Prison death protestors confront MDOG head at state budget hearings

By Earnest McBride

Hall reports annual death rates nearly same over decades

Representatives of prisoners’ rights group staged surprise protest during the Legislative Budget Committee planning session Monday (Sept. 17) just at the moment that Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall began her presentation.

Following the budget hearings, Hall later made appearances on two statewide media broadcasts and explain that while the death of 16 inmates in August 2018 alone was an aberration, the annual number of prison deaths for 2018 is in line with previous years over the last decade.

Hall had explained the differences and similarities in-the numbers a day or two before on the in-state video blog “Y’ all Politics,” pointing out that as of September 11, 2018, 59 MDOC deaths have been reported this year; 16 in August alone. But there were 78 prison deaths in all of 2017; 74 in 2016; 47 in 2015; 71 in 2014; and 53 in 2013.

The protesters raised a banner and began chanting the names of the 16 inmates known to have died in the month of August alone, an inexplicable record number of prison deaths for one month in Mississippi, one protest leader said. Other representatives of the group said Monday’s action inside the budget hearing room was just one part of a continuing series of protests underway in Mississippi since mid-August. As they shouted out the names of the deceased inmates, ignoring the warnings of the security personnel, they were escorted from the hearing room.

Outside the building, protesters who identified themselves as Cooperation Jackson, chanted “We want freedom, freedom. Take your justice system; we don’t need ’em, need ’em.”

“The idea behind the protest,” said Baba Lukata, “is to increase public awareness of the injustice that prevails in our justice system. We want the prison system to do more in the way of corrections than in oppression. And we especially want to see more humane treatment of these individuals who are incarcerated in the system now, but who will be returning to our communities at some point in the future.”

Other members of the protest group called for a lot more transparency in the death reports and autopsies of men and women who’ve died in Mississippi state prisons.

“I do believe I have been transparent,” Hall told Mississippi Public Radio reporter Desiree Frazier shortly after the budget hearing. “I’ve put out press releases about these deaths. I don’t necessarily have to go on camera to be transparent. I’ve given an interview with “Y’All Politics” talking about the state of affairs as it relates to these inmate deaths.. .We have people who suffer from chronic and acute illnesses in our prison system and we take care of those individuals and get them the appropriate level of medical care.”

Hall agreed with the reporter’s statement that “two or three of the deaths” were homicides.

“That’s correct, and I think I’ve answered that when I first came out an made a statement related I think would be counterproductive. We’ve made our statement on what it is and we’re waiting on the final results of any internal investigation that are going to be done. And the families are more than free to reach out to the coroners to make those autopsies available to them. And if there is something to be addressed, we’ll address it at that time.

State Rep. Greg Holloway (Dem – Hazlehurst), vice chairman of the House Universities and Colleges committee, and member of the Public Properties, Houses Ways and Means and Rules committees, offers a great deal of praise and respect towards Commissioner Hall.

“Ms. Pelisha Hall is doing the best she can in a very difficult job, trying to make it in a white man’s world without the solid support of what ought to be her natural allies in the Legislative Black Caucus,” Harper said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon>

“The house passed a bill that could block the signals of contraband cell phones coming in and out of the prisons,” he said. “Most of the members of the Black Caucus voted against this bill and so the calls kept going out. A lot of the crimes that are. happening are planned from inside the prisons. That is, retaliations, revenge killings and a lot of other crimes that nobody seems to be able to put an end to. At least the blocking of the cell phone signals might have helped in this one area. But it wasn’t allowed to be made into the law.

“I urge people not to bother this lady in her effort to do her job. She’s doing the best she can in one of the toughest jobs in state government. I’d even venture to say, she’s got one of the toughest jobs in the entire country, given the fact that Mississippi’s corrections system has been at the top of the Federal government’s hit list for many years. There are more than 19,000 people in the prison system and they die from many diseases, heart failure and many of it comes from their condition before they came into the prisons. I am sympathetic toward the work of Ms. Hall and I have the deepest compassion for our people locked away in prison, sometimes under the harshest conditions.

“Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher has said that nobody’s staging marches and demonstrations against the mayor of Jackson or the city’s police chief because of the increasing number of people being murdered and shot in Jackson. He’s saying that just to point out how unfair it is to lay the blame for increased prison deaths on this staunchly professional and competent black female who was appointed to head the system in 2017. And under the circumstances, I know she is doing the best she can, which I find to be quite admirable”

Mississippi retains a split system of corrections – both public and private. The federal government has felt the need to put Mississippi on notice for violating prisoners’ basic human rights several times over the last two decades. A disproportionate amount of the troubles came out the privately operated facilities, which were obligated by their contracts with the state to operate at a cost ten percent less than state prison operations cost.

Hall reported to the budget committee that the state prison system is operating far below its man/womanpower needs. Operating the system of nearly 20,000 inmates with only 1953 officers currently, she said that 495 officer positions remain unfilled. The jobs are available, she says, but there remains a shortage of recruits willing to apply for them.

This article provided by NewsEdge.