Mississippi workforce gets boost from prison system

Vocational training and rehabilitation have become the focus of state prisons, with dozens of new classrooms and training opportunities springing up in Mississippi prisons over the past two years.

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain, who took over as head of the agency in 2020, has emphasized building a network focused on preparing inmates to reintegrate into society after their sentences are complete. .

“What we do is create communities,” Cain said.

The shift from centralized management of Jackson State prisons to full control of each guard has streamlined operations so far, though Cain said there is still work to be done to maintain consistency. .

Cain said there was a need to prepare inmates to fully reintegrate into society, particularly with a focus on reducing recidivism in the state from its peak of 37.4% in fiscal year 2020. .

“I personally haven’t heard of this anywhere where (an administration) sets aside an entire prison for schooling alone,” he said. “But if we want to teach you how to do a job, you need to be able to read, write and keep a checkbook, so that’s what we’ll do.”

There are ongoing projects in the system that will turn some of the state’s prisons solely into rehabilitation and vocational training centers, Cain said.

For example, the Washington County Regional Correctional Facility in Greenville will primarily focus on entering minimum-security inmates with less than six years to serve into a two-year GED program, followed by a two-year reintegration program. years with on-the-job training.

Vocational training has expanded significantly since 2020, and almost all state-run prisons offer some form of curriculum, much of it taught by the inmates themselves.

Cain said there are currently about 100 certified inmate-teachers in the state prison system, but he hopes to have at least 500 by the end of 2023.

While the state has largely focused on expanding its employment programs, security issues for inmates and employees still surround state prisons.

Dilapidation is rampant and conditions were so poor at Mississippi State Penitentiary’s infamous Unit 29 in Parchman that it was deemed unsafe for habitation in 2020. Chronic understaffing across the system remains also a problem. An April report from the Mississippi Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Review found vacancy rates of more than 54% at Parchman alone in 2020.

Reports from the Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom focused on the criminal justice system, obtained hundreds of documents from private prisons across the state that showed unsafe working conditions due to understaffing. More than 800 assaults between inmates were also recorded in 2020, the highest total since 2016.

The Corrections Department took over the Marshall County facility in September after Cain and several agency members spent hundreds of collective work hours touring the facility. Cain said the decision was largely due to the costs of the contract the agency maintains with Management and Training Corporation, which still oversees East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. in Woodville.

During the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, inmates at Mississippi State Prison in Parchman worked through Mississippi Prison Industries Corp to sew masks and gowns. The partnership included the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and Blue Delta Jeans Co.

“They had a contract that covered 900 inmates when we only had 600 there,” Cain said. “It was just something we couldn’t sustain, so that was the main reason we pushed to take it back.”

Cain said the corrections department is currently considering its contract with MTC to perform necessary repairs east of the Mississippi and have the appropriate protocols in place.

The Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, where some of the most violent attacks occurred according to internal oversight reports, is currently under a new superintendent and is now functioning properly, Cain said.

“That’s who the leadership is,” he said. “If you have good leaders and hire the right people, then we’re good.”

Getting more guards for prison staff is another challenge, as low salaries compared to surrounding states have drawn potential employees across state lines. Cain said there are plans to increase the base salary from the $32,000 that employees currently receive after six months of work to $38,300, but the increase cannot happen until funding is available. unlocked in July.

“Every lawmaker I talk to, including the governor, is behind this 100% increase,” Cain said.

Cain said that once the system has more staff and inmates have largely settled into the new system, his goal is to create community environments similar to those at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as the name of Angola, when he retired from prison in 2016.

Plans are currently underway to create an arts and crafts fair that would take place at the prison, as well as to launch a boxing league in the spring that would be open to the public. Other sports leagues, such as basketball, may also appear in the future, Cain said.

Community changes already underway in Mississippi prisons have attracted the attention of criminal justice scholars and universities such as Pepperdine University in California who want to study the impact of the transformation.

“There are people who want to come and do documentaries about this that we’re considering,” Cain said.

Cain said that by emphasizing rehabilitation, the state can make great strides in continuing to reduce the rate of recidivism, but also giving inmates a chance to be productive and able to support themselves afterward. their release.

“The good thing is lawmakers … are all behind us with these changes,” Cain said. “Now we have to produce and we will produce.”

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