported dead at Parchman over three days, according to Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton. Two were stabbed amid the gang-related riots, she said, while a third died after a fight with his cellmate.
“Things are kind of surreal at this point,” Burton told the Clarion-Ledger. “Every time the phone rings at this point, it’s another one.”
The chaos extended across the Mississippi prison system and also left authorities scrambling to find two escapees who made it 100 miles away from Parchman before they were captured.
Then, last week, the Department of Corrections announced it was investigating two more deaths at the facility. Timothy Hudspeth, 35, and James Talley, 36, were apparently beaten, the coroner said, in Unit 30 after what the department called an “altercation with other inmates” seemingly not related to the earlier riots.
A spate of hangings in Unit 29 began Jan. 19, the county coroner said. The latest death came Sunday, as 26-year-old Joshua Norman — serving five years for armed robbery — was found dead in his single-person cell.
The coroner said she does not suspect foul play, though the official cause and manner of death are pending.
Another Parchman inmate’s death, announced Jan. 8, is not believed to be a homicide, Burton said.
The violence is part of broader issues at Parchman, where officials say they’re trying to fix shoddy infrastructure.
The interim commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Tommy Taylor, said Monday that Unit 29 inmates — some of whom were unable to shower for days amid lockdown — can now take warm showers and drink clean water, the Associated Press reported. Repairs are underway to keep rain out of buildings and address electrical and heating issues, he added, while toilets have been fixed.
Unit 29 can house as many as 1,500 inmates, according to the Corrections Department. Earlier in January, officials moved 375 Unit 29 inmates to another facility, which “provided some relief to an overstressed system” but left hundreds more maximum security charges in need of housing, former Corrections Department commissioner Pelicia Hall said at the time.
At full capacity, Parchman houses 3,560 male inmates, including death row inmates housed in Unit 29. Those on death row will stay at Parchman unless there’s a change to state law requiring them to be at that facility, Taylor said, according to the AP.
Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and the prison system has struggled with a lack of funding, declining numbers of guards and accusations of abuse. An investigation by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting found that a 2014 prison reform law had failed to significantly improve the system.
Pledging urgent changes Monday, the governor shared the story of Eddie Spencer, the pastor who delivered the benediction at his inauguration.
Convicted of armed robbery and attempted murder, Spencer was serving time in Parchman when he turned to religion, Reeves said. He found redemption, the governor said, leaving a changed man who went on to work with young people who shared his impoverished background.
“We must get this right,” Reeves said taking a moment to embrace Spencer. “To prevent the next Reverend Spencer from losing their life needlessly in a Mississippi prison.”