Thomas Howard: Prison problem has no easy, cheap solutions


Five inmates have died and three have escaped from Mississippi prisons in the past week, a tough week for Mississippi Department of Corrections following a tough few years.

State prisons are plagued with out-of-control staffing shortages, crumbling facilities and gang violence. And, as we head into a new legislative session with new leadership, I can only hope solutions will at long last be found.

I’d like to tell you the issues plaguing our state’s penal system are easily solved, that it’s a simple solution of more money, a new work program, a fresh face with new ideas, but prisons are not simple, and fixing them isn’t easy.

Disenfranchisement, habitual offender laws, mandatory minimum sentences, for-profit prisons, cash bail, the war on drugs. Prison reform is a lot more complicated than chucking some more money at it.

The U.S. Department of Justice statistics tell us 77 percent released from prison will be back behind bars in five years. How do we fix that?

While I’m sure our representatives will mull all this over and more – and I really hope they come up with some good answers – I think some of the issues with our prisons go beyond policy and law.

How many times growing up were we told, “crime doesn’t pay”?

Well, guess what. Crime does pay. Crime pays very well; much more, in fact, than a regular 9-5 job. Kids know when adults are full of it, and it’s not hard to spot the lie when we tell them “crime doesn’t pay” then turn on the TV to watch an episode of Breaking Bad.

“Just say no to drugs”?

Putting aside the facts that drugs are inanimate, and talking to them will have no effect on the outcome aside from making people think we’re already on drugs, why do we think it’s so easy to skate over thousands of years of social conditioning to be accepted, that humans are hardwired to want other humans to like them and that we live in a society that is increasingly intolerant of those who defy the status quo?

Why don’t we just tell the truth? Sometimes, being alive really sucks, and the idea of a pill, powder or pipe that will let us escape the stress, if only for a little bit, is very appealing. There are people in the world that will get on our every last nerve, making us weigh the catharsis of lashing out against the legal repercussions.

And, I can’t be the only one who’s fantasized about just pushing my shopping cart out the door instead of waiting for Wal-Marts single cashier to finish checking out the dozen folks ahead of me.

We’re all human, complete with flaws and temptations. Instead of hiding our character defects behind tired catchphrases and withered acronyms, let’s be honest with each other, with our families and especially with our children.

Mississippi prisons didn’t develop their problems overnight, and any solution will take just as long if not longer. But if we’re open and honest with each other, perhaps we can help keep others from finding out just how bad they are firsthand.

Thomas Howard is the managing editor of The Newton County Appeal. He can be reached at