Prison is ‘college of criminality’

Clarion Ledger

Emily Le Coz, Jerry Mitchell

One in four white males born in Mississippi will go to college. One in three of their black male counterparts will go, instead, to prison.

Both will get an education.

For $18,385 a year — which includes tuition, fees, books, room and board — time at the University of Southern Mississippi will teach a student how to function as an adult in a society that values critical thinking.

Students will network with accomplished professors and like-minded peers. They’ll have internships and job prospects. If they graduate, they can expect to earn an average salary of $55,000.

For about the same price as one year at USM — $18,765 — time at the Mississippi State Penitentiary will teach inmates how to function in a lawless society that values power through violence.

Inmates will network with accomplished felons and gang members who can wield more authority than the correctional officers placed there to protect them. They’ll have a diminished sense of self-worth and harbor resentment toward the criminal justice system.

If they’re released, these inmates face limited job prospects and a one-in-three chance of returning to prison within three years.

A 13-month investigation by The Clarion-Ledger found a Mississippi correctional system where gangs rule and where corruption festers.

“It’s basically a college of criminality,” an inmate at the privately run Wilkinson County Correctional Facility told The Clarion-Ledger.

A decade-long study of 35,000 juveniles examined those who committed similar offenses. Some did time. Some didn’t.

Rather than deterring crime, incarceration made them far more likely to return, the study by Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph Doyle Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded.

Overall, young offenders were two-thirds more likely to be incarcerated again by the age of 25 than those who never did time, according to the study.

In fact, these youth were more likely to commit “homicide, violent crime, property crime and drug crimes” than those who never went behind bars, the study found.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, who served as a circuit judge for a dozen years, said many of those who went off to prison often returned to stand in front of him again. “They learn to be better criminals in prison,” he said.

Michael Whelan, who served as a psychologist for Parchman from 1982 through 1993, said prison is “a breeding ground for gang activity and the teaching of criminal thoughts and sophistication. They teach each other the tools of the trade.”

In some cases, those emerging are determined not to return, he said. “They’ve learned their lesson.”

But, he said, there is no question about this: Hard time changes them all.

“Prison is a brutal place, and it hardens people,” he said. “It hardened me, and I got to go home at night and be with my family.”

Tyler James Smith looked baby-faced when he arrived at age 17 at the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in 2010.

He had been convicted of a nonviolent offense, grand larceny, and had two years to serve.

Shortly after arriving, he was cited for failing to tuck his shirt in his pants, and he complained to correctional officers about an inmate who was masturbating.

In the months that followed, it was Smith who was repeatedly written up for masturbating, and he regularly began to hit, curse at, spit on and throw substances on officers.

He also began to beat up inmates, many of them smaller than his 6-foot-2 frame. He joined the Simon City Royals gang and soon had 78 pages of violations and tattoos covering his face, including the number 666.

On Sept. 1, 2013 — less than two months before he would have walked free from prison — he carried out, by his own admission, the gang’s killing by beating and stomping to death 5-foot-6 Clifton Majors, who had cooperated with authorities investigating another gang killing.

“I have done everything in my power to stay in prison, because I am aware that I will kill others,” Smith told authorities. “I do not want to go into society, and that is the main reason I killed Inmate Majors.”

Reilly Morse, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, said in his nonprofit’s work with the state’s at-risk youth, they have found that locking up youth for minor offenses turns them into “offenders in training.”

The U.S. puts juveniles behind bars at a rate five times higher than the next highest nation.

Rather than dealing with troubled youth, school officials sometimes “throw their hands up and make it criminal,” Morse said. “There are ways to solve these problems.”

If offenders aren’t addicted to drugs before they arrive, they often will be before they leave.

“Some of the funding of gangs on the streets comes from the sale of narcotics in prison,” a Wilkinson County Correctional Facility inmate told The Clarion-Ledger. “Every one here is a possible customer.”

More than three-fourths of those behind bars in Mississippi are addicted to drugs or alcohol or both.

Jadareous Davis, 18, who has grown up in the Delta town of Drew, said those he’s seen emerge from prison are a shell of what they were before.

“They don’t trust a lot of people,” he said. “They feel like somebody is out to get them.”

Many struggle to get jobs because of prison records.

Starrett said one of the biggest problems is the mindset of society toward those leaving prison.

“People think once inmates have committed a crime, they don’t deserve anything,” he said. “But if we don’t do something, we’ll merely reincarcerate them and have another victim.”