OPINION: We can’t allow officials a ‘free ride’ when it comes to safety and security at SMCI

OPINION

By RUSSELL TURNER

Herald Editor/Publisher

 

State inmate Michael ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ Wilson was captured Saturday night, bringing an end to a massive manhunt that tied up a lot of law enforcement manpower and had people across South Mississippi on pins and needles for several days. Everyone in Greene County was watching the situation closely and there was a tremendous amount of banter about the escape on the streets and on social media.

A lot of the discussion focused on the fact that Wilson was able to con multiple people into giving him a ride, effectively making his escape possible. As many of you know, ‘yours truly’ was one of those people.

I picked the man up from in front of my home and drove him to Greene County Hospital and dropped him off. I have relayed that story dozens upon dozens of times since then with many people questioning why I would do such a thing. There have also been similar discussions on social media, all of which I avoided. The simple fact of that matter is that I had my reasons. People can choose to argue whether those reasons were right or wrong, wise or stupid. I can’t control that and it doesn’t really bother me that I have made such a good target for jeering (some lighthearted, some not so much).

But, what does bother me is that too many people seem to be focused on that part of the story, not the real issues at hand. What we all should be focused on is that a convicted murderer, serving a life sentence, strolled out of a state prison in broad daylight and was on the run for quite some time before anyone was looking for him. That is the issue we need to be discussing and pushing state and local officials to address.

MDOC officials have not been very forthcoming in discussing the escape with me or any other media folks. Some locals who work there and their family members have shared information with me, along with their fears and concerns, off the record, but don’t want to talk publically for fear of getting caught in the crosshairs. They want to go to their job, earn their paycheck and go home to their families like the rest of us.

Prison administrators say the matter is still under investigation, so they aren’t giving out information about the breakdown(s) that allowed the escape. Simply put, there are a lot more questions than answers concerning how Wilson managed to flee, which security measures failed and why, where he got the clothes he was wearing, etc. and so-forth. They will tell you protocol was followed and will admit staff shortages are a problem, not just at SMCI mind you, but throughout the prison system.

They said they couldn’t provide specific numbers about the severity of understaffing at SMCI specifically, but a number tossed around by county officials in an open meeting at the courthouse Monday suggests that staffing is at about a third of what it should be. Yes, you read that correctly, officials I believe are in the know, say staffing at SMCI is that far below what is needed. The numbers I have heard, but have not been able to confirm, in terms of staffing on the day of the escape are just as startling.

For the record, I have a lot of friends and associates who work at or have previously worked at SMCI. They are good people trying to do the best job they can. And, while I do have questions about how this was allowed to play out and what steps are taken (or should be) to alert the prison’s neighbors in these types of scenarios, I am not quick to throw the staff at SMCI under the bus on this one.

It is a fair question to ask “Why not?” After all, the staff members at SMCI are the ones charged with keeping a watchful eye on the inmate population and protecting the safety and security of those inmates and the general public. But, let’s be realistic. Considering the current staffing issues, how can they really be expected to do that job very well. From all accounts, a bare minimum, skeleton crew runs the prison most days with many guard positions being covered by staff from other departments or just not staffed at all.

MDOC has held job fairs trying to get potential employees to apply, but the starting pay is poor and the hours and conditions worse. So, getting qualified people to do the work is difficult at best. And, like many of the most important jobs in our society, these are ‘public’ jobs and don’t get much love from politicians. We will jump through all sorts of hoops and toss around all types of incentives and tax breaks at the state and local levels to land big employers promising great private sector jobs, while simultaneously treating our cops, educators, correctional officers, etc. as an after-thought (at best) or leaches on society (at worst).

With these staffing problems on their mind, numerous people over the last few years have told me they believe SMCI is a ticking time bomb and that a major episode was inevitable. I believed that to be true and have had multiple conversations with state and local officials about it. Now I know it to be true and what worries me the most is that I don’t see anyone breaking a leg to do anything about it.

