Transcript: Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps’s testimony on solitary confinement before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on June 19, 2012

Partial transcript of testimony of Christopher Epps, Commissioner of Mississippi Department of Corrections, on solitary confinement. The hearing on “Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences” was held before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on June 19, 2012:

…I began my career as a correction officer, and I’ve had 10 positions up to commissioner back in 1982 when I started.

And back then, solitary confinement was barely utilized for the most incorrigible and dangerous offenders. There was very limited space and we only had 56 cells at a place called Mississippi State Penitentiary known as Parchman.

A tragic murder of a correctional officer occurred in 1989 and it prompted construction of a unit – called Unit 32 – at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Unit 32 was a 1,000 bed maximum security unit where all the inmates were locked down for single cell housing for 23 to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The unit was opened in 1990 and it was all single cell.

Mr. Chairman, for this hearing, I’d like to use the American Corrections Association’s term for administrative seg, solitary confinement, and that is a formal separation from general population administered by a classification committee, all the authorized group, when the continued presence of an inmate in general population will pose a serious threat to life, property, self, staff, other inmates or to the security or the orderly running of the institution.

I was convinced I had to operate Unit 32…that inmates should remain in administrative segregation until they demonstrated over a period of time that his behavior had changed and he was no longer a threat to staff, other offenders, and public safety. And in this case, it could be for many years. And for some, it was not until they was released prison or they died in Unit 32.

And the prison was easy to enter but it was almost to be released without exemplary behavior.

Along came “Truth in Sentencing” in 1995 when inmates have to do 85% of their sentence regardless of their behavior and the increased incarceration of mentally ill individuals compounded the situation of hopelessness at the prisons.

Young offenders involved in gangs with long sentences soon became a large percentage of the population.

Again, Unit 32 was not [incomprehensible audio] condition – 1,000 beds, single cell. One inmate told me as I was touring the facility one day, said “Commissioner, you have taken all hope and we have nothing to lose.”

Our Unit 32 condition of confinement was increasingly litigated with a 2003 consent decree regarding death row offenders is Russell v. Mississippi Department of Corrections. And the second consent decree in 2007 for administrative seg offenders in Pressley v. MDOC.

In May 2007, violence began to erupt at 32 and continued throughout the summer. We had three homicides and many disruptive incidents and we had a suicide.

I finally realized that was a time for a change, and so we began to reform Unit 32 by thinking outside the box.

We got together with the National Institute of Corrections and the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], and we collaborated with Dr. James Austin and we came up with a…classification system.

And what came out of that was we had many inmates that was over-classified. In addition to that, we gave staff a 20% increase in pay for working in the max unit. We also implemented multiple disciplinary routines to make decisions regarding the mentally ill. We was also able to develop program for those who was in the Ad Seg, programs such as group counseling, alcohol and drugs, life skills, anger management. They was all started for offenders.

We was able to use all of these tools and put them in our tool bag, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections administrative seg reforms resulted in a 75.6% reduction in the ad seg population, from over 1,300 in 2007 to 316 by June 2012.

But because Mississippi’s total adult is 21,982 right now, that means that 1.4% are currently in ad seg…

To me, it’s real simple as it relates to ad seg.

One, you have to have in place a genuine documented classification system. Two, you have to have programs in place. Three, you have to have a vision in place to make sure that only the right people can go to ad seg. It has to be myself, my Deputy Commissioner of Institution, and the Director of Classification to put you in there, to approve.

And then in addition to that, over time, we was able to save $5.6 million by all these re-classification and tools.

Correction is no different than anything else in our nation. These cells have to be used as high-cost real estate. In Mississippi, to house an inmate on ad seg, costs $102.27 a day whereas a medium security inmate, it costs $4 to $3.72 a day.

Corrections – I think we as correctional leaders must realize that to be successful, we have to always be willing to change and listen to all the stakeholders involved in the criminal justice system. We cannot take a one-sided approach. And I have been most successful when I made decisions that was in the best interest of all.

Correction is like climbing a mountain. We never get to the top. We have to continue to climb and do the very best we can…

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