Since the start of the year, Mississippi prison inmates have turned into citizen journalists, leaking videos and photos from behind prison walls, drawing national attention to the inhumane and abusive conditions within the state prison system where 12 inmates have died since in less than a month.
On Monday, their efforts paid off when Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves ordered the shutdown of Unit 29 in Parchman prison, a deteriorating section of the notorious prison that was housing about 1,000 of the state’s most violent inmates.
Now the governor should take it a step further and pardon Willie Nash, who has become the poster boy for criminal justice reform in Mississippi, a state with one of the highest prison rates in the country but one of the lowest salaries for corrections officers.
In August 2017, Nash was being booked into Newton County Jail on a misdemeanor charge. The guards had yet to impound his phone as they are supposed to do.
While waiting to be processed, his wife texted him. The father of three responded by telling her he was in jail. The 39-year-old man then asked an officer to charge his cell phone. He even said “thank you” when the officer took the phone, believing he was breaking no law.
The officer handed the phone to another officer who charged him with a felony for smuggling contraband into the jail, a charge that carries a sentence of three to 15 years.
Once officers unlocked his phone, they found texts and pictures that were taken from inside the jail he had sent to his wife.
The following year, Nash was sentenced to 12 years for smuggling contraband into the jail despite him not realizing he had broken the law.
According to NBC News:
Justice James D. Maxwell II, writing for the court, said in the court document that while Nash’s sentence of 12 years was harsh it fell within the statutory range for that offense.
Justice Leslie D. King, however, wrote in an opinion that while he agreed the court reached the correct result under the law, he had concerns that the case demonstrated “a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”
Nash filed an appeal to fight the sentencing, not the conviction and took it all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The supreme court struck the appeal agreeing with the court’s decision.
Since then, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a motion for Nash to have a rehearing.The Southern Poverty Law Center argued that Nash did not voluntarily possess his cell phone in jail because he was not searched as the jail’s policy required and the sentence he received violates his Eighth Amendment.
According to Southern Poverty Law Center:
At least 36 states allow sentences of no more than five years for possessing a cell phone in prison, and several states do not punish cell phone possession with jail time at all, according to research done by the SPLC.
As governor, Reeves has the authority to pardon inmates who have been convicted of state crimes. In 2012, Mississippi’s previous governor, Haley Barbour, sparked controversy when he issued pardons to 22 inmates, including four convicted murderers.
Reeves, who took office this month, announced his decision to shut Unit 29 during State of the State Address Monday evening.
“I have instructed MDOC to begin the necessary work to start closing Parchman’s most notorious unit” said Reeves who recently toured the prison.
“I’ve been to Parchman. I saw it for myself just a few days ago. The problems were infuriating. There is no excuse. We can do better. We will right the wrongs of the past and we will do everything in our power to protect the dignity of every Mississippi life.”
We can do even better by pardoning Willie Nash.
Carlos Miller contributed to this report.