When you enter any Mississippi state prison you encounter this picture of Christopher Epps. The Mississippi Commissioner of Corrections is the only black face in a collage of photographs hanging on a cinder block wall; but his picture is alone at the top. He is Commissioner, after all.
This well-written story in Governing describes how Mississippi, the reddest of red states, backed away from the logic of mass incarceration. A combination of factors allowed the Magnolia State to halt the upward spiral of growing prisons and deteriorating conditions. First, the ACLU filed a lawsuit claiming that conditions in Parchman prison’s notorious Unit 32 were inhumane. Then Ronnie Musgrove, a moderate Democrat, appointed Christopher Epps as Commissioner of the MDOC. Here’s a quick exceprt from the article:
In August 2002, one month after the ACLU filed a lawsuit targeting the conditions on death row, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appointed Epps commissioner of corrections. That same month, a team of ACLU attorneys and experts got their first look inside Unit 32. It was “a soul-searing experience,” Winter recalls. The conditions in Russell’s modified, “special management” cell, wrote psychiatrist Terry Kupers, were enough to “cause intense anxiety and rage, psychiatric breakdown and in a large proportion of cases, suicide.”
The following year, Judge Jerry Davis handed down an injunction ordering the MDOC to improve conditions in Building B. In 2005, the ACLU filed a complaint seeking to extend that relief to all of Unit 32. Then in April 2006, Commissioner Epps did something unexpected: He agreed to enter into a consent decree. And that December, Epps did something even more surprising. At a meeting with ACLU expert witness Austin, Epps directed Sparkman to form a task force that would work with Austin to develop an entirely new classification system for the state correctional system. Evidence for the need to radically change was not far away. In the summer of 2007, Unit 32 went from hellhole to war zone as violence exploded with the growth in rival gangs among the prison population.
To restore order, Epps made key personnel changes and reached out to the National Institute of Corrections for technical advice. In short order, a team from Connecticut, a prison system with well regarded gang intervention programs, arrived to assess the situation. After a week at Parchman, the group presented its report to Epps. Its recommendations were surprising.
“They said, ‘Commissioner, you’ve got to get them something,’” recalls Epps. “‘You’ve got these guys locked up in a cell, 80 square feet, with Plexi on the door. It’s not air-conditioned. So when they shout out or hurt someone, what can you do?’”
After consulting with Sparkman, Epps decided the MDOC would try a different — and deeply counterintuitive — approach. It would respond to the worst outbreak of prison violence in recent history by loosening the controls on Unit 32. The inmates would be given a chance to return to the general prison population by displaying good behavior. Unit 32 would have group dining, recreational activities and even classes.
Today, Parchman’s Unit 32-B holds only 85 death row inmates, Curtis Flowers is one of them. After each of his four convictions for murdering four people in 1996, Flowers has been transferred to Unit 32. When sentences are vacated and new trials ordered by the MS Supreme Court, Flowers is transferred to a county jail.
Following his most recent conviction in June of this year, Curtis is back in Parchman. A recent AP article suggests that Unit 32 will soon be shut down permanently. I will send these articles to Curtis and get his read on the situation.
Speaking of Curtis Flowers, an almost comically bad article on his recent conviction appeared today in an obscure site called “Legal Info”.
The feature article in Governing shows what can happen when a governor has the guts to appoint a pragmatic African-American corrections official as commissioner and when that commissioner is willing to work hand-in-hand with a civil liberties organization instead of seeing reformers as the enemy. Epps gave politicians the cover they needed to put an end to a truth in sentencing law that forced inmates to serve 85% of their sentences. This punitive move gave inmates little incentive for good behavior and sent the inmate population soaring.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that Mississippi is saving a lot of money by reducing its prison population.
Although Mississippi has one of the largest incarceration rates in the nation (it was briefly number one before the reductions discussed in the article) it ranks 45th in terms of racially disproportionate inmate population. Christopher Epps understands that harsh corrections tactics and punitive sentencing policies are counter productive. Every time I visit a Mississippi prison I wonder how a black man sleeps at night presiding over the Mississippi Gulag. Now I know.