It was only three years ago, but the commencement of the presidency that could have ended on Feb. 5 started with the words “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives” and “American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
It would have been nice if President Donald Trump had kept the promises made in his inaugural address, but carnage continues, particularly in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman where 15 inmates have died since last December in cells with feces, infestation and in such decay, disrepair and darkness that you’d swear you were looking at a museum exhibit of medieval dungeons.
This isn’t an aberration for Mississippi. In August 2018 alone, 16 inmates died in state jails.
Back then, the FBI opened an investigation. To date, nothing has come of it. The same day that Trump was acquitted, the Department of Justice announced that it will investigate four Mississippi prisons.
I’m no stranger to correctional investigation. It’s not a search; it’s a status. What should be sustained inquiry becomes a suspension of it.
The carnage needs to be stopped, and that won’t happen until we move past directionless investigation. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves must deploy the National Guard to Mississippi prisons.
Using the Army National Guard is hardly unprecedented. Former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller dispatched the National Guard to quiet the Attica prison riots in 1971. In the 1980 Penitentiary of New Mexico uprising - its 40-year anniversary occurred on Feb. 2 - Gov. Bruce King called in the New Mexico National Guard. In 2018, North Carolina lawmakers urged Gov. Roy Cooper to supplement staff with the National Guard after five state prison employees underwent physical attacks. Cooper declined.
I’m not talking about a military invasion, but a type of order that only adequately staffed prisons can offer. The Army National Guard will probably be better at humane supervision than the corps of correction officers. The National Guard served meals for months after the New Mexico fracas because kitchen facilities had been destroyed and no one else could do it. I can’t imagine the guards in the prison where I was held doing that. In their minds, they didn’t serve us; we served them.
This violence isn’t a vice of excess. At its heart, it’s a problem of shortage. There simply aren’t enough employees to maintain peace and the physical plant. The presence of National Guardsmen and Guardswomen will prove that the only thing standing between best practices and bedlam is a beefed up staff roster.
Facilities all over the country at every level struggle to employ enough people to keep themselves running safely. That’s probably why so many inmates die in custody. The federal government started tracking inmate deaths in 2001. Based on the latest national figures available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics - ones that happen to be more than five years old - 4,980 prisoners in U.S. correctional facilities died in 2014, a nearly 3% increase from 2013. That’s over 13 people dying per calendar day, not always from violence, but often from neglect.
Gov. Reeves reacted - albeit a bit late - by saying he’ll move the people in the most dangerous and decrepit unit at Parchman, Unit 29, to an empty prison. That’s insufficient. When his own budget proposal doesn’t supplement the low salaries offered to correction officers in Mississippi, Reeves can’t recruit enough people in time to save lives. That’s why he needs ready and trained public servants.
Who will guard the guards? The National Guard. Send them in now.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.