- The Washington Times
Thursday, January 30, 2020

Mississippi’s Kemper Neshoba County Regional Correctional Facility this week recorded the state prison system’s 13th inmate death in one month, a situation the new governor attributed to gang activity and substandard conditions.

Authorities said inmate Limarion Reaves, 28, was talking to relatives on the phone when he collapsed. He died later at a hospital. A cause of death was not immediately released. Reaves’ unexplained death was the third fatality in that prison in as many days.

More than a dozen Mississippi inmates have died since Dec. 29. Nine of those were incarcerated at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman.

Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who was sworn in Jan. 14, has announced steps to curb the rash of deaths and close the state penitentiary’s infamous Unit 29, where one inmate died.

“All Mississippians must be able to trust that the people in charge of the system are acting with competence to keep them safe,” Mr. Reeves said this week in his State of the State address. “We must be able to trust that the corrections officers operating these prisons have the tools that they need to do their jobs and that they are compensated fully.”

Among the “common sense” steps he initiated is checking for possible ties between guards and gangs.

As of this week, 19,045 people were in custody in state prisons, with 2,781 of them at Parchman, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. A spokeswoman confirmed that five inmate deaths at Parchman were homicides, adding that the others are being investigated.

The department said the Jan. 21 death of Thomas Lee, 49, at Parchman was probably suicide. The deaths of Gabriel Carman, 31, who was found hanging in his Parchman cell on Jan. 18, and Joshua Norman, 26, who was found dead in his Unit 29 cell on Jan. 26, remain unclassified.

The Jan. 8 death of A.D. Mills, 42, in the Parchman hospital was attributed to natural causes.

Eight inmates have died of injuries in major disturbances, gang-related violence or fights in state and county facilities, authorities said.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi Department of Corrections is understaffed: The starting annual salary for a state prison guard is $26,000 — the lowest in the Deep South.

Last summer, the state’s Health Department found a host of disturbing conditions at Unit 29, such as no soap in the kitchen and moldy food. Mr. Reeves called the issues infuriating after visiting Parchman. He earlier announced a search for a new prison system director.

Organizations backed by rapper/producer Jay-Z have helped inmates file lawsuits recently that allege inhumane conditions tied to understaffed guard units, rats, mold and faulty sewers.

Mississippi’s prison population remains swollen, though it has declined from its highs of the previous century.

“The problem is we have way too many people in prison for way too long,” said Joshua Tom, legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.

Mr. Tom commended the governor for his aggressive action response to the inmate deaths, but he said deeper structural reforms are required to correct the situation.

“Some of the criminal justice reforms we’ve seen enacted in the past few years have not been effective in reducing the prison population here,” Mr. Tom said. “This has been an issue for more than a year if not decades, and it probably could have blown last year just as easily as it has this year.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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