Three prison inmates may not have escaped last week if not for Mississippi's "mass incarceration problem," a group of civil-rights organizations said in a press statement on Friday.
"Mississippi has a mass incarceration problem," said Interim Director of the American Civil Liberties of Mississippi Josh Tom. "Dramatic increases in imprisonment over the last 40 years have brought prisons and jails across the state to the breaking point. Changes in law and policy, not crime rates, explain most of this increase."
The state, Tom said, has used prisons to address issues that could be better dealt with outside the criminal-justice system.
"Mississippi turned to imprisonment as the cure-all not only for crime and public safety, but also for mental illness, addiction, and poverty. The criminal justice system cannot deal with all of these issues, as recent news has shown."
The Mississippi Department of Corrections, or MDOC, is currently short-staffed, with about 500 unfilled positions. In January, MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall announced in a press statement that they were indefinitely suspending visitation privileges and restricting movement for 1,800 inmates at the South Mississippi Correctional Facility in Leakesville. The cause, she said, was a staff shortage. Though the prison was near 100% capacity, she said nearly half of the staff positions remained vacant.
Hall has repeatedly called for the Legislature to send millions more in funds to MDOC to improve conditions at state prisons, but to no avail.
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The civil-rights groups who spoke out on Tuesday include the ACLU, the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC.
In the July 9 press statement, they cited not only a lack of proper funding, but also low wages as contributing to MDOC's recruitment problem. Earlier this year, Hall requested