Attorney General Janet Reno, responding to growing calls from civil rights activists, has instructed the Justice Department to look into a rash of reported hanging deaths in Mississippi jails.
Department spokeswoman Caroline Aronovitz confirmed yesterday that Reno recently asked the civil rights division to conduct the review "to see if there is a pattern" to the deaths and to see if such incidents could be prevented.
"How could that many people die?" Reno asked during an interview with wire service reporters in which she expressed her concern about the deaths. The Associated Press quoted Reno as calling the large number of deaths "unacceptable" and instructed the division "to try to get to the bottom of it."
Federal officials say there have been 47 hanging deaths in Mississippi jails since 1987, an unusually large number that some civil rights activists have charged were racially motivated "lynchings." State officials have ruled that all the hangings were suicides and note that 23 of them, or nearly half, involved whites.
Nevertheless, the issue drew national attention last summer after Andre Jones, the 18-year-old son of Jackson, Miss., NAACP President Esther Quinn, was found hanged by a shoelace in the Simpson County, Miss., jail. State and federal authorities ruled the death a suicide, but an independent pathologist hired by the family concluded the teenager was murdered, saying that the bar from which he was hanged was eight to nine feet high and that reaching it would have required a stool that was not present.
The issue took on new urgency last month when President Clinton said he was "very much concerned" about the deaths following calls for new investigations from the Rev. Joseph Lowery and other civil rights leaders. In addition, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission decided to hold its own hearings on the issue and wrote Reno asking her to reopen the investigation into the Jones death as well as other deaths "to determine whether there have been outrageous violations of the constitutional rights of persons held in custody" in Mississippi.
Bobby Doctor, acting staff director of the commission, said yesterday he was "very pleased" about Reno's action. He said there had been "a high number of allegations of misconduct" in connection with the deaths, including some evidence suggesting that jail employees may have been "infiltrated by members of hate groups."
But even if those allegations cannot be substantiated, Doctor said, the sheer number of an average of more than eight deaths a year for six years was "alarming" and raised questions about conditions in the jails.
"It certainly suggests to me that if you have that number of folks committing suicides, there is certainly something driving them in that direction," he said.