State’s prison history is one that begs to break recidivism

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, April 10, 2024

By Sid Salter

After more than 40 years of reporting and writing about crime and punishment in Mississippi, I’ve seen the pendulum swing from “get tough” to “out of sight, out of mind” to “who’s making money off the system now?”

Mississippi’s prison system has a capacity of just under 21,964 and a population of 19,127. Recidivism – or repeat offenders after serving prison time – is 37.1% in Mississippi in 2023.

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From the Southern “plantation prison” model that gave rise to Mississippi’s Parchman, Louisiana’s Angola and the Georgia chain gangs to “convict leasing” and other systems of continuing slavery under color of Jim Crow laws long after the guns of the Civil War were silenced, Mississippi struggled with corrections policy before and after race was the common denominator.

Then, as now, change comes slowly in the state’s prison system.

In his 1988 book All Rise: Memoirs of a Mississippi Federal Judge, the late U.S. District Judge William C. Keady recounted his long involvement in efforts to reform the Mississippi prison system from the measured view of a veteran federal judge.

“The court found that the physical facilities were in such condition as to be unfit for human habitation, that racial discrimination was practiced by the penal authorities in the assignment of inmates, that the medical staff and hospital facilities available to penitentiary inmates were far less than minimal, and that the inmates, under the protection of few free-world personnel, had to work under guns placed in the hands of other inmates who were trusties.”

Rising crime and the rising perceptions of crime and declining public safety gave birth – nationally and in Mississippi – to legislation that had unintended consequences.

In 1995, Mississippi lawmakers followed national trends in attempting to “get tough on crime.” But in doing so, the lawmakers also dramatically increased the state’s prison population and therefore the operating costs of the state prison system.

The Legislature adopted the so-called “85 percent rule” which mandated that all state convicts must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole. Mississippi’s law sharply contrasted with other states, where the 85 percent rule applied only to violent offenders.

The law had a tremendous impact. On June 30, 1993, the Mississippi Department of Corrections had 9,629 prisoners with a capacity of 9,164. By the end of 1998, the figures jumped to 16,695 and 16,007, respectively.

The rise and fall of the 85 percent rule is a follow-the-numbers game – even after steps were taken in 2008 to lessen the impact of the sentencing guidelines. In May 2002, there were 21,751 state inmates with 2,829 in private prisons and 17,490 convicts on probation or parole. By May 2012, there were 25,572 state inmates with 3,110 in private prisons and 35,242 convicts on probation or parole.

Recent U.S. Justice Department reports have again slammed prison conditions in Mississippi. The report says gangs are rampant inside the prisons and their ranks include some correctional staff. The feds are telling Mississippi to clean up their act in corrections.

After the failures of the 85 percent rule and the rapid introduction of private prisons as solutions to growing mass incarceration costs, it became clear that private prisons were no panacea. In 2008, Congress enacted the Second Chance Act – which purported to help clear the glut of the warehousing of prisoners with programs designed to help ex-cons transition to life on the outside.

Private companies offering services to supposedly ease the reentry of prisoners into society are beginning to make their presence felt at the State Capitol. Like the private prisons before them, some are better than others based on their performance in other states.

Mississippi leaders would do well to fully examine prisoner reentry programs before hitching the state’s corrections wagon to such programs. But for over a century, the state’s corrections system has been troubled and in great measure ineffective.

Many states, including states like Mississippi from the old plantation prison systems, are investing in prisoner reentry programs to train ex-convicts not to re-offend and to effectively enter the legitimate workforce. Georgia, Louisiana and Texas – states with equally tough prison system histories – are among those trying another path. Mississippi should join them.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at