The most recent inmate death happened early Friday, when authorities said Denorris Howell, 36, injured his neck during a fight with his cellmate at Parchman.
“Things are kind of surreal at this point,” Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton told the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss. “Every time the phone rings at this point, it’s another one.”
Officials promised to prosecute aggressors “to the full extent of the law” and said movement at three state prisons, three privately managed prisons and 15 regional prisons is limited to emergencies. Parchman’s inmates have been transferred to more-secure housing units at the facility in an attempt to quell the outburst, authorities said.
During an emergency count at about 1:45 a.m. Saturday, officials said Parchman staff noticed that two inmates were missing: David May, 42, and Dillion Williams, 27. May is serving a life sentence for two aggravated assault convictions, and Williams is serving 40 years for residential burglary and aggravated assault.
Police said they captured May early on Sunday and recovered the black 2011 GMC pickup that he used to escape. Williams was still at large.
The chaos comes the same week a federal judge ruled that previously bad conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility had been fixed and that the privately run facility had resolved any constitutional violations that may have existed. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a lawsuit in 2013 alleging that prisoners lived in “barbaric” conditions, where illnesses went untreated, rats climbed over beds and guards used excessive force, among other issues.
Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and the prison system has struggled with a lack of funding, declining numbers of guards and accusations of abuse. An investigation by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting found that a 2014 prison reform law had failed to significantly improve the system.
“Unfortunately, this is another chapter in what is a history of mismanagement and neglect that have infected the Mississippi prison system for decades,” said Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel at the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
Gov. Phil Bryant (R) said that he was in contact with corrections officials about the latest disturbances across the state and that gang violence would not be tolerated in the prisons. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves (R) wrote on Twitter: “There is much work to be done in our correctional system.”
The spate of violence began when Terrandance Dobbins, 40, was killed Dec. 29 at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, the Clarion Ledger reported.
According to Burton, Walter Gates, 25, and Roosevelt Holliman, 32, were fatally stabbed during gang-related riots at Parchman on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. And Gregory Emary, 26, was killed Thursday at the Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility, according to the Clarion Ledger.
Authorities have not specified how Dobbins and Emary were killed. They declined to identify the gangs involved in the conflict, but the Associated Press reported that the ongoing confrontation was between the Vice Lords and the Black Gangster Disciples.
“These are trying times for the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall said in a statement. “It is never a good feeling for a commissioner to receive a call that a life has been lost, especially over senseless acts of violence.”
Dobbins’s sister, Candice Dobbins, told the AP that her brother felt unsafe at South Mississippi Correctional Institution and that she had been trying to get him transferred. Dobbins was serving a life sentence for a murder in Adams County and eight additional years for aggravated assault in Sunflower County, the Clarion Ledger reported, citing corrections officials.
Dobbins hoped to open a barber shop if he was ever released and told his young relatives to stay out of trouble so they would not get locked up, Candice Dobbins told the Clarion Ledger.
“Really the prisoners run the facilities,” she told the AP. “I know guards have to talk with inmates to keep control of other inmates.”
Corrections officials said Howell’s death and a “minor fire” at Parchman appeared to be unrelated to the main disturbances. Kaye Sullivan, an office administrator for Burton, said in an email that a chaotic environment, poor lighting and significant amounts of spilled blood made investigating the deaths at Parchman “extremely difficult.”
At full capacity, Parchman houses 3,560 male inmates, including some on death row. Inmates make textiles and metals as part of the prison’s work program.
Several lawsuits have alleged that conditions at Parchman are inhumane. Prisoners told PBS NewsHour that the roofs leak, windows are broken and inmates can easily access contraband, including drugs. Grace Fisher, communications director for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, disputed that characterization to PBS.
On Tuesday, Hall announced that she will be leaving the Mississippi Department of Corrections in mid-January to accept a position in the private sector. She did not release details about her new job.
Fifty inmates died in Mississippi prisons in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available. Sixteen inmates died in August 2018 alone. Corrections officials attributed most of those deaths to natural causes or illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.