Why Mississippi Is Reversing Its Prison Policy

By Steven Gray/Jackson


June 10, 2011


On Monday, May 16, Chris Epps, commissioner of Mississippi’s department of corrections, sat at a long conference table, grasping a mound of financial documents. He was preparing to head to the state’s penitentiary, an 18,000-acre old cotton farm in the Mississippi River Delta, for the execution of a man convicted of murder nearly two decades ago. Since the mid-1990s, Mississippi has become one of America’s most aggressive incarcerators — a difficult feat, in a nation of jailers. Now, Epps is leading Mississippi on an improbable shift: dismantling the prison system. “We’ve got all these needs” — education, health care — “and spending all this money on corrections,” Epps says. “We’ve got to decide who we’re mad with, and who we’re afraid of.”


Incarceration has been America’s primary weapon in the war on crime. That’s why in the 80s, Congress passed laws mandating that if you were caught with just 50 grams of crack-cocaine — about 20 packs of sugar — you automatically got a decade in prison. In 1980, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, an estimated 41,000 people were in prison or jail for drug offenses, and by 2003, that population had grown to nearly a half-million. Now, some 2.3 million people — about 1 in every 100 U.S. adults — are incarcerated. Prison overcrowding reached such crisis levels in California that, in May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a judicial-panel decision that requires the state to release 46,000 inmates over the next two years.


Nevertheless, the incarceration boom appears to be reversing. Between 2008 and 2009, state prison populations fell slightly, by 0.3%, to 1.4 million, the first such decline since the 70s. There are several reasons for the shift. The first is money. The Great Recession decimated state coffers, and is forcing governments to acknowledge they can no longer afford spending $52 billion a year locking people up. The second reason is demographics: people between 15 and 34 — prime ages for criminal activity — account for about 27% of the American population, compared to about 32% in 1990, near the violent-crime wave’s peak.


Those shifts, coupled with the over-saturation of prisons, partly explain why the violent crime rate has dropped to the lowest point in almost 40 years. Between 1997 and 2007, New York State’s prison population shrank by 9.4%, or 6,500 inmates, according to the Pew Center on the States, and the state’s violent crime rate almost halved. The takeaway, says James Austin, a leading criminal justice expert: “You can cut back on the size of the prison population without having a negative impact on crime.”


Epps wants to bring that lesson to Mississippi’s prison system. Or, as he puts it, “To not lock up more people.” He is 50 years old, very tall, with a drawl that calls to mind an old-school Southern sheriff. The son of educators raised in Tchula, Miss., a nearly all-black town in the heart of cotton country, Epps joined the department as an officer at the state penitentiary at Parchman, managing the movement of inmates between, say, the dentist and dining hall. He rose quickly, and was appointed as the department’s chief in 2002, by Ronnie Musgrove, a socially conservative Democratic governor. Two years later, Mississippi’s then-new governor, Haley Barbour, a Republican, reappointed him to the job.


Epps, who declines to identify his political affiliation — “the lord is our boss, regardless of what party he or she is in” — was a senior department official in 1995, when Mississippi’s legislature caught the “truth-in-sentencing” wave sweeping the country. The legislature didn’t just follow other states in requiring people convicted of violent crime to serve 85% of a sentence before becoming eligible for release. Mississippi went one step further. It required all offenders, regardless of conviction, to complete the bulk of their sentence. Previously, the state’s inmates could receive parole after serving one-quarter of their sentence, and most served about half. So Mississippi ordered nearly 6,000 new prison beds, backed by billions in Clinton Administration funding for “truth-in-sentencing” policies intended to break the cycle of violence.


Between 1997 and 1999, Mississippi opened seven prisons, some private. Impoverished Mississippi Delta towns that had watched their fortunes disappear with the cotton industry energetically courted the prospective business. Policymakers “felt their constituents, and taxpayers, wanted individuals who committed crimes to be locked up,” recalls Willie Simmons, chair of the legislature’s corrections committee and a critic of the prison boom. “They wanted us to be tough on crime.” Soon, Epps recalls, Mississippi’s prisons and jails became so overcrowded that local sheriffs allowed inmates to sleep in their offices, and forced them out in the morning. “That’s how bad it was,” Epps says. He recalls watching the Republican senator driving the prison legislation, and thinking: “Someone failed to tell him — but he failed to realize — that we have whole families in our criminal justice system.” Seven of every 10 Mississippi inmates have a relative in prison.


By 2008, Mississippi’s prison population had more than doubled to 22,646, and the corrections budget had nearly tripled to $348 million. Mississippi had the second-highest incarceration rate in America and was on track to add 5,000 prison beds in the next decade. “I knew it was going to be a problem, that it was going to explode,” Epps says, sitting in a conference room near the state’s capitol, thumbing through a timeline of the spiraling costs. “We kept rolling along. But it was too late.”


The turning point came in 2008. By summer, the Great Recession was in full effect, and Mississippi, already one of the nation’s poorest states, was ailing. Governor Barbour opened his second term unapologetically preaching austerity: “Our duty is to live within our means.” Department heads typically plead for more money. But Epps, sensing the moment, told the legislature: “If we keep putting the nonviolent in prison, there won’t be any room for the violent.” The legislature moved to allow nonviolent offenders to become eligible for parole, and the following year made people convicted of selling certain controlled substances eligible for house arrest. “The rationale was: we still want to be tough on crime, but we had to get this budget down,” he says.


Now, Epps is pushing Mississippi toward several alternatives. The state is testing a global-positioning device that costs about $13 a day per convict to keep tabs on an individual — far less than the $41.74 cost to house and feed a prisoner. “We’re still monitoring you, which is probably better than in some of my facilities,” he says. Elderly and terminally ill inmates are being released to their families, or hospices, saving nearly $5 million.


He expects the number of people placed on house arrest to increase — as soon as Mississippi’s wireless commission, which he chairs, expands Internet access to rural areas. In the coming months, he will push legislation to expand inmates’ eligibility for parole — potentially lowering the prison population by 19%, to 17,000, within two years. Projected savings: $52 million. “We can’t spend enough on education,” he says, “and that’s a direct correlation to the number of people coming to me.”


Since 2008, Mississippi has trimmed its corrections budget by about 5%, to $332 million. Reducing the prison population hasn’t caused the state’s violent crime rate to rise. In fact, the rate is falling toward 1970s levels, and the state’s recidivism rate has decreased to 30% in the last four years — well below the national average.


Mississippi’s effort is being closely followed by other states. Ohio’s Senate, for instance, is considering a potentially sweeping overhaul of the state’s corrections system. There is, of course, the risk that the inability of states to invest in rehabilitation programs for ex-offenders reentering a society that still bars them from jobs and housing will ultimately cause crime, and recidivism rates, to rise. Nevertheless, Epps believes his reforms will ultimately pay-off. “I’m proud to say we’re moving Mississippi into the 21st century.”