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Justice Department slams ‘unconstitutional conditions’ at Mississippi prisons

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Justice Department slams ‘unconstitutional conditions’ at Mississippi prisons

Feb 28, 2024 | 2:35 pm ET
By Jerry Mitchell
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The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), is located in the Robert G. Clark, Jr. Bldg., at 301 N. Lamar Street in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today
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The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), is located in the Robert G. Clark, Jr. Bldg., at 301 N. Lamar Street in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The Justice Department is accusing the state of Mississippi of violating the constitutional rights of those held in four prisons: the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, the South Mississippi Correctional Institution and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.

“Our work makes clear that people do not abandon their civil and constitutional rights at the jailhouse door,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division told reporters in a press conference Wednesday. “The unconstitutional conditions in Mississippi’s prisons have existed for far too long, and we hope that this announcement marks a turning point towards implementing sound, evidence-based solutions to these entrenched problems.”

Department officials released a 60-page report Wednesday that centers on the three prisons besides Parchman. The report concluded that the Mississippi Department of Corrections “does not adequately supervise incarcerated people, control contraband, and investigate incidents of harm and misconduct. These basic safety failures and the poor living conditions inside the facilities promote violence, including sexual assault. Gangs operate in the void left by staff and use violence to control people and traffic contraband.”

Justice Department slams ‘unconstitutional conditions’ at Mississippi prisons
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke speaks to media via Zoom during a press conference at the Thad Cochran U.S. District Courthouse in Jackson, Miss., after six law enforcement officers pleaded guilty to brutalizing and assaulting two Black men during a home raid that ended with an officer shooting one of the victims in the mouth. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Clarke said one major reason for this problem is that vacancy rates for correctional officers run between 30% and 50% at these prisons.

“It should be corrections officers running prisons, not gangs,” said U.S. Attorney Todd Gee for the Southern District of Mississippi. “When inmates are forced to join gangs, they bring that violent culture with them when they are released.”

A former gang intelligence officer estimated that more than half of those inside the Central Mississippi prison belong to gangs, according to the report. In recent years, the percentage of validated gang members inside Wilkinson was as high as 90%.

“The strength of prison gangs inside the MDOC facilities that we investigated is so great that even some staff members have gang affiliations and are on the gangs’ payroll,” the report says.

A coordinator attributed the gangs’ strength “to staff corruption and estimated that more than half the staff are on the payroll of gangs,” according to the report.

Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain has repeatedly vowed to put the gangs out of business and replace them with faith-based alternatives. The Justice Department concluded that “these efforts are inadequate. MDOC’s statewide gang coordinator could not share any metrics that assess the effectiveness of their gang control strategy. Nor do MDOC’s measures appear from our review to have broken the gangs’ stranglehold over MDOC facilities.”

The report also alleged that housing practices at some prisons “create a substantial risk of serious harm. MDOC holds hundreds of people at Central Mississippi and Wilkinson [a private prison run by MTC] in restrictive housing for prolonged periods in appalling conditions. Restrictive housing units are unsanitary, hazardous, and chaotic, with little supervision. They are breeding grounds for suicide, self-inflicted injury, fires, and assaults.”

MDOC responded by email, noting the DOJ report focused on inmate-on-inmate violence and the use of restrictive housing. “While we disagree with the findings, we will work with the DOJ to identify possible resolutions to enhance inmate safety and continue ongoing efforts to improve operations at MDOC,” the statement read.

MTC said in an emailed response that the Justice Department’s conclusions about the Wilkinson prison were drawn from visits conducted nearly two years ago and it has made “many improvements since.”

“While some challenges are inherent in operating a correctional facility, especially at facilities that house high-security inmates like Wilkinson, we continue to enhance the services we provide,” MTC said.

“The report serves as a reminder of the broad challenges faced by most, if not all, correctional facilities in all jurisdictions. These include staffing, contraband, and inmate behavior.”

These constitutional violations are “systemic problems that have been going on for years,” according to the report.

In 2019, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica published a series of stories on these prisons, exposing grisly violence, gang control and subhuman living conditions, noting that lawmakers had known about these issues for years and had done little to fix Parchman and the other prisons.

After that reporting, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and others called on the Justice Department to investigate. The department began to do that in February 2020, starting with Parchman, which the department concluded in April 2022 that those imprisoned were being subjected to violence, inadequate medical care and lack of suicide prevention.

Nicole Montagano, CEO of Hope Dealers Prison Reform., said she found the new investigation “as accurate as the one conducted in 2022 at Parchman.”

“However, I’m worried that similar to the previous investigation, there won’t be much accountability or meaningful change. The DOJ couldn’t have followed up with Parchman because 29 is still just as bad, if not worse as it was when the investigation took place. These reports should outrage the public. No one deserves to live the way these people are being forced to live.”

Asked what steps Mississippi officials have taken on Parchman since the Justice Department’s 2022 report, Clarke replied, “We are aware of preliminary steps they have taken, but as laid out in great detail, the problems are severe, egregious and long-standing.”

