Public has right to be concerned

Published 11:14 pm Saturday, June 23, 2007

Anthony Washington, an employee at the state penitentiary at Parchman, is charged in connection with helping inmate Larry Thompson escape, and though the Sunflower County Sheriff’s Department confirmed Washington’s arrest, Mississippi Department of Corrections officials are mum about the subject.

The Corrections Department officials contend that personnel issues, including the arrest of an employee and the results of the subsequent investigation, cannot be discussed openly. We can understand why officials wouldn’t want to discuss the personal records of an employee — but only up until the point that the employee is accused of committing a crime.

It’s at that point that what the government employee is charged with doing should become part of the public record, and should no longer be a game called “I’ve got a secret,” which some of our government officials unfortunately like to play.

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The fact of the matter is, basic arrest records are not the private affair of government. They’re the public’s business.

Though Mississippi’s Open Records Law provides certain exemptions, arrest records, the nature and disposition of criminal charges, sentencing, confinement, release and parole and probation status are not exempt.

Experience has given us a pretty good idea how governmental secrecy often can shelter corruption and incompetence on an agency’s part.

And when MDOC refuses to discuss how an allegedly corrupt employee was able to help a prisoner, who was serving a seven-year sentence for the possession and sale of cocaine, walk out the prison gates, it raises not only our eyebrows, but those of the public as well.

Members of at the public — especially residents of the Delta who live in the shadow of the penitentiary — have a vital interest in being fully informed about such incidents. There are a lot of dangerous felons living in that prison and, embarrassing or not, the public has the right to know just how easy it is for one of the inmates to walk out of Parchman’s gates.

MDOC Commissioner Christopher Epps needs to explain not only what happened in the Thompson incident, but how it happened and how such incidents can be prevented.

Public officials may think their lack of candor about such matters hides the egg on their faces.

They’re mistaken, however. Governmental secrecy only highlights the mess.