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‘It’s just an old place’: Senate bill would shutter most of Parchman prison


‘It’s just an old place’: Senate bill would shutter most of Parchman prison

Feb 21, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Mina Corpuz and Jerry Mitchell
‘It’s just an old place’: Senate bill would shutter most of Parchman prison
Photo courtesy of Mississippi Today

Mississippi’s oldest and infamous State Penitentiary at Parchman could be forced to shut down by 2028, sending its thousands of inmates and staff to other prisons and reimagining some of the space to be used for other needs. 

Senate Bill 2353 by Sen. Juan Barnett proposes phasing down the use of the 123-year-old prison starting this summer. 

“It’s just an old place,” Barnett, a Democrat from Heidelberg, told Mississippi Today. “I don’t want to keep spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars on something that can’t ever be fixed.”

He estimated the effort could cost about $150 million – cheaper than putting money into a prison that’s beyond repair and, according to the bill, savings could be redirected to paying correctional officers and addressing officer turnover. 

Years of neglect and a lack of funding have led to deteriorating infrastructure, decrepit conditions and violence, a 2020 investigation by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica found. 

Months after a string of deaths and violent disturbances across several state prison facilities, but mostly concentrated in Parchman’s Unit 29, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into Parchman and four other prisons. By 2022, the DOJ released a report detailing conditions that violate the Constitution. 

The bill directs Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain to develop a plan to shut down Parchman and submit it to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2025. 

A spokesperson from MDOC was not immediately available for comment Tuesday. 

Part of the phase down plan could mean contracting with the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, the Tutweiler prison run by private contractor CoreCivic, to house people from Parchman, according to the bill. The Tutwiler facility would be renamed the “Northwest Mississippi Correctional Facility.”

MDOC can also contract with any regional facility, private prison or approved county jail to incarcerate people under the decentralization plan, according to the proposed legislation. 

The bill sets a benchmark to reduce Parchman’s population by 1,700 by July 1, 2026. The prison’s numbers have hovered around 2,400 during the month of February, according to MDOC records

HB 2353 has been referred to the Senate’s Corrections Committee, which Barnett chairs, and the Appropriations Committee. 

Barnett sees what has been going on in Alabama, which faces a DOJ lawsuit over prison conditions, violence and crowding. 

Building new prisons is part of that state’s plans to address unconstitutional conditions. He said Mississippi could avoid that fate by shutting down Parchman. 

“We don’t want to one day be forced to do what Alabama has had to do,” Barnett said. “We definitely don’t need the Department of Justice breathing down our neck. I’m tired of us being last on everything.”

He anticipates a small part of Parchman might continue to be used as a training facility and mental health facility. Death row inmates housed at Unit 29 would continue to be housed at Parchman, according to the proposed legisaltion. 

The nearly 4,000 acres of land where the prison and other buildings stand would be held in trust by MDOC to lease out for agricultural, industrial, commercial, residential, recreational or catfish farming for no longer than 40 years. All would be public bids subject to Public Procurement Review Board requirements. 

The bill comes with some oversight. 

Among its other duties, the Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force would track and assess outcomes for the phase down plan, and the executive director of Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure to assign an analyst to review and monitor the correctional system’s financial condition and the efficiency and effectiveness of programs and operations, and the analyst would have the ability to inspect MDOC facilities. 

Barnett’s legislation also incorporates proposals from several other bills introduced this session:

  • Allow Rankin, Harrison and Lee counties to establish pilot work release programs with a limit of 25 participants and track outcomes and demographics. 
  • Extend the repealer on MDOC’s Mississippi Prison Industries Act to 2028.
  • Extend the repealer on state inmates being housed in county jails and regional facilities to 2028.
  • Extend repealer on MDOC’s Prison Industry Enhancement Program to 2028.