Mississippi: Wide search for new leader of troubled prisons


Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, center, delivers his address after being sworn into office Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, in House chambers at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Because of rain, the inauguration ceremony was moved inside and the parade was canceled. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi will conduct a nationwide search for a new commissioner to lead a state prison system that’s reckoning with a recent outburst of deadly violence and longstanding problems with vacant jobs and damaged facilities.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves held a news conference Thursday afternoon to announce the group that will conduct the search.

“We cannot rush the critical job of finding a new Commissioner for the Department of Corrections,” Reeves said. “We must get this right for the people of Mississippi. I am turning to my fellow Mississippians to help me in this mission.”

Reeves’ spokeswoman, Renae Eze, said the group will be led by Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, who is a former state lawmaker.

The governor’s office later released the names of the other members of the search group. The group includes: retired sheriff George Waggoner; Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, who previously served as managing attorney for the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Harrison County District Attorney Joel Smith; Steve Rushing, who is the current sheriff of Lincoln County; and Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Sean Tindell.

Reeves also announced that Tommy Taylor, who is currently serving as the mayor of Boyle, will be the interim commissioner for MDOC. Taylor will end his duties as mayor to begin serving as Interim Commissioner.

Reeves served the past eight years as lieutenant governor and was inaugurated as governor on Tuesday. He is replacing some state agency directors and keeping others.

Pelicia Hall had been commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections since 2017. She announced Dec. 31 that she would leave the job in mid-January, which coincides with the transition from former Republican Gov. Phil Bryant to Reeves.

Between Dec. 29 and Jan. 3, five inmates were killed and an undisclosed number of others were injured in violence inside the prisons.

More than two dozen inmates sued the state Tuesday, saying understaffed prisons are “plagued by violence” and inmates are forced to live in decrepit and dangerous conditions. All of the plaintiffs have been inmates in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Because of damage caused during the unrest, hundreds of prisoners were moved from one unit at the Parchman to another unit there that closed years ago because of decrepit conditions. The state then entered an emergency contract to move 375 of those inmates to a private prison nearby.

Hall said in a news release Monday that even after moving the 375 inmates, the state would have to find different housing for 625 other maximum-security inmates who had been housed at Parchman’s Unit 29, which was damaged in the violence.

Hall and her predecessors repeatedly told Mississippi legislators that prisons have too few guards because the pay is low and working conditions can be dangerous. As lieutenant governor, Reeves was one of the top budget writers.

State corrections officials are seeking an additional $67 million for the budget year that begins July 1 at the three state-run prisons. That would allow them to hire 800 more guards, raise guards’ starting salaries from the current $25,650 to $30,370, and increase pay for current employees.

Officials also are requesting $22.3 million to renovate Unit 29.

Bryant sought some increased prison funding, but not as much as $67 million. Top legislators are recommending that Mississippi spend even less next year than this year.

According to a release from the governor’s office, Reeves has instructed the Department of Safety to assign an officer from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to do an independent investigation at Parchman.

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