Parchman’s Unit 29 never fully closed, half of it did

Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 7:43 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A breakdown in communication. We’re learning more about the current status of Unit 29 at Parchman, and it’s different from the messages relayed to us two years ago.

Here’s how this story came together. We were checking on the status of an inmate and found that they were being housed at Parchman’s Unit 29. The last we had reported in 2020 was that 29 was being ordered closed by the governor. So, we started asking questions.

“I have instructed the Mississippi Department of Corrections to begin the necessary work to start closing Parchman’s most notorious unit—Unit 29,” said Governor Tate Reeves on January 27, 2020.

That was one of the centerpieces of Governor Tate Reeves’ 2020 State of the State address. The first thing you need to understand is the lay of the land at Parchman and Unit 29. It’s made up of 12 buildings in total. The riots happened in three of the buildings. Those closed right away, and we now know that three others closed shortly thereafter, but that’s it. It happened months before Burl Cain took over as Commissioner, but this is how he describes the current status.

“It would be foolish to walk away. He didn’t mean walk away from good buildings,” said MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain, who was appointed to his role in May of 2020. “He may have closed where the chaos was, and so that’s what we did. It’s closed. We have renovated showers and some things in the buildings that weren’t destroyed in the riot.”

He says they’ve found a way to address the violence that was the main reason for the partial closure.

“Walnut Grove is helping because the gang guys are going there are the leaders and the ones that really caused all the chaos,” noted Cain.

Brandon Jones of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund was among those who lobbied for changes at Parchman. We asked if he knew Unit 29 didn’t fully close.

“The understanding that we walked away with from the governor and from members of the legislature and from the Department of Corrections was that everyone who was not on death row would be leaving Unit 29,” said Brandon Jones. “And it was not until recently that we realized that that was frankly not the case.”

Jones says his understanding was that 29 was unfit to continue to house people.

“You at a minimum, expect your government to be honest about what it’s doing,” added Jones. “And here we just have not had that. We have not had a truthful either assessment of what’s going on or a truthful statement of what we’re actually doing. And it’s only when folks like you come along with a camera that we get some beginning of an answer, and then that’s just not the way this stuff ought to work.”

We reached out to the Governor’s office for comment.

“Following the riots, which occurred under previous MDOC leadership, the decision was made to shut down half of the 12 buildings that comprise Unit 29. Six buildings were closed in order to ensure the maximum safety of both inmates and corrections officers. Almost two-thirds of the population was moved out of the Unit. Since then, MDOC has worked diligently and renovated and rehabilitated 6 buildings which are now being used to house inmates. The six buildings that were closed following the riots remain closed.” -Shelby Wilcher, Governor Tate Reeves Press Secretary

Again, that was never fully communicated publicly at the time.

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