DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. We're going to go now to Mississippi, where the prison system is in crisis. Critics say decades of neglect and underfunding have resulted in dangerous facilities, and the state now is facing pressure to improve conditions. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: John Knight says being locked up in Mississippi is about pure survival.
JOHN KNIGHT: They still treat you like a common-day slave because you have committed a crime. They're sentencing you to prison, first and foremost, and then they're sentencing you to death if you don't survive because of the deplorable conditions.
ELLIOTT: Knight, who is 43, is a former drug dealer and gang member who's been out of prison for seven years and now volunteers to curtail violence in his hometown of Jackson. He was first sentenced to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman when he was 18 years old. Knight is part of the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, groups pressuring the state to address long-documented problems with violence, unsanitary conditions and a lack of medical care.
KNIGHT: Brown water, bugs and rats coming out - you sleep on the rats. You just don't even - you don't move because it's just a normal thing. Could you imagine how that mentally messes a person up? And they expect them to act like a model citizen?
ELLIOTT: But some say the inmates are responsible for conditions inside prisons. Jimmy Anthony (ph) is a retired police officer from Batesville, Miss.
JIMMY ANTHONY: I understand how people are concerned about prisons and the unfair conditions. But when you take a prisoner, you saw all the pictures of the plumbing leaking everywhere and how nasty - well, if they tear the sinks out and they pull the piping loose to make tools to kill each other, who's at fault for that?
ELLIOTT: Anthony was shot by a suspected gang member in the 1990s. He's been lobbying the legislature to pass a bill that would add extra prison time for gang-related crimes, including behind bars.
ANTHONY: Gangs run the prisons. If they wanted to take that prison, they'll take it because we're so understaffed and, of course, just like in the Army, there's strength in numbers.
ELLIOTT: The state has struggled to hire enough guards. About half of those jobs were open according to the 2019 annual report from the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
JENNIFER WHITE: We don't have enough officers to stop anything.
ELLIOTT: Jennifer White (ph) was a correctional officer at Parchman for 15 years. She says at times, there would be two officers overseeing more than 200 prisoners. And inmates took advantage of that.
WHITE: They would throw stuff on you, like feces, urine, hot water, acid - whatever they had. You know? And it became bad.
ELLIOTT: She left in 2017 after repeated attacks on the largely female staff. White says she had mace to protect herself, but it wasn't enough to fight back against one reported gang leader who severely injured her.
Jennifer White has a degree in criminal justice and says she made about $25,000 a year as a lieutenant. The low pay was an issue, she says, and made it easier for inmates to bribe or threaten some guards to smuggle in contraband.
WHITE: They bring in cellphones, all kinds of stuff - drugs, cellphones, get him anything he want - anything he want.
ELLIOTT: Corruption has also been an issue at the top. In 2015, a longtime prison commissioner pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme involving prison contracts. White blames failed state leadership for creating an impossible climate.
Prisons have long been on the legislative backburner when it comes to money in this poor state, says journalist Jerry Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.
JERRY MITCHELL: Overall over the past six years, they've cut funding over $200 million. You can see they're not fixing - like, they're not even replacing the light bulbs. So that has this effect over time, and that may be one of the reasons they didn't fix these - just pretty much let everything go to hell.
ELLIOTT: That despite warnings from former prison commissioners that without additional funding, the system faced a mounting crisis. Now it's reality. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating, and inmates have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging unconstitutional conditions. Republican Governor Tate Reeves and his interim prison commissioner declined to be interviewed by NPR. But Reeves has publicly acknowledged the situation is terrible in some prisons and that the state needs to bring its prison population to manageable levels.
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TATE REEVES: We know that there are people in prisons today who do not need to be there. We want to fix that.
ELLIOTT: The question is how and whether there's political will to address the funding issue. Reeves has said he's not looking to invest more in prisons right now. Democrat Robert Johnson is the minority leader in the Mississippi House. He warns the state needs to pay up now or be forced to later.
ROBERT JOHNSON: What we do now in getting it fixed will be a whole lot less expensive than if we wait for the Justice Department to come in and tell us what to do 'cause they're not going to be sensitive to whether or not our budget issues or what - you just got to do it.
ELLIOTT: Legislative committees are looking at reforms, including revising mandatory sentencing, adding workforce training programs and providing transitional housing. Hundreds of inmates are eligible for parole but can't be released because the state requires them to have a physical address to get out of prison. Republican Kevin Horan is chairman of the Mississippi House Corrections Committee.
KEVIN HORAN: We have the obligation and responsibility to, once we place people in custody, to see that they're treated fairly, humanely.
ELLIOTT: Horan says since the mid-1990s, the state has relied too heavily on incarceration and not invested enough in programs with incentives for reducing time and helping prisoners transition safely back into society.
HORAN: If you give an individual a 20-year sentence and he comes to you and says, hey, look - what can I do to reduce my sentence? - and say nothing, you got 20 years day for day, then, quite naturally, that individual is not going to be programmed to be a productive inmate, a rule-abiding inmate.
ELLIOTT: It's the same question posed by former prisoner-turned-advocate John Knight.
KNIGHT: What do they have to be good for if they done took everything from them anyway?
ELLIOTT: Now advocates fear solving the prison crisis will again be pushed aside as the nation and the state confront the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson, Miss.
(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "EYES CLOSED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.