I know our local legislative contingent has made it an issue with colleagues in state government, but their cries have basically fallen on deaf ears. I have watched the media coverage as MDOC leaders have lobbied the legislature for help in addressing the staffing problems, but have seen no real action come of it. It appears that the only folks that see this as a serious issue needing emergency attention are those of us that live in a community with a prison the size and scope of SMCI (3,038 inmates to ‘start’ the day on July 5th). The vast majority of people living in more populated and affluent communities around Mississippi don’t see the problem. If anything, they would prefer to see even less state tax money spent on prisons and the ‘correctional’ system as a whole. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we would likely feel the same if the roles were changed.

So, what are we supposed to do? My suggestion and my plan is that ‘we’ start working together to force change. We need to band together and demand that something be done. That is going to require a consistent effort and a lot of work and sacrifice on our end to push the envelope and get the attention of the leaders (elected and otherwise) that can do something about it.

The Greene County Board of Supervisors has agreed to raise the issue with state officials, but that is a start, not the end. Please encourage them and other local leaders to keep the matter at the forefront and to keep demanding answers. When you have the chance to speak to state officials, or those campaigning for those jobs in coming election cycles, push them on the issue and make sure they know it is a problem. Get together with your friends at church or work and discuss what you can ‘do’ to raise awareness.

I have made myself sick multiple times a day since last Thursday contemplating what could have happened if it had been my wife or daughter that stumbled upon Floyd rather than me. I am grateful and relieved that nobody was seriously hurt, because Floyd was desperate and dangerous and this could have certainly had many different, tragic outcomes.

The main point I am trying to make, is that it is way past time to stop talking about the problem and start doing something about it. I have always supported SMCI’s role in our state and the local community. I believe there was a time when it was a blessing to Greene County. There are still some positives, but times have certainly changed since SMCI was designed and opened as a 500-bed minimum security prison.

My view now is that if state officials are not going to commit to making sure the facility is adequately staffed and the people who work there are fairly compensated and supported, then it is time to shut it down or drastically scale back its mission (and inmate population). The people of Greene County deserve better.

5 Comments

  1. Barbara Cooley on July 16, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    This problem is going to continuously get swept under the rug as long as the good tax payers of this county don’t say anything. You notice how everything just sort of smoothed over when this inmate was captured?

    This is not the first inmate that has gotten away.
    Luckily the ones before him got apprehended with out incident.

    We can rally all day long for them a raise, but that is probably not going to happen. People have worked for years with the state without a raise.

    They really need to think about downsizing the population so they would have enough correctional officers to adequately guard them.

    I’m aware that all prisons are overcrowded. We are not talking about other prisons, we talking about SMCI and the need to address this problem once and for all. You rarely ever hear of escapes, and inmate deaths in these other facilities.

  2. Susan on July 16, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    Instead of knowingly picking up an offender on the side of the road why don’t you put in your application. They need new officers and until some real change can take place the people who have been making money off of state employees can pitch in and start working the housing units. Please don’t try to convince anyone that you didn’t know he was an inmate. Everyone that lives in the area around that prison knows not to pick up men on the side of the road.

    • Melissa Belk on July 17, 2018 at 6:06 pm

      I am sorry that you gave him a ride and it really did bother you. It would me too. I am a woman and I don’t give anybody rides. Because of the damage that they could do. Please don’t stress over the people who say negative things to you. There will always be those people. God Bless you.

  3. Don Drane on July 17, 2018 at 9:58 pm

    I’m not convinced that a man in your occupation, whom I assume to be generally alert as to his surroundings and what’s up in the community, had no idea this inmate was on the loose. What’s baffling is why the hell you would pick him up or agree to transport him (whether or not you knew who he was)? If you just wanted a story, you’re a damned fool! If you just think it’s OK to pick up hitch-hikers in this day and time, you’re a damned idiot. Either way, you’re lucky to be alive. And you got your story. You could eventually rival Jerry Mitchell (Clarion) for some sort of annual award.

  4. Gerri Perreault on July 18, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    So some of you think the publisher knew, rather than suspected, the man was a prisoner and did it anyway to get a story?! Now that is bizarre. The man was on his doorstep. I am with Melissa, God bless him

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