You can not throw a human being away

Published 7:10 pm Thursday, May 13, 2021

By Wyatt Emmerich

After hearing Bradley Lum speak to our Rotary Club, I was so pumped.

I could see a path to reforming our prison system in Mississippi, something we desperately need to achieve if our state is to move forward.

From the get go, I supported Gov. Tate Reeves’ appointment of Burl Cain to be the new head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. (MDOC). After a lengthy meeting with Cain in my office, I was even more convinced.

Since then, Cain has been relentlessly moving MDOC in the right direction — a direction of rehabilitation instead of resignation.

To me, there was only one problem with Cain — he is 78 years old. Who could carry on his vision?

Then I heard Lum, age 37, speak about his efforts as head of the Mississippi Prison Industries Corporation (MPIC.) Young, energetic, visionary and bright, Lum could be the perfect successor to Cain.

I asked Lum after the meeting if he was sympatico with Cain. “We have lunch every Wednesday at the Mayflower to talk about our efforts.” Perfect.

I am convinced that Mississippi must completely reform its prison system. We lock up more people than any place in the world.

We lock them up in gang-infested hell holes. And throw away the key. It’s an embarrassment to one of the most Christian places in the world.

Forgiveness and the preciousness of every single individual is fundamental to Christianity. Every one of us is a child of God. But that’s not the way it works in the Mississippi prison system. We must change that.

Moses himself, speaking instructions from God, told his people that punishment must not be excessive. Nor must the guilty party be degraded. (Deuteronomy 25:2). Nothing could be more degrading than to be a prisoner in the MDOC system.

There is a consequence for disobedience to God’s will. Mississippi is paying that price. By selfishly locking criminals up and throwing away the key, we have made matters much worse. We have brought gangs into our neighborhoods and eroded the fabric of our culture and society. Instead of isolating ourselves from criminality, we did the exact opposite. We turned our prison system into the operating base for a vast gang network.

You can’t throw a human being away like a defective part. It will come back to haunt you. It has come back to haunt Mississippi. True progress in our state won’t be fulfilled until we admit our collective guilt, reconcile ourselves to God and get back on the right path — a path of rehabilitation. It is, after all, called the Department of Corrections, not the Department of Making People who Threaten Us Disappear Forever.

Locking people up and throwing away the key was affordable in the short run, but as the prison population exploded, it got expensive. So we privatized the prisons to save even more money. The private prisons, to make money, cut staff and let the gangs run the prisons.

But it didn’t stop there. Firmly entrenched in our prison system, the gangs had a stronger base to expand in the Free World. Over time, this gang culture threatened the high-functioning, law-abiding citizens for whom the lock-’em-up strategy was supposed to help in the first place. The sin came full circle, as it always does.

Burl Cain’s mother saw this clearly.

When her son Burl got his first prison warden job, his mother told him he would be held accountable if he failed to introduce inmates to God.

This is where Bradley Lum comes in. He sees incarceration as a perfect opportunity to teach prisoners work skills that can lead to a peaceful, law-abiding life. From the first moment of incarceration, the state’s goal should be to rehabilitate, not to punish.

Lum sees this as a path God has chosen for him. He was perfectly happy to be a baseball coach at Brandon High. But his wife sent him packing to law school. Once an attorney, he had a trucking client who went out of business. The next thing he knew, he was running a booming trucking company.

And now, as head of the Prison Industries, Lum is leading a statewide effort to get churches, businesses, government entities, counseling services, foundations, educators, community volunteers and our entire society involved in the lengthy and critical process of rehabilitating those who have found themselves on the fringes of society. It’s called the Hope Alliance (hopealliancems.com)

Go to northsidesun.com and search for Bradley Lum to hear his entire Rotary talk online. It’s worth the effort.

Some quotes from Lum: “It takes me 15 minutes to go through how did you go from coaching baseball at Brandon High School to being CEO of Mississippi Prison Industries’ and all the things that are between that but certainly it was the plan that God laid out for my life.”

“Getting an MBA is great learning how to handle yourself in business and all the ins and outs can only be learned at that level by taking it from A to Z so I learned a lot about success and failure in that process. I think that’s probably what spurred me having the opportunity to under the previous governor to take over MPIC.

“2018 MPIC was on the ropes. It was about to be cut by the legislature. There were lots of questions about the long-term viability of the organization and how it fits within the grand scope of the prison system. I was approached about the opportunity to come take it over and basically fix it.

“I come from the school of thought where I was not involved in this at all. I’m not a social justice person at all.” (Paul on the road to Damascus!)

“Our process is to ensure that people coming in are leveling up. They are continuing to move forward so that when they do get out, they are put in a position so they can get hired.”

“When I came into MPIC everything was about doing the work in the shops. I said, ‘Look guys, if this is going to be sustainable over the long term what we do in our shops has to be a means to an end. The end being long-term community reintegration, family reunification and never coming back to our prison system.’

“We all have been affected by our prison population in one way or another whether it be a family member or a friend. It affects all of us in the amount of taxes we pay to prop up our correctional system, so for every person we keep out, that’s a cost saving to our state and our taxpayers.

“When a guy gets out and he’s on parole and he drives through a roadblock because he doesn’t have a driver’s license and picks up a parole violation and his parole officer turns him in and he has to go back and do day for day two more years, that’s about $52,000 it costs us as a state. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

“We have to ensure that what we’re doing on the inside is putting these folks on a pathway so they can be successful when they get out.

“The Hope Alliance is an initiative of the Department of Corrections and MDIC to become the alliance of organizations across the state who care about reducing recidivism in our state. Whether you’re a church, a non-profit, even a Rotary Club, we want every organization that has an interest in helping reduce the size and scope of our prison population to be part of our Hope Alliance.

“The idea is MPIC as its core function inside our facilities is training guys in specific skills like welding, carpentry, masonry, HVAC all the different things we can do, but the Hope Alliance becomes the organization that there is equitable re-entry and long-term support once inmates get out of prison.

“Recidivism is 70 percent after seven years. Every year a prisoner is out increases his chance of going back. They don’t come from the same clean package that we come from. The reality is they deal with things in their life that most of us never thought about dealing with. So when something happens, it is a shattering, life-altering event. So let’s create a support system through a comprehensive alliance of folks who care about helping the rehabilitative process.”

Amen, brother.  It’s basically loving your neighbor as yourself. Mississippi needs to follow Lum’s lead and change its ways. Or we could sweep it under the run like Alabama did and wait for the feds to issue a court order requiring the state to spend $800 million on prison reform. Not a good idea.

Wyatt Emmerich is president of Emmerich Newspapers and publisher of the Northside Sun.