Gov. Tate Reeves signed legislation last year aimed at expanding parole eligibility, believing it could be a “net positive for Mississippi.”
But if 2022 represents a trend, the state could be headed back to the dubious distinction of being a world leader in incarceration.
In September 2013, Mississippi had as many as 22,490 inmates behind bars. The state boasted one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, putting more people per capita behind bars than China, North Korea or Russia.
In the years since, reforms and an aggressive Parole Board, headed by a veteran law enforcement officer, reduced the number of inmates to the lowest level in two decades. On Feb. 7, that population fell to 16,499.
But with Reeves’ new board chairman, a former Chevron executive he appointed in January, in charge, that trend has reversed itself.
In just three months, the prison population has shot past 17,100. If this current trend continues, it would take only a year for Mississippi to top more than 19,000 inmates.
Caring for that many more inmates would cost taxpayers an extra $51 million, based on the per-day cost computed by the state’s legislative watchdog.
Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said the Department of Justice documented the low staffing levels inside the State Penitentiary at Parchman, which is suffering from grisly violence, gang control and other woes that the department says are violating inmates’ constitutional rights.
“In many ways, these problems are staffing problems,” he said, and rising numbers of inmates will make it “more and more dangerous for those who live in prisons and those who work there.”
The lack of staffing is preventing the Mississippi Department of Corrections from providing some programs that could help inmates earn parole, he said.
Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain requested and received pay raises for correctional officers, but recruiting and retaining those officers has proved a struggle. Department officials say they are unable to comment on the Justice Department findings.
Eligibility for parole has expanded in recent years. “Five years ago, 60% of the total prison population was not eligible for parole,” former Parole Board Chairman Steve Pickett said. “Due to prison reform efforts, it’s the opposite today — 60% are eligible. Life sentences after 1995 and all sex crimes are not eligible for parole.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who recently bragged about the significant reduction in inmates at Parchman, drew widespread praise last year when he signed a bipartisan bill that could extend parole eligibility to 3,000 more inmates.
“I believe in second chances,” he said. “I trust my Parole Board appointees to make wise decisions.”
His new parole chairman is Jeffery Belk, who retired from Chevron as a project procurement manager. He also served as chairman of the Public Procurement Board. Neither Belk nor Reeves’ office responded to requests for comment.
Belk has a decidedly different approach than his predecessor. Pickett, a veteran law enforcement officer, began his career in 1996 as a deputy to Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin.
Back in 2019, the Prison Policy Initiative ranked Mississippi among the six best states in the nation with regard to parole release systems. That’s in contrast to more than three-fourths of the remaining states, which received flunking grades.
On Dec. 31, Pickett retired after serving a decade. During his time, about six of every 10 inmates who appeared before the Parole Board earned their release, he said. The board typically saw about 5,000 inmates a year.
Now the board is rejecting far more requests. In March, three out of every four inmates who appeared before the Parole Board were rejected for parole. In April, five out of every six inmates were rejected.
In so doing, the Parole Board “has essentially shut down parole in the state,” said Brandon Jones with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Action Fund.
“Last year, our state leaders worked hard to pass criminal justice reform,” said Alesha Judkins, state director for criminal justice reform at FWD.us. “What the Parole Board is doing undermines all that work, which helps to keep our communities safe.”
The MacArthur Justice Center has heard from families about parole hearings for their loved ones being delayed four to eight years, rather than a hearing each year as the board has done in the past, Johnson said.
“You can imagine the degree of despair. People are getting no benefit from doing the right thing,” he said. “It’s not the job of the Parole Board to decide whether they agree with the Legislature [on parole eligibility]. It’s the job of the Parole Board to decide whether those in prison have kept up their end of the bargain.”
Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, said he has been hearing from constituents about the increase in parole rejections.
“It raises some concerns,” he said. “I’m going to reach out to the new chair and find out why.”
State Public Defender André de Gruy said, with the 2021 Earned Parole Act, “we have a lot more people eligible. … The number of people coming out should increase.”
