Mississippi’s prison population is skyrocketing.

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.”

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