In its latest report, Justice Department officials concluded that all four prisons are “riddled with violence. … Gross understaffing, poor supervision, and inadequate investigations create an environment where violent gang activity and dangerous contraband trafficking proliferate.”

Central Mississippi averages an assault every other day between September 2020 and June 2022, 23 of them requiring hospitalization, according to the report. South Mississippi reported nearly 100 assaults, about 4o of them requiring hospitalization. And a fifth of the more than 150 assaults at Wilkinson required hospitalization.

These numbers underestimate the violence, the report says. “In light of the large number of documented assaults …, MDOC officials cannot claim ignorance of the substantial threat of violence at these facilities.”

At Central Mississippi, camera footage showed an inmate choking and kicking a victim in the head at 3:41 a.m. on an unspecified date. Later, another assailant punched him in the face. By 8:43 a.m., the body was rigid.

It wasn’t until 8:45 a.m., five hours after the assault, that an officer ever came to the cell. It was the officer bringing the morning meal.

Medical help arrived 20 minutes later, but it was far too late. The victim, who wasn’t identified, died.

“The Warden’s report makes no mention of an officer being present on the housing unit at any point during the five hours between the assault and the [man] foaming at the mouth,” according to the report.

At South Mississippi, gang members attacked a man over $68 that he supposedly owed, the report says. “The assailants dragged the victim across different zones of the same housing unit, then after he lost consciousness, brought him to the showers and poured cold water from a garbage can on him to wake him up. Once the victim started coughing and spitting up water, the assailants continued the assault, pouring boiling hot water on him and beating him. The attackers reportedly prohibited anyone in the housing area from contacting medical [services] following the assault. After conferring with other gang members, the assailants agreed to request a security check from officers, because of the severity of the victim’s injuries. Responding staff found the victim lying on the floor behind benches. He was unable to stand up and moaned when asked questions. He had burns over 10–20% of his body, a nasal fracture, head injury, lack of cognitive response and encephalopathy (brain injury).”

The report details how often no one is monitoring the prisons’ video surveillance.

Violence at these prisons includes sexual assaults. The Prison Rape Elimination Act Manager for Central Mississippi receives between 20 and 25 complaints a month, and that number doesn’t include the attacks that go unreported.

Justice Department officials determined that staff could easily introduce contraband into these prisons.

“Drugs, cell phones, and weapons are the most common type of contraband found in the facilities,” the report says. “Many of the assaultive incidents at Central Mississippi, South Mississippi, and Wilkinson, involve contraband weapons. During one altercation at Wilkinson, an incarcerated individual sustained a laceration to his chest. Security staff recovered a piece of a kitchen knife from the scene. After an assault at Wilkinson that sent an incarcerated person to the hospital, staff recovered an eight-inch implement.”

In a single month in 2022, Wilkinson officials recovered 28 grams of meth, 8 ounces of marijuana and 10 cellphones. Over a 13-month period, South Mississippi found 1,200 cellphones, which are commonly used to “conduct business, including contraband trafficking,” according to the report.

The volume of these drugs “leads to extreme, drug-induced behaviors that contribute to violence and fatal overdoses,” according to the report. “An individual who died at Wilkinson after cutting himself and assaulting and choking his cellmate was found to have amphetamine and methamphetamine in his system.”

In addition to the lack of staff to monitor towers and videos, the report found officers “fail to do basic security tasks such as making rounds, counting incarcerated persons, and keeping doors secure. MDOC has long known about this gross understaffing and the harm it causes, but has failed to take reasonable, effective measures to fix the problem.”

Since 2020, when Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Cain, MDOC has raised starting pay for correctional officers, lowered eligibility requirements, shortened training and expedited hiring.

Despite that, the prisons are operating at “dangerously low staffing levels,” the report says. Despite significant pay raises, the pay remains lower than “other correctional agencies in the region and in other industries in Mississippi.”

MDOC pointed out that staffing is an issue faced by prisons across the country. “Over the past four years, MDOC has worked tirelessly to increase staff through additional compensation, the development of career ladders, streamlining the hiring process, job fairs, and implementing special duty pay,” MDOC said in its statement.

MDOC also struggles to retain those it hires, the report notes. One human resources officer said South Mississippi lost about half of its new hires from the previous year.

The reasons why? People aren’t prepared for the job, some have gang affiliations, and others help bring in contraband, sometimes “because of threats from incarcerated individuals,” sometimes because of “significant money being paid to officers.”

U.S. Attorney Clay Joyner for the Northern District of Mississippi said that ensuring “constitutional and humane conditions of confinement in our prisons is a key part of public safety. By allowing physical violence, illegal gang activity, and contraband to run rampant, Mississippi not only violates the rights of people incarcerated at these facilities, but also compromises the legitimacy of law enforcement efforts to protect our communities.”

UPDATE 2/28/24: This story has been updated to include MTC’s response to the report.

UPDATE 2/29/24: This story has been updated to include MDOC’s response to the report, as well as that of Nicole Montagano of Hope Dealers Prison Reform.