By Judge Keith Starrett
Not since the last time I watched the opening monologue of the classic movie Patton have I observed a leader address his staff in the passionate, direct, and “lay it all out” manner that Commissioner of Corrections, Burl Cain did when he spoke on October 17, 2022 in Jackson. He is definitely a man with a mission. I was the only non-Department of Corrections (DOC) employee there, having been invited by the Commissioner as an observer for the Mississippi Reentry Council.
The Mississippi Reentry Council was established by the Legislature on the recommendation of former Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. Its specified purpose is to “create effective strategies to assist former inmates in their return to the general population, to reduce the recidivism rates of inmates, to increase public safety, and to reduce budgetary constraints presently created by prison-related costs.” MCA §47-7-101. The Council is led by a Steering Committee made up mostly of State and Federal officials. A few weeks before this meeting, members of the Steering Committee met with Commissioner Cain and other corrections officials to discuss the agendas for the DOC and the Council. Out of this came the invitation to observe the October 17th meeting.
The Commissioner’s Speech:
Promptly at 9:00 a.m. Commissioner Cain began. His first admonition was that “many of us are working against one another.” His specific language was that we are “grinding the gears” of the truck and getting nowhere. “We must all get on the same page.” He then admonished the group about the absence, or delay, in getting departing inmates driver’s licenses or suitable IDs, a necessity for getting a job. Ten inmates were denied release the week before for this reason. He stressed that a job is a necessity, and he then went straight into finding out from the Parole Board 2 who would be considered each week so inmates could be fully prepared for release and employment. He looked straight at the Superintendents and Wardens and said, “You are in charge of your institution, and the buck stops with you. Get it done.” Hope (Helping Offenders Prepare for Employment) Grant: Next came the main reason for the meeting – the project funded by a 4.2 million dollar grant. The Commissioner had previously told the Council about the project and that he had spent over 30 years learning about corrections and developing the program, but this was the first opportunity he had had to implement it with adequate funding. At our first meeting in September, the Reentry Council presented him a list of our priorities. He advised that the project addressed each of them, and he laid out the immediate goals of the project.
1. “Get teachers certified.” The academic portion of the project requires teachers, and to be able to issue diplomas or certificates, the teachers must be certified. He addressed the persons in charge and said, “Get it done.”
2. “Search the prisons for former plumbers, carpenters, truck drivers, and mechanics.” The ones with longer sentences would be teachers of those with shorter sentences, and a member of the staff, a former inmate at Angola, was replicating a program there that listed 13 different vocations where certifications could be given, including welding, truck driving, small engine repair, auto and diesel repair, culinary arts, and others – all needed and much in demand.
3. He addressed character building and religious training and talked about field ministers (current inmates who had completed appropriate training who were sent out to other prisons as missionaries), a program used in Louisiana prisons that is extremely successful.
4. Violence in the prisons – getting firm with gangs – break them up and send the leaders to other institutions.
5. Stopping extortion of inmates by other inmates and stiff consequences for gang activities. This is a real problem in many institutions. His exact language was: “Get off your a _ _ and stop it, respond quickly to violence. Use drug dogs every day. We are going to have prisons and schools with the Wardens leading the fight.” He continued, “Increase shake-downs, have body cameras so that staff knows that if they do something illegal that they won’t get away with it.”
6. Stop political favors. “Quit moving inmates. The inmates don’t need their schooling and programming interrupted.”
7. Work closely with the Department of Employment Security, a necessary partner. Utilize best corrections practices – evidence-based programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism. Build additional partnerships with employers and train inmates for promised jobs before they are released so that they can immediately go to work. Improve our skills as corrections officers and enforce the dress code – take our system to the next level.
The funding for the proposed program is sufficient for 2500 inmates to complete a sixmonth program. After receiving a certification, an inmate can receive a cash award to be used to help with their move back into the outside world. Also, some cash assistance is available upon release for basic cell phones and other necessities for life in 2022.
Probation Officers are being reclassified to be called Reentry Counselors where their primary task is to assist returning inmates in successfully completing their community 4 supervision. The Commissioner has also proposed a program called “One Day with Dad” when children of inmates go to the institutions and spend the day with their dad to help them reconnect and prepare for the homecoming.
The Commissioner’s dream program is laudable, and I fully support it, but it needs unified support for it to succeed. Crime is on everyone’s mind these days, and with good reason. This is an election year, and the members of the Legislature will have to make some tough choices about their positions. But what is the goal? Community safety and enforcing the rule of law should be the number one objective of responsible Government leaders. 98% of prisoners are going home to communities throughout our State. (Go to the DOC website and see how many are returning annually to your county.) The question is – will those released be better and safer or will they return to a life of crime? Reducing recidivism saves lives, money, families, and communities. It will take courage for the Legislature to stand up for prison reform and properly fund it. In 2014 House Bill 585 was implemented, which allowed several thousand inmates to be quickly released, and prison numbers dropped. But one thing didn’t change – the number of community corrections officers to supervise them, and the prison population is on the rise. The Legislature promised that the money saved would be used in corrections, but that promise is yet to be fulfilled.
Our State is potentially on the cusp of substantial prison reform, but will we only have business as usual? Time will tell.
Keith Starrett is a Senior U.S. District Judge having served for over 30 years in both State and Federal courts. Throughout his entire career he has developed and implemented criminal justice reforms to reduce recidivism and provide job opportunities for former inmates. His email address is email@example.com.