Mississippi moving more inmates out of troubled state prison

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves speaks with reporters about the state prison system, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Jackson, Miss. Reeves also gave an update on the search for a Mississippi Department of Corrections commissioner. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi on Wednesday started transferring more inmates out of a state prison that has been rocked by deadly violence and that is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said about 50 inmates were moved from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to the privately run Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) to the east. During the next several weeks, more than 500 more will be moved to the same private prison so that most of Parchman's Unit 29 will be empty.

At least 18 inmates have died in Mississippi prisons since late December, many amid outbursts of violence in facilities that are sparsely staffed. The Justice Department announcedonFeb. 5 that its civil rights division would investigate Parchman and other Mississippi prisons.

State prison officials have said for years that they have trouble hiring enough guards because the jobs are dangerous and the pay is low. Health inspections have also shown repeated problems with broken toilets and moldy showers at Parchman. State officials cut spending at prisons over the past several years, when Reeves was lieutenant governor and had abig rolein writing state budgets.

Reeves was sworn in as governoronJan. 14. He said Wednesday that the private prison will be more secure because inmates will be in one-person or two-person cells. At Parchman, some were sleeping in large rooms with multiple beds.

Inmates will be transferred in small groups, and they will be checked for contraband as they leave Parchman and as they arrive in the private prison, Reeves said.

“To give you a sense of just one element of the complex nature of this operation, the first group that we transferred today attempted to bring seven shanks, 10 illegal cellphones and a bag of marijuana with them,” Reeves said. “That was not a successful effort.”

Prisoners are not allowed to have cellphones, but some have used smuggled phones to send photos and videos of violence, injuries and shabby living conditions, including garbage-strewn walkways.

In early January, during the final days of Republican Gov. Phil Bryant's two terms in office, the statesignedan emergency contract to move 375 inmates out of Parchman's Unit 29 to the Tallahatchie prison, which is run by the private company CoreCivic.

The state has been paying CoreCivic $65 per inmate, per day, under the original contract. Reeves said the new price for the additional people being moved will be $62.50 per inmate, per day.

Reeves said last month that he had told the state Department of Corrections to start closing Unit 29, and he said Wednesday that the transfers will fulfill that promise. He said it is a short-term solution, and state officials are still considering a long-term plan to reopen a closed prison in Walnut Grove, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) southeast of Parchman.

Death row inmates will remain at Unit 29 because state law specifies that they must be there. Some lower-security inmates who do maintenance work at Parchman will also remain in the unit, which has about a dozen buildings.

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