Mississippi’s Criminal Legal System Is Presenting Serious Injustices

warden burl cain
Zain Murdock
June 21, 2024

Last February brought alarming news from Magnolia, Mississippi. Pike County Jail was populated by defendants locked up for an average of 223 days without lawyers. They hadn’t even been indicted. And with an incarceration rate of 1,031 per 100,000 people, conditions in Mississippi prisons have only gotten worse.

Governor Tate Reeves appointed Burl Cain to oversee the prison department, a man confident he can “fix” the system with four tenets: “good food, good medicine, good playing and good praying.” Cain resigned as warden of Angola prison in 2015 after allegations of misusing public funds. Since then, public defense reforms have been ignored and rejected. Low-income defendants sit in jails without legal representation. And those public defenders don't even receive adequate pay.

Under Reeves and Cain’s management, and despite millions of taxpayer dollars, incarcerated people lived in filthy cells with rats, were forced to drink brown water, and witnessed or experienced violence from not just each other but also from prison staff.

Some advocates agree with Cain’s admission that decades of poor infrastructure and institutional violence likely wouldn’t be resolved in four years. But that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine better for Mississippi.

Instead of Cain’s four tenets, why not decarceration, rehabilitation, education, and justice facilitation? As Mississippi continues to show us some of the worst the U.S. “justice” system has to offer, a “fix” cannot be the ultimate goal.