MDOC pressures prisoners to renounce gangs as parole eligibility is expanded

Published 1:20 pm Friday, July 23, 2021

By Brittany Brown

Mississippi Today

The Mississippi Department of Corrections is asking people in prison to renounce gang membership as a part of the department’s Security Threat Group Management Unit.

The one-page form asks for the person’s name, the gang’s name and their signature in efforts to encourage people in prison to leave their gang. The form also promises a follow-up interview with the person in prison where the person will be evaluated on their willingness to leave the gang.

Since Burl Cain took post as MDOC commissioner in June 2020, he’s promised to make Mississippi’s prisons safer by decreasing gang activity. The Security Threat Group Management Unit is the arm of MDOC that’s putting into motion Cain’s promises.

According to MDOC’s website, the Security Threat Group Management Unit “mandated a zero tolerance position in its efforts to reduce gang activity and assaults being committed in MDOC’s facilities … gang members are able to renounce their gang membership and are provided the opportunity to participate in programs designed to help them come to the realization that they do not have to be part of a gang to have a feeling of self-worth.”

While signing gang renunciation forms may be seen as one step in decreasing gang violence in prisons, David Pyrooz, a professor of sociology at University of Colorado-Boulder, said it is ultimately ineffective in decreasing gang membership.

Pyrooz, who studies gangs in prison, said “debriefing” is when a person simply states they are no longer in a gang, while “disengagement” is a process where a person participates in programming to encourage and support leaving a gang.

“Debriefing is not a very effective way of promoting leaving the gang. Signing a form, anybody can do it,” Pyrooz said. “Simply signing a form and providing some intel, it’s only going to end up getting people hurt because it’s going to be viewed as a snitch form.”

Alternatively, Pyrooz said, prisons should focus on providing opportunities for self-governance, meaningful work assignments and training and educational opportunities. Pyrooz also said, based on his previous research, people in prison join gangs for protection, so prisons can also deter gang membership by providing safer living conditions.

Cain, the head of MDOC, told Mississippi Today the department offers opportunities for people in prison to join groups to build community rather than allowing gangs to entice new membership. Last year, when Cain was appointed commissioner, he said MDOC had identified about 6,400 active gang members in prison. Today, those numbers have dwindled to about 1,500 gang members, Cain said.

“What we did to really combat it was to try to create other organizations and groups for people to be members of because everybody wants to be in a group. That’s what humans do,” Cain said.

One of the groups Cain highlighted was the 35 “inmate churches,” a partnership between MDOC and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where “inmate pastors” lead congregations of incarcerated people. He also mentioned the “Men of Integrity Club,” where people in prison join together over arts, crafts and food, Cain said.

In the midst of MDOC’s efforts to decrease gangs in prison, parole eligibility expansion went into effect July 1, raising the stakes for people in prison to keep clean rule violation reports as to not affect parole eligibility.

Mississippi Parole Board Chairman Steven Pickett said an additional 5,479 people in prison became eligible for parole under the new law. He said about 12,000 people in the state’s prisons are now parole-eligible, and the board plans to hold 1,800 parole hearings within the next year, with preference given to incarcerated veterans and people who are sick and elderly.

“For those who have become eligible for parole, eligibility does not mean freedom. It means they are eligible to be considered by this board after they have served so much time,” Pickett said “It’s going to encourage participation in programming. It’s going to promote better behavior, which is going to reduce prison violence.”

Pickett said when the board sees people in prison during their parole hearings, they take into consideration a variety of factors to determine whether a person is ready for parole, including past parole hearings, re-entry plans, psychiatric evaluations and rule violation reports, which may detail a person’s gang activity and affiliation.

“Gangs are disruptive to the overall goals of any corrections facility, so participation in that is certainly not one of the things that’s going to draw us to giving a prisoner parole,” Pickett said.

Cain also said parole eligibility expansion is viewed by people in prison as “an incentive to be good.”

“Especially if Pickett holds true with not paroling a gang member, it’s an incentive to not be in a gang, and it’s an incentive to get a skill and a trade,” Cain said.

Mississippi Today spoke with some incarcerated people who expressed concern that signing the form and admitting they were members of a gang could be used against them in parole hearings.

Pickett also said while renouncing gang membership does not ensure a person in prison earns parole, a person with gang activity on their rule violation reports “pretty much guarantees that you will not be paroled.”

“What we’re wanting is for folks to be successful, and we don’t want to see them again. That’s why we look hard at these cases to see if they’re ready and see can they make it,” Pickett said.

Still, Pyrooz said prison systems should also prioritize creating programs, groups and activities that replace the perceived benefits that gang membership provides while a person is in prison in order to not only encourage people in prison to leave gangs but to stay out of gangs.

“Status, protection, whatever sort of economic benefits that came along with (being in a gang), camaraderie, and so on. It’s got to be able to build up a person to replace those things,” Pyrooz said.