Miss. prison chief seeks to improve security in wake of inmate slayings

Published 4:39 pm Friday, August 31, 2007

Mississippi corrections officials have asked National Institute of Corrections experts to visit the state prison at Parchman to review its gang interdiction program.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said Wednesday that he contacted the NIC after the killing of Earnest Lee Hargon, who was sentenced to death for killing three family members in 2004, by an inmate/gang member at the prison. Hargon died Tuesday of stab wounds.

Epps said corrections officials are trying to determine how the assailant, identified as inmate Jessie Wilson, got the homemade knife used to kill Hargon in Parchman’s maximum security unit, called Unit 32. Charges are pending.

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Epps said Wilson had ties to the Latin Kings gang. Epps said Hargon had no known gang ties.

Epps said some changes are being made to the department’s screening process to root out gang influence among corrections officers. He said two Parchman correction officers were fired this month because they had ties to the Gangster Disciples, a street gang with a large presence in the Mississippi Delta, where Parchman draws many of its officers.

Epps said he expects NIC officials to come to the prison next week.

“We want to let somebody else take a look at our policies and procedures,” he said. “We’re not going to let this stop us from providing public safety.”

Unit 32 is a 17-year-old, 1,000-bed facility that houses the most violent of inmates. It also is home to death row.

Rep. Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said he wants the Legislature to consider whether a maximum security unit should be located off the grounds of the penitentiary.

“We will have a comprehensive evaluation of Unit 32,” Malone said.

Epps wants to change the image of the 1,000-bed unit, which is the target of a class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. He said he has approval to boost the pay of corrections officers by 20 percent and raise administrators’ pay by 10 percent at a cost of $1.6 million.

Epps said the extra money will come from increased privatization of Mississippi’s prisons and a debt restructuring plan.

The Department of Finance and Administration has provided $1.8 million to install full metal doors on prison cells, replacing the open-bar doors currently on many cells in Unit 32, Epps said. He said security has been tightened at the gate and entry building, two key areas where weapons, drugs and cell phones are smuggled in.

ACLU lawyer Margaret Winter said she doubts the doors to cells will be solid steel “based on our intensive and ongoing negotiations with MDOC.”

“We’re pretty sure that the commissioner has reached the same conclusion that we have — that only a small fraction of the 1,000 men in Unit 32 are violent predators, and locking down all 1,000 behind solid steel doors just isn’t the fix for the horrendous gang problem in Unit 32,” Winter said.

Officials also have added an X-ray machine and a drug-detection machine to the metal detector staff must pass through before entering the facility. Officials also are moving 50 additional security cameras into the unit, Epps said.

Starting Saturday, staff will no longer be allowed to bring outside food and drink into the unit. Epps said he believes it is a necessary step to stop smuggling.

Inmates in Unit 32 are kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, but Epps said some are now being allowed longer periods outside their cells, a reform on the ACLU’s checklist.