Gov. Tate Reeves tells new Parole Board chair: ‘Go fix it.’ Meanwhile, Mississippi’s prison population is skyrocketing..
Published 7:00 am Wednesday, August 24, 2022
By Jerry Mitchell
Mississippi Center For Investigative Reporting
Mississippi Parole Board Chairman Jeffrey Belk said he has no plans to change the board’s approach to parole, despite the state leading the world in mass incarceration.
Instead, the former Chevron executive believes Mississippi’s increasing prison population will correct itself as more and more inmates enroll in the new substance recovery and job training programs being offered.
“We don’t think we should just lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” Belk told MCIR in an exclusive interview. “We’re honestly compassionate. We want them to get skills and be successful.”
In September 2013, Mississippi had as many as 22,490 inmates behind bars. In the years since, reforms and an aggressive Parole Board, headed by a law enforcement official, reduced the number of inmates to the lowest level in two decades. On Feb. 7, that population fell to 16,499, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
That fall mirrored the nation, which saw the prison population decline more than 16% in all states but one between 2019 and 2021. The state that saw rising numbers was Alaska (3.6%).
But under Belk’s leadership, that trend has reversed itself. On Aug. 17, Mississippi’s prison population hit a high of 18,200. If this current trend continues, that number would top 23,000 next year.
That additional prison population would cost taxpayers more than $127 million a year, based on the $53.72 per-day cost computed by the state’s legislative watchdog, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, commonly known as PEER.
Belk said the board does look at the prison population numbers, but “we do not let the numbers drive our decisions.”
PEER, State Auditor Steer Change
On Dec. 30, Belk received a call from Gov. Tate Reeves about taking over as chairman of the Parole Board — a board Belk said was in “disarray.”
Reeves’ three words of advice to him? “Go fix it.”
Belk said Reeves was referring to the December 2020 report by State Auditor Shad White and the July 2021 report by PEER on the Parole Board.
After reading the reports, Belk said he met with White and watchdog officials to get “the rest of the story.”
PEER found that nearly half of offenders eligible for parole had Parole Board hearings were “untimely,” complaining that one-fourth of the offenders reviewed had hearings more than 30 days before their parole eligibility date.
Pickett said a new law resulted in the influx of 4,000 newly people eligible for parole in July 2021. That caused some of the delays, he said.
PEER criticized the board for failing to maintain minutes documenting parole decisions. “It is a well-established principle that such boards speak only through their minutes,” the report said.
Belk said the board, appointed by the governor, has since addressed this problem by keeping such minutes.
Board members responded that they had a secretary and that their daily action sheets served in place of such minutes — a practice they said had been in effect for decades. “What good does it do to create a document that’s not searchable?” Pickett asked.
PEER accused board members of failing to work as full-time employees — an accusation Pickett denies. “No one can hear 8,000 cases in a year and not work full time,” he said.
Both White and PEER criticized the travel expenses of Parole Board member Betty Lou Jones, who received more than $20,000 in travel reimbursements.
PEER quoted a state attorney general’s opinion, which said “expenses associated with an individual commuting to a workstation should not be borne by the governmental entity.”
Pickett said the accusations against Jones were unfair and untrue, because Jones was commuting from her home in Meridian to the office in Jackson. (After this, lawmakers changed the statute so that Parole Board members could be reimbursed for commuting, just like lawmakers.)
‘A Prime Candidate To Serve As Chairman’
Belk spent much of his career in the corporate world.
“I worked for 24 years at Chevron as a project procurement manager,” he said. “I did all the procurement over the $1.4 billion expansion over the unit … that basically makes the product for plastics.”
After Hurricane Katrina devastated Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in 2005, Belk said he was asked to step in as chairman of the Jackson County Civil Service Commission “because there was a lot of turnover in appointed committee members because of the frustration they had in dealing with [Sheriff Mike] Byrd’s reluctance to following Civil Service policy & procedures.”
He faced his biggest challenge when Byrd resigned in the wake of a state and federal investigation that led to 31 charges that included fraud, extortion, embezzlement, witness tampering, perjury and using his office to retaliate against his enemies. He pleaded guilty in March 2014 to one state charge of intimidating a witness and one federal count of misleading conduct. He served six months house arrest. In September 2015, a federal judge ordered him to pay $260,000 in sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former deputy. Byrd died of COVID in November 2020 on his 71st birthday.
After then-Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps was indicted in 2014 for receiving bribes from prison contracts, Reeves appointed Belk to the Contracts Review Board to make sure all contracts were proper.
After that, he aided the board’s transition under the Department of Finance and Administration.
In 2015, he became a member of the Singing River Health System Board, which had already announced that the hospital’s pension fund was underfunded more than $55 million.
