JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi will take steps to close part of a state prison that has been rocked by deadly violence and beset by longstanding problems such as broken toilets and moldy showers, Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday in his first State of the State address.
At least 12 inmates have died in Mississippi prisons since late December — most of them at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, and many of them in outbursts of violence. Prison problems have dominated much of Republican Reeves' time since he was inaugurated as governor Jan. 14.
In his speech at the state Capitol, Reeves said he has told the Mississippi Department of Corrections “to begin the necessary work to start closing Parchman's most notorious unit — Unit 29.”
He said logistical questions about the closing must be answered.
“But I have seen enough,” Reeves said. "We have to turn the page. This is the first step, and I have asked the department to begin the preparations to make it happen safely, justly and quickly."
Governors generally use the State of the State to discuss the economy and to outline goals for the legislative session.
Reeves said in his speech that he wants to improve the foster care system, increase pay for teachers and enhance training for workers. Reeves said the “big lie" is that all Americans must embark on the same path that includes at least a four-year university degree.
“In Mississippi, we know there is pride in a trade. We know that there is money to be made,” Reeves said. “We can let the East Coast have their ivory towers. We can let the West Coast have a generation of gender studies majors. We will take more jobs and higher pay.”
He also said he wants to reduce state regulations.
“That means eliminating those unfair regulations that keep people from earning licenses to work,” Reeves said.
Reeves and other officials toured part of Parchman last week, and he said Thursday that the state is taking immediate steps to try to improve living conditions that he described as “terrible.” Multiple health department inspections have shown problems at Parchman, such as broken sinks and toilets, holes in cell walls and widespread mold and mildew in showers.
The interim commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Tommy Taylor, said after Reeves' speech Monday that inmates in Unit 29 now have clean water to drink and warm water for showers. He said some inmates had not been allowed to shower for several days while prisons were on lockdown because of the violence. He said those no longer on lockdown have had a chance to shower and have been given new clothes.
Taylor also said toilets have been repaired, and crews are patching holes that allow rain into buildings. He said workers are also repairing problems with electrical systems and heating.
“We're preparing to make it more livable as long as they've got to stay there while we're making this transition,” Taylor said.
Reeves said last week that the state might reopen a closed prison in another part of the state to house some inmates currently at Parchman.
Unit 29 has about a dozen buildings, and three of them are already closed, Taylor said.
Death row inmates are housed at Unit 29, and Taylor said the condition of their building is “OK.” State law requires death row to be at Parchman, and Taylor said those inmates will remain where they are unless legislators change the law and direct the Department of Corrections to put death row somewhere else.