The problems facing prisons in Mississippi and across the country are widespread and complex. But never fear … Jay-Z and his band of bad-rhyming multimillionaires are here to fix it all. Ha!
People who are “outraged” and “woke” will never be part of a solution. That’s not their goal. For them, it’s all about the appearance of things, not reality. Problem is, that’s the same goal of politicians and bureaucrats. It’s not about results, it’s about finding the right mix of bluster and appeasement, depending on the audience.
The most basic thing to remember is this: Prisoners are people, but they are people who are in prison for a reason.
Folks like Jay-Z tend to focus on rare examples of people who were wrongly locked up and lend voices to the families of those who insist their loved ones are innocent … not because of the facts, mind you, but so they can show they still relate to regular peeps even though they’re gazillionaires surrounded by a posse of bodyguards.
Here’s a challenge for you, Jay-Z: For every prisoner you find anywhere in the country who has been proved wrongly convicted in the last 10 years, I will find five in Jones County who were released from prison early and committed another felony in the last year.
It’s laughable to hear the same old soundbites about “parole for non-violent offenders” from people planning the protest set for yesterday (Friday) in Jackson. Families whine about the “inhumane conditions” they are “forced to live in.”
Those complaints have no merit. Zero. Anyone familiar with the Mississippi Department of Corrections and the state Parole Board knows the biggest problem for years has been overcrowding, so they’ve been turning loose non-violent offenders after serving barely 25 percent of their sentences. That’s not the exception, that’s the rule. (I don’t agree with that principle. The majority of violent crimes are thug-on-thug while the majority of property crimes are committed against hard-working people. Those of us who don’t participate in the gangsta lifestyle deserve greater protection than those who have signed up for that lifestyle … but that’s a column for another day.)
Even prisoners who are sentenced as habitual offenders — meaning they are supposed to serve 100 percent of their time — are being set free early. Some were convicted of violent crimes, too. And the examples I’m thinking of are right here in Jones County.
Just in the first week of this year, Roscoe Keyes was arrested for shooting at a deputy and Cory James Gilbert was arrested for causing a crash that killed the unborn child of a South Jones Elementary teacher and severely injured her. Both convicts were released from prison early. There are dozens of examples. Add the other 81 counties, and we have an epidemic.
I don’t usually believe lawsuits are the way to handle problems. But if every person who has been victimized by a prisoner who was arbitrarily released after serving less than, say, half of his or her sentence — whether its a burglary, robbery, rape, injury or death — were to sue, that would force reform.
Yes, I do believe in some of the programs that are alternatives to prison, such as drug court and pretrial diversion programs. But there needs to be a big, strong stick there in case that juicy carrot doesn’t do the trick. Right now, the stick is a broken twig.
When they screw up, they need to know that they will have to stay in prison for as long as the courts sentence them to serve. Yes, there needs to be an incentive program for the prisoners to behave. But the “earned early release” program that’s used now is undefined and seems random. Even judges and MDOC officers can’t explain it …
There are other ways to manage prisoners. Conjugal visits and family visits are powerful incentives for prisoners to behave for long periods of time. At Angola, the state prison in Louisiana, the popular rodeo and hobbycraft sales that are every Sunday in October and one weekend in April help manage the worst offenders all year.
On those five or six weekends, dozens of violent offenders are able to be amongst the general public, proudly selling furniture or art that they made. Some are even able to support families back home with what they earn. And the weekend cowboys sacrifice their bodies in brutal rodeo events just to earn a few dollars and to hear the cheers from an encouraging crowd. For just a few days — or even a few moments — they feel free. And they’re model prisoners for the rest of the year in order to earn that privilege.
Besides that, Angola is pretty much self-sustaining, with a working farm of cattle and vegetables that are maintained by prisoners. Heck, they even train police horses. The prisoners also produce a newspaper and Angola has its own inmate-run radio station.
All of these things were established and/or enhanced in response to rising violence, which got so bad that Angola was once referred to as the bloodiest prison in America. Now, it is a model for others to consider following. The paradox is that many of the prisoners are getting the sense of responsibility and self-worth that would prepare them to live in the outside world, but 85 percent die there.
One unique thing about Angola is its location. It’s on an island — one road in, one road out. The rest is surrounded by gator- and snake-filled swampland. Few escapees take a chance against those elements.
Our state has some Mississippi River islands. Places like that, with natural barriers, could be considered as maximum-security locations, along with tangible incentive plans for prisoners.
Most problems our state facilities have — the ones families are complaining about — were created by inmates.
The gang violence inside our prisons is out of control, no question. But family members who think they should be “safe” inside those walls are foolish. Taxpayers aren’t guaranteed safety from gang violence inside their homes. How the hell can we guarantee them safety inside a facility that houses thugs by the busload?
For now, perhaps that can be a disincentive for would-be criminals who are about to commit a crime. Guards who provide contraband should also face enhanced, strict sentences.
In the meantime, here’s another challenge for you, Jay-Z: If you want me to believe that you really think these folks are mistreated, take them home with you and let them babysit Blue Ivy and chill with Beyoncé.
Mark Thornton is editor-in-chief of the Leader-Call. Email him at