WhisperToMe [CC0]

February 5, 2020; New York Times

Mississippi’s prisons have fallen under public and governmental scrutiny over the past several weeks as at least 12 inmates have been killed by others or taken their own lives. In late December, prisons statewide were put on lockdown after a number of violent incidents took place—in particular, at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where nine inmates have died in the last month and, in early January, five inmates died within one week due to gang violence. Inmates have been able to share videos and images showing poor conditions via smuggled cellphones, which has prompted public outcry from activists and legislators who have called on the federal government to take action.

As a result, the US Justice Department announced last Wednesday that it would launch a civil rights investigation to determine if prison officials have been doing enough to protect inmates, both from one another and from dangers to themselves. The latter involves reviewing the quality of prison support for mental health care and suicide prevention efforts. This investigation, led by the Civil Rights Division, will focus on four Mississippi prisons: the Parchman facility, the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, which is privately run by Management & Training Corp.

Newly elected Mississippi governor Tate Reeves (R) also announced an upcoming state investigation into these prisons, to take place within the first days of his term, and says he will be looking for a new corrections commissioner. Reeves has called the situation a “catastrophe,” and last month asked the Mississippi Department of Investigations to specifically assign an officer to the Parchman facility to “bring order and root out the underlying issues.”

Interestingly, despite Reeves’s stated interest in fixing these problems, he has not asked legislators to increase the state budget for the Department of Corrections, even though inadequate staffing appears to be a leading cause of the catastrophe. And in his search for a prison commissioner to replace Pelicia E. Hall, who resigned in late December to take a job in the private sector, Reeves’s assembled search committee created a job posting that said, “work experience dealing with correctional institutions is preferred.” That’s “preferred,” as opposed to “required,” which seems odd—as is the idea that additional funds would not be set aside so this future hire could have the support to begin the “overhaul” of the prison system that Reeves is interested in.

An assembly of civil rights groups and elected officials, including Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), submitted a 23-page request to Eric S. Dreiband, the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. In this request, submitted on January 7, 2020, this group stated, “The Mississippi prison system is in a state of acute and undeniable crisis, with five deaths in just the last ten days, and a history of preventable deaths and injuries stretching back years.”

The letter notes the many conditions contributing to the problems in the Mississippi prisons, including “extreme” staff vacancies, prevalent violence, escapes, uprisings, inadequate health care, and the toleration of criminal gangs, who are able to dominate kitchen resources and punish prisoners by withholding mattresses, blankets, and food.

Last month, 29 inmates also filed suit against Mississippi state officials, stating, “plaintiffs’ lives are in peril,” and inmates have died due to “Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights.”

Prior to the Mississippi investigation, the Justice Department conducted an investigation into Alabama’s prison system. Last April, the Justice Department found “reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons [in Alabama] fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” These failures were considered a violation of the US Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Last August, ProPublica, in conjunction with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, reported that Mississippi’s prisons may be worse than Alabama’s, with a much higher ratio of prisoners to guards at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, one of the four facilities that will now be investigated.

One way that inmates have brought attention to these horrific conditions is by using cellphones that have been smuggled in to captured images of inmate fights, broken toilets, holes in prison walls, dangling wires, and dead rodents. Inmates do this reporting at their peril, as they can be punished for illegal possession of cellphones with more jail time. Consider the case of Willie Nash. Nash was in jail on a misdemeanor charge, and had his cell phone at the time of being incarcerated. He asked a guard to charge the phone. In Mississippi, if an inmate has a cell phone, it is a felony offense, and that inmate can face 3 to 15 years of jail time. Mr. Nash was convicted by a jury, and a judge then sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

The US has the largest prison population in the world. Despite having only four percent of the world’s population, the US has 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Incarceration also remains highly racialized, with black men five times more likely to find themselves behind bars than white men. While US prisoner numbers have fallen some in recent years, the US still has the world’s highest incarceration rate.

We as a society need to reckon with this impulse to put people in prison for nonviolent crime at such a high rate, and in conditions that demonstrate such a disregard for basic humanity, regardless of the offense committed. Considering that Mississippi is not the only state with such horrific prison conditions, is it possible that more regulation is needed above the state level to ensure that states are complying with humane standards?—Kristen Munnelly