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Advocates Call For Federal Probe Of Mississippi Corrections Department

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's been deadly violence in Mississippi prisons. It happened last week. Five inmates were killed by other inmates. Advocates say understaffing and constant lockdowns are in part to blame. They're calling on the federal government to investigate the state's corrections department. Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Ashley Norwood reports.

ASHLEY NORWOOD, BYLINE: As lawmakers met inside the Mississippi state Capitol earlier this week, dozens of people rallied outside.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Somebody...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Somebody...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: ...Is hurting our people.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: ...Is hurting our people.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: And it's gone on far too long.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: And it's gone on far too long.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: And we won't be silent anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: And we won't...

NORWOOD: Advocates from the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the inmate-on-inmate violence in the state's prisons. Sharon Brown has a family member in custody and told the crowd the situation is bleak.

SHARON BROWN: Nothing is under control. People are constantly being hurt. It is not a gang war; it is a systemic war.

NORWOOD: These advocates claim Mississippi has the nation's third-highest rate of incarceration and a prison staff vacancy rate of nearly 50%. The average hourly wage of correctional officers in Mississippi is the lowest in the nation. Outgoing Republican Governor Phil Bryant has been fielding questions at recent news events about who's responsible for what's happening in the state's prisons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHIL BRYANT: The inmates are the ones that take each other's lives. The inmates are the one that fashion weapons out of metal. The inmates are the one that do the damage to the very rooms that they are living in.

NORWOOD: That kind of thinking has angered some in Mississippi, and it's become an issue in the state Capitol as lawmakers are back in session this week. Democratic state Representative Christopher Bell says the state prison system is in turmoil. He says prison officials have warned legislators they need more money to hire guards and pay them better.

CHRISTOPHER BELL: First and foremost, we're going to have to give them the amount of money that they need. That's first and foremost. Second, it has to gain control of those prisons.

NORWOOD: Republican Senator Brice Wiggins is a member of the state corrections committee. He agrees the Legislature should look at ways to funnel more money into the department, but it won't be easy or fast.

BRICE WIGGINS: What's going on right now has brought it to the forefront. And yes, we need to address it and look at ways we can do it, but it's not going to be fixed in one year. I mean, we didn't get here overnight; we're not going to get out of it overnight.

NORWOOD: For the past few years, Mississippi's correctional spending has declined while its prison population has remained almost unchanged. Reform advocates say that's exactly why they've seen more recent prison lockdowns and violence in many of the state's correctional facilities.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Norwood in Jackson, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF GWENIFER RAYMOND'S "SOMETIMES THERE'S BLOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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