JACKSON, Miss. (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.