JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Wednesday that the state will not consider early release for prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic, even with inmates living in conditions that make social distancing difficult.
“Unlike many other states, I do not believe we ought to use the excuse of a pandemic to change our sentencing structure in our criminal justice system,” the Republican governor said in response to questions during a news conference.
Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States. An advocacy group for inmate safety, the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, issued an open letter to Reeves this week. It demanded that the state release all juveniles, elderly and medically fragile people from custody. It also demanded release of all inmates who have been granted parole and are awaiting release and all inmates with less than two years left to serve.
“The men and women who are incarcerated remain fearful for their lives and are counting on you to help measure that don’t turn their sentences into a matter of life or death,” the coalition said in the letter.
Nsombi Lambright is executive director of One Voice, a human rights group that's part of the coalition. She told The Associated Press on Wednesday that inmates and prison employees need to be protected from the highly contagious virus.
“All of their lives are at risk,” Lambright said.
Empower Mississippi, a group aligned with Reeves on issues such as support of charter schools, has also called for the state to enact policy changes to reduce long prison sentences. Its director of employability and criminal justice reform, J. Robertson, told the AP on Wednesday that Mississippi needs to offer more coronavirus testing in prisons and provide easy-to-find information about results. Some other states have such information online; Mississippi does not.
“Prisons are a perfect breeding ground for this virus,” Robertson said.
Reeves said Wednesday that 37 Mississippi inmates have been tested for the virus, and four of those tested positive. He said 43 Department of Corrections staff members have been tested, and seven of those tested positive. Mississippi has more than 18,000 prisoners in custody. Reeves said testing has been done on inmates or prison employees showing symptoms of the virus.
The state said last week that inmates and prison employees have received masks and gloves. Some of the masks were donated by REFORM Alliance, a group affiliated with entertainment mogul Jay-Z.
Jay-Z, rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, are paying for two federal lawsuits filed early this year to challenge living conditions in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The U.S. Justice Department announced in February that it had begun investigating Mississippi's prison system after several inmates were killed or injured in outbursts of violence in late December and early January. State health inspections have shown repeated problems in Parchman with broken sinks and toilets and moldy showers.
The state Health Department said Wednesday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — had at least 8,424 confirmed cases and 374 deaths from the coronavirus as of Tuesday evening. That was an increase of 217 cases and 32 deaths from the previous day.
The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
The Health Department said Wednesday that more than 80,300 coronavirus tests had been done in Mississippi as of Tuesday. The department said at least 1,008 cases of the virus had been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 163 deaths from it in those facilities.
Reeves is easing some restrictions on restaurants. Starting Thursday, they may serve food in their dining rooms or in outdoor areas with limited numbers of customers. Servers must wear masks.
The Legislature is returning to the Capitol on Thursday to consider aid to businesses hurt by the pandemic.