CHANGED ATTITUDES Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he used to believe that difficult inmates should be locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible. “That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said.
PARCHMAN, Miss. — The heat was suffocating, and the inmates locked alone in cells in Unit 32, the state’s super-maximum-security prison, wiped away sweat as they lay on concrete slab beds.
Photo: Josh Anderson for The New York Times
One of the 12-foot-by-7 ½-foot solitary cells in Unit 32 of the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
By ERICA GOODE
Kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours each day, allowed out only in shackles and escorted by guards, they were restless and angry — made more so by the excrement-smeared walls, the insects, the filthy food trays and the mentally ill inmates who screamed in the night, conditions that a judge had already ruled unacceptable.
So it was not really surprising when violence erupted in 2007: an inmate stabbed to death with a homemade spear that May; in June, a suicide; in July, another stabbing; in August, a prisoner killed by a member of a rival gang.
What was surprising was what happened next. Instead of tightening restrictions further, prison officials loosened them.
They allowed most inmates out of their cells for hours each day. They built a basketball court and a group dining area. They put rehabilitation programs in place and let prisoners work their way to greater privileges.
In response, the inmates became better behaved. Violence went down. The number of prisoners in isolation dropped to about 300 from more than 1,000. So many inmates were moved into the general population of other prisons that Unit 32 was closed in 2010, saving the state more than $5 million.
The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so. On Friday, officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three super-maximum-security units.
The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.
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