Unit 32: Tax money is not being properly spent

Published 10:23 pm Saturday, August 4, 2007

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps has taken action to prevent further violence at the maximum security Unit 32 at the state prison at Parchman, but is it enough?

Gang leaders and the severely mentally ill prisoners were ordered transferred to other institutions last week after one inmate was stabbed to death — about a week after a .380 caliber semi-auto pistol was discovered in a cell. Other handmade weapons were found after a search of the unit, Epps said.

Among other changes at the notorious unit — home to death row and many of the state’s most violent offenders — were continuing indefinite lockdown and suspending exercise periods and visitation, except for attorney-client consultations.

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Epps has also ordered future changes, including the “hardening” of cells by replacing bars with metal doors to prevent inmates from throwing things at corrections officers and other inmates, strengthening exercise pens and installing a new metal detector, with an emphasis placed on video surveillance and intelligence gathering.

Unit 32 has been the subject of lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has called the unit that houses about 1,000 inmates an “inhumane” place.

“Sometimes I think the public is led to believe that these convicted felons are innocent victims,” Epps, a former prison guard himself, has said. “But, I know the taxpayers of Mississippi are smarter than that.” And he’s right. These are the absolute worst of the locked-up criminals that Mississippi has to offer. But, the ACLU has a point, as well, as hard as it may be for some to fathom.

First, as inhumane as may be some of the inmates housed in Unit 32, civilized society cannot sink to the same level. The ACLU is right that the mentally ill must have treatment and conditions must not constitute torture. Unit 32 is no picnic, for inmates or the guards who watch them.

That said, Mississippi must also be prepared to pay for housing inmates, if its “lock-’em-up-and throw-away-the-key” mentality prevails – especially the “85 percent rule” that mandates stiff terms for even small fry drug offenders to cram the prisons and spiral costs. We’ve tried “tough on crime” by housing ever more people, but haven’t tried “smart on crime” by offering more alternatives to warehousing prisoners and spending more where it can do the most good. As House Corrections Committee Vice Chairman John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, has said about Unit 32: “I believe we’re going to have to pay the correctional officers combat pay for working in 32, rotate them out more often, and provide them with better ’psychological’ training.”