Singing River, a county-owned hospital system facing financial woes, stopped paying into the pension fund from 2009 to 2014 without telling employees and retirees.
In 2015, Belk began serving as president of the board, which tried to salvage the pension system and keep the hospital open.
“That was a complete disaster, a no-win situation,” he said. “Through no fault of their own, those pensioners were put in a bad situation.”
Although the hospital settled the retirees’ class-action lawsuit, other lawsuits remain against the accounting firm and the retirement plan administrator. Trials are tentatively set for Dec. 5.
In selecting Belk, Reeves praised his experience in the private and public sector, saying that made Belk “a prime candidate to serve as chairman of the State Parole Board.”
The governor also thanked the former Chevron executive in advance for “stepping up to serve Mississippians.”
As chairman of the Parole Board, Belk faces his share of challenges, but he doesn’t regard his lack of experience in corrections as a problem.
“I feel my corporate background helps bring structure to the facilitation and structuring meetings, working through legal and audit issues, and building a team environment,” he said. “Having a board with diverse backgrounds allows myself and others to bring a unique prospective to the table when making tough decisions.”
Parole Denials ‘A Second Punishment Without A Jury’
In 2021, the Parole Board held an average of 870 hearings each month, paroling 74% of those considered. Since March, the board has paroled 29% of those considered with the number of hearings falling to 633 in July.
The numbers surprised Pickett, who chaired the board between 2013 and 2021. “Nine out of 10 cases before the Parole Board are nonviolent and have no registered victim,” he said. “You cannot have a ‘deny all the criminals and throw away the key’ mentality.”
It’s not the job of the board, he said, to carry out “a second punishment without a jury.”
He recalled questioning a young woman who suffered from an addiction and had been caught shoplifting. When she appeared before the Parole Board, he asked her what she had shoplifted. Her reply? “Stuff for my kids’ school party.”
“Folks with money don’t get sentenced to five years for shoplifting,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘What would I do for my child?’”
About one in three inmates who leave prison return, according to MDOC statistics.
Jackson lawyer Robert G. Parrish has handled dozens of parole cases over the last 16 years. “Our clients had never been denied release once they obtained parole eligibility,” he said. “The clients we have represented typically have participated and excelled in multiple prison rehabilitative programs prior to being considered for release.”
He wonders if the board even read his last client’s request: “I sent it, waited six weeks to give them time to review and respond and at six weeks I sent it again just as a ‘reminder’ and I got a one-sentence response that said, ‘The Board’s decision to deny parole stands.’”
Fewer paroles have hurt Crossroads Ministries, where women released from prison learn life skills in a faith-based, six-month rehabilitation and reentry program, with additional facilities available for long-term independent living for graduates.
“In the past 14 years and especially the past seven, I have never had an empty bed,” said Executive Director Vicki DeMoney. “Some have had to sleep on couches.”
Now, she said, “only five of the 17 beds in the main halfway house are filled, and I am heartbroken as I believe there are so many more women who could benefit from our services that are not able to get out.”
Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain has expressed his full support for the Parole Board, despite the rising prison population, telling MCIR, “We don’t want gangsters getting out.”
In the meantime, Cain is working to create 80 schools for inmates to gain certification in engine repair, plumbing, welding, carpentry and other fields.
By doing this, he said, “we’ll reduce recidivism, and we’ll reduce violence.” A similar program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary saw the recidivism rate drop to less than 10%.
Belk said Mississippi’s prison population is rising now because the board operates with “a little more scrutiny. And with that scrutiny there tends to be less paroling.”
He greets those who come before the board with a certain amount of skepticism, he said. “Everybody that comes before you is no longer addicted to drugs — and they’ve found Jesus.”
Actions, however, speak louder than words, he said.
For instance, he said he knew an inmate was serious about leaving gangs behind when the inmate revealed he was being kept in close custody “because they want to kill me, because I’m telling the young ones to not get involved in that mess.”
Unlike the past, where the board set off the next parole hearings for six months or a year, the current board is often setting off these hearings for two years and sometimes as much as eight years.
Having a parole hearing every six months for someone who wasn’t interested in improving themselves gave “false hope” to those inmates, Belk said. “And the [victims’] families were having to relive this every six months.”
The board is now averaging about 200 hearings a month on whether to revoke parole, with as many as 95% getting revoked, he said.
If someone is granted the privilege of parole and violates that parole, Belk said, there must be repercussions.
In the past, the board may have rejected advice by parole officers on revocation, but “now we’re more in tune to support them,” he said. “If you’re convicted of a crime on parole, you shall be revoked.”
Email Jerry.Mitchell@MississippiCIR.org. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for our newsletter.