In 2008, Mississippi corrections director Christopher Epps and Sen. Willie Simmons teamed up to pass legislation that made nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences and persuaded Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Haley Barbour, to sign it. Since then, reports Governing magazine, the state has released more than 3,000 convicted felons without the kinds of high-profile crimes that have embarrassed would-be corrections reformers in other states, such as Colorado and Illinois. The reddest state — and most notorious prison — has become an unlikely model for reforming overcrowded prison systems.
Mississippi’s experience demonstrates, says Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, that “state leaders from both parties are finding that there are large numbers of lower-risk offenders who can be held accountable in ways that are more effective and a lot less expensive than a $29,000-a-year taxpayer-funded prison cell.” Mississippi’s penal system and the struggle to reform it is bound up with one institution: Parchman Farm, dating from 1904, a 16,000-acre plantation in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta.