Scott Colom: Two proposals for addressing the state's prison crisis

 

Scott Colom

 

 

This week communities gathered to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Americans of all backgrounds -- rural, urban, rich, poor, black, white -- commemorated the sacrifices King made for freedom and equality. But King's holiday is also a time to challenge ourselves to live up to our nation's commitment to freedom and equality, a reminder of the need to see the humanity and dignity in others as King preached.

 

Over the last few weeks, news about the conditions of our prison system have exposed the need to see the humanity of people in prison. Just this year at least 10 inmates have been killed -- most of which while Parchman was on lockdown, implying either gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

 

Additionally, the flood of photos and videos from inmates showed widespread problems: blood-smeared walls, mold and mildew, rodent infestation and standing water. At last inspection, more than 300 cells were without power, and many units lacked running water -- meaning toilets weren't flushable and inmates had limited access to drinking water.

 

 

These conditions and murders have generated national attention. Jay Z and Yo Gotti filed a lawsuit on behalf of several inmates, and Congressman Thompson has called for a federal investigation.

 

Lest we forget, the state has been down this road before. Prior to 2011, Parchman was under federal oversight for forty years. This allowed a Federal judge to force the legislature to spend money on Parchman. If conditions don't improve, it's only a matter of time before the entire system is under federal oversight -- placing federal judges in control of the budget for the entire correctional system.

 

Our newly elected state leaders have a choice before them: address the moral and legal crisis in our prisons or ignore it until the Federal government steps in. This begs the question: How many more people would have to suffer in the meantime?

 

Here are two suggestions to address the crisis.

 

First, we must increase the pay of the guards. It's foolish to expect people to work one of the most dangerous jobs in government for the same pay as a fast food worker. With an increase in pay, we can hire guards who would be less susceptible to bribes and corruption.

 

At the same time, we have to accept the reality that the legislature is unlikely to allocate the hundreds of millions necessary to fund a prison system with 20,000 inmates. Especially considering the dire need to pay our teachers a wage much more aligned with their importance to our future.

 

Therefore, my second suggestion is geared towards reducing costs. This measure could save money and allow MDOC to reallocate more funds to rehabilitation.

 

The recommendation is use of executive clemency -- an idea you may be surprised to hear from a District Attorney.

 

Recently, clemency has been under scrutiny. On the last day of his term, Governor Barbour pardoned or commuted around 200 people and was widely accused of political motivations. As a result, Governor Phil Bryant promised not to use his clemency power and didn't. Bryant's decision meant that clemency wasn't discussed much (if at all) during the governor's race and I don't recall Governor Reeves taking a position on it.

 

Unlike Governor Barbour, and more recently Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, Governor Reeves shouldn't wait until the last day of his term to grant clemency. He should immediately set up a committee to identify and vet potential people for clemency.

 

The committee could review the sentencing for all current inmates for disproportionately long terms and also review their prison discipline and behavioral records to determine which may have been rehabilitated and ready to safely return to society. Unlike the parole board, this committee wouldn't have legal limitations on the timing and conditions for potential release.

 

The committee could publicly announce recommendations and hold public meetings to discuss their reasoning. These hearings would give the public the opportunity to voice concerns, give the press time to investigate the recommendations, and give our communities opportunities for forgiveness and redemption in line with our Christian beliefs. Politically, this process would insulate the Governor from the typical risks and criticisms associated with pardons.

 

The timing is also politically advantageous. Governor Reeves has made no secret his admiration for President Trump. Well, the First Step Act is one President Trump's most popular bills and it resulted in the release of over 3,000 people from Federal prison. President Trump also hasn't been shy about granting pardons, even when controversial.

 

Finally, this process could have an immediate impact on the behavior of the current prison population. A possibility of clemency would give people another incentive to behave while in prison. Rewarding good behavior and encouraging people to change increases the likelihood of rehabilitation, which, in turn, decreases the likelihood of recidivism. This improves the conditions of the prisons without spending a dime.

 

Of course, this proposal is easier said than done. Others might have better ideas. What matters most, what honors Dr. King most, is that we do something. King became an icon because he forced the country to see the humanity in others. The best way to honor his name and his legacy is to see the humanity in the people in prison and treat them with the same dignity we would want to be treated ourselves.

 

 

 

Scott Colom is the District Attorney for the 16th Circuit Court of Mississippi.

 

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