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Mississippi Prisons are no Place for a Pandemic

A string of tragic and avoidable deaths in Mississippi prisons could soon be compounded by the COVID-19 crisis: a new FWD.us report estimates that nearly every single person currently in Mississippi Department of Corrections custody is likely to become infected with the virus without bold, immediate action from Governor Reeves and state officials.

Mississippi isn’t able to accommodate the nearly 20,000 people in its care and custody safely, which is why state officials must take bold, immediate action before it’s too late.

Since December of 2019, forty-one incarcerated people have died in Mississippi prisons. That’s thirty-nine lives senselessly lost, families without their loved ones, and an extremely painful reminder of how Mississippi’s incarceration crisis is devastating families across the state. 

On top of these tragic and avoidable deaths, COVID-19 has reached Mississippi prisons, further imperiling the lives of incarcerated people. And, because the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has tested fewer than 40 incarcerated people for COVID-19, the rate of infection is likely much higher than what is currently being reported. In fact, a new FWD.us report estimates that nearly every single person currently in MDOC custody is likely to become infected with the virus, and 186 people will die if no action is taken to reduce the prison population. Clearly, Mississippi isn’t able to accommodate the nearly 20,000 people in its care and custody safely, which is why state officials must take bold, immediate action before it’s too late.

There are many reasons why Mississippi’s jails and prisons are bursting at the seams, one being Mississippi’s harmful habitual sentencing laws that allow prosecutors to add extra years, decades, or even life imprisonment to people’s sentences if they have ever been convicted of crimes in the past. People with habitual sentences are particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 in the current crisis. These individuals are serving very long prison terms with no opportunity for parole or other forms of release, meaning that they are aging behind bars in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. 

"In Mississippi alone, 52% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are Black, as are 55% of those who have died from the virus"

Last year, FWD.us published a report called We All Pay, which highlighted the human and economic costs of the state’s habitual laws. The report focused on the 906 incarcerated men and women serving the most extreme habitual sentences of 20 or more years. Nearly half of this group – 449 people – are aged 50 or older. And, as the original report showed, 75 percent of people in prison serving 20 year or longer habitual penalties are Black men. The CDC reports that older adults are at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, and Black people have been disproportionately impacted by the virus in the United States. In Mississippi alone, 52% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are Black, as are 55% of those who have died from the virus. Incarcerated people also have higher rates of underlying chronic health issues, conditions caused and exacerbated by a lack of adequate health care in prisons, placing them at even greater risk during this pandemic. This is especially true for people with extreme habitual sentences. The majority of people in prison with 20+ year habitual sentences have been incarcerated for 10 or more years without access to reliable medical care.

This deadly confluence of events requires immediate action from elected officials to reduce the state’s dangerously high prison population. It is not too late to spare people from illness and death. Governor Reeves can take action now to reduce the prison population and save lives.

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