Instead, he said, the prison population is back on the rise, just as it was before reforms in 2014, when “the erratic parole rate” caused the prison population to skyrocket.
Russ Latino, president of the conservative-leaning Empower Mississippi, which backed the law, told MCIR, “We are monitoring the Parole Board, and we are concerned with the brakes that are seemingly being applied.”
‘It all seems so unreal and unfair’
Amanda Hamilton said she was never informed of her son’s parole hearing, despite frequent communication with the Parole Board.
Her 27-year-old son, Shelby Wilson, went to prison in 2019 after he sold his mother’s prescription pills to a friend, who was working as a confidential informant. The sentence in Rankin County was enhanced to 13 years because the sale took place within 1,000 feet of a church.
Despite it being his first felony, he never had the option of drug court, she said. “Some people have broken into houses with guns and had all their charges dropped. We’re just poor. We didn’t have a lawyer.”
She regularly emailed with Pickett while he chaired the Parole Board, but she said she hasn’t gotten any responses from the new chairman.
What’s frustrating, she said, is that since her son entered prison, he has taken all the right steps. He hasn’t received any rules violations, according to the prison records she shared, and he has refused to join a gang, despite the fact it nearly cost him his life, she said.
In keeping with Parole Board requirements, she found him a sober living house, a job and transportation.
What she finds frustrating is that the board never asked him about any of this, she said. “Nobody asked him anything.”
On the form the board sent him, she said, there were no boxes checked for reasons favoring parole, such as his good prison record, community support, provisions for care, mitigating circumstances and participating in rehabilitative programs.
Instead, the board wrote that it “believes the ability or willingness to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen is lacking.”
She wrote board members and asked them to reconsider.
“Respectfully, I feel like you guys have made an error in judgment,” she wrote. “I raised over $3k to help make all these things happen. He has never had the community support he does now. Therefore, when you say he is not ready to be a law-abiding citizen, how can you know if you don’t ask him what his plans are?”
Her son violated probation through marijuana use, she wrote the board. “It all seems so unreal and unfair. We are poor. I’ve seen folks with money get off for way more. Please help me make sense of this system.”
‘Drugs and addiction’ drive incarceration, ex-Parole Board chair says
Inside Mississippi’s prisons, three-fourths of inmates are battling alcohol or drug problems or both. Hamilton said sobriety is tough in prison because drugs are so plentiful.
Pickett said there is no question the number one driver of inmates behind bars is “drugs and addiction. Addiction is treated, but it’s never cured.”
To help attack this problem, Commissioner Cain has started an alcohol and drug program at the once-shuttered Walnut Grove Correctional Facility that houses 32 inmates in a 90-day addiction program.
Cain told MCIR he wanted a place he could keep free of drugs so inmates could experience sobriety. He compared the program to a top-of-the-line rehabilitation program offered by places like the Betty Ford Center. “Most people couldn’t afford it,” he said.
On April 1, 22 inmates graduated from the program, and a second class is now under way, said corrections spokesperson Grace Simmons.
‘A terrible thicket of sentencing laws’
Jones said Mississippi already has “a terrible thicket of sentencing laws” — one that permits juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole and another that is “one of the most unforgiving habitual offender arrangements in the world.”
Between 1993 and 1995, 24 states and the federal government adopted such “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws, but after prison overcrowding followed, the government and some states changed those statutes.
Mississippi has clung tightly to the law, which automatically imposes a life without parole sentence in cases where someone has any prior violent felony.
In signing last year’s law expanding parole, Reeves bragged that the change still kept habitual offenders from qualifying for parole.
That means 392 inmates like Tameka Drummer will continue serving their life without parole sentences. She was convicted for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. She had served time before for a pair of violent felonies.
Mississippi is the most religious state in America, Johnson said. “Are we who we say we are? If we don’t believe in grace, redemption, mercy and second chances, then we need to take ‘In God We Trust’ off our flag.”