Pastors Are Speaking Out Against Abuse in Private Prisons

Clergy from across Mississippi are working together to reform the state’s prison system following the indictment of former Commissioner Christopher Epps.

(Photo: Mississippi Department of Corrections/Reuters)

Mar 25, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As the pastor at Mount Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, C.J. Rhodes is accustomed to people buckling at the knees and weeping before him. Emotions run high when he visits parents and grandparents and prays with them for their incarcerated family members. Now, Rhodes hopes to stir a strong response in a traditionally slow-to-react segment of the Mississippi population: the government.

Rhodes is leading more than 50 clergy members from across the state in a coalition called Clergy for Prison Reform that aims to shine a light on the private prison system—where complaints of rat-infested cells and dangerous understaffing have landed in court in recent years. The group has united to encourage broader criminal justice reform that results in fewer people behind bars in a state that boasts the second highest rate of incarceration in the country, behind Louisiana. In the last decade, Mississippi’s prison population has grown by more than 17 percent.

“Broadly, many of us across denomination, racial, and political lines know that something’s not altogether right with our criminal justice system,” Rhodes told TakePart. “Our role and responsibility is to be a megaphone for parents and grandparents who fall to their knees every night praying for their sons and daughters.”

The group is one of many unusual allies in the growing movement for criminal justice reform, which has brought together religious and fiscal conservatives and liberal advocacy groups, and garnered bipartisan support. To Rhodes and his allies, private prisons are a clear entryway into the larger criminal justice reform discussion.

Private prisons rose in popularity in the 1980s as the private corporations that stood to profit from them marketed their services as a way for state governments to save money (a claim that has largely been debunked). The success of these corporations hinges on filling prison beds in Mississippi and across the country—posing a clear conflict for advocates working to decrease the prison population, Rhodes said.

Mississippi prisons are especially illustrative of the problems that can fester behind closed doors in private facilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU exposed alleged dismal conditions through a lawsuit filed in 2013 targeting the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, a private prison that the groups say routinely denies health care to prisoners, is infested with insects and rats, and is ridden with violence due to understaffing. In another suit, settled in 2012, the groups successfully litigated the transfer of youths from Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, another private prison an hour east of Jackson. In testimony before the court, six teens described suffering beatings and sexual abuse at the hands of correctional officers. A Department of Justice investigation into Walnut Grove declared the sexual misconduct at the facility “among the worst that we have seen...anywhere in the nation.”

Advocates around the state were making steady progress in reducing the prison population by passing legislation to ease the release of nonviolent drug offenders, and winning cases like Walnut Grove. Part of the success was driven by their ability to collaborate with former prison commissioner Christopher Epps. In his 12 years as commissioner, Epps reduced recidivism rates, supported legislation that made nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after serving just 25 percent of their sentence, and eliminated the state’s most notorious solitary confinement unit. But in November of last year, the state’s movement for reform took a nasty hit. Epps abruptly quit his job after four decades in the corrections system and was indicted for accepting more than $1 million in bribes from a private prison contractor. Epps pleaded guilty in February, leaving a void where an effective advocate for reforming the state’s prison system once was. According to Rhodes, the Epps debacle was a wake-up call for church leaders across the state who had long sat on the sidelines of the reform movement.

“The issue isn’t really fundamentally about Chris Epps and his cohort, but about a system that makes that kind of corruption possible,” said Rhodes.

Rhodes and other clergy members decided the “seductive culture” of corruption in the system needed to be stopped, and Epps’ relationship with private prison contractors pointed to an obvious place to start. One-fourth of the state’s prison population resides in the state’s six private prisons, the conditions of which continue to be inadequately monitored, according to advocacy groups.

On Friday, Rhodes and other clergy members gathered to meet with a task force formed by the Mississippi Department of Corrections in the wake of Epps’ indictment that will submit recommendations about the system to Gov. Phil Bryant. Family members of the incarcerated also attended the meeting, Rhodes said, and told him afterward how meaningful it was to see the church’s presence at the table.

The success of the Southern Poverty and Law Center and the ACLU in ligitation has been an important component of reform in the state. But given the religious and conservative nature of the state legislature, Rhodes believes his clergy group can gain traction where more “liberal” or politicized groups cannot.

“Politicians who want to do more often won’t do it until the preachers show up,” Rhodes said. “They don’t want to risk being ostracized.”

Rhodes emphasized that the group is communicating openly with the legal organizations about their goals, and clergy members are leaning heavily on organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for statistics and knowledge to amplify their work. Regardless of how legislative leaders might respond to leadership from the church, Rhodes believes it will be meaningful to the family members of incarcerated people to see clergy stepping up to the plate.

“Most of us know that the legal system gives limited justice, if justice at all,” said Rhodes. “When they see a pastor or preacher or the church stand up, it says there’s a little more on their side. We bring a spiritual dimension that I think is a necessary part of the conversation that hasn’t been accented so far.”