The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Justice Dept. says Mississippi allowed unsafe state prison conditions

A two-year investigation found a lack of mental health services and uncontrolled violence contributed to spate of homicides, suicides

Justice Department headquarters in Washington in 2013. (J. David Ake/AP)
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The Justice Department announced Wednesday that a two-year federal investigation into the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman has determined that unconstitutional conditions — including a lack of mental health services and an overreliance on solitary confinement — contributed to a spate of deadly violence among inmates.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said that 10 inmates have been killed and 12 have died by suicide over the past two years, beginning with a prison riot that started Dec. 31, 2019, and lasted for weeks. The total prison population was about 3,255 when the riot began.

State prison officials were unprepared to respond to the violence, despite widespread news reports and other warnings of rising tensions, unsanitary living conditions and major staffing shortages, said Clarke, citing a 59-page Justice Department report.

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“We have concluded that the conditions at Parchman are severe, systemic and exacerbated by chronically deficient staffing and supervision, resulting in serious harm and substantial risk to people confined at the prison,” Clarke, who oversees Justice’s civil rights division, said at a news conference. She was joined by U.S. Attorneys Clay Joyner of Mississippi’s Northern District and Darren J. LaMarca of the Southern District.

Neither the Mississippi Department of Corrections officials nor the office of Gov. Tate Reeves (R) responded to requests for comment.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), who joined civil rights groups in January 2020 to ask the Justice Department to investigate the prison, said in a statement that his office has routinely forwarded complaints from constituents about the facility to federal investigators.

“Hopefully, the results of this investigation will push the state to do better and fix the unconstitutional conditions,” Thompson said.

The Justice Department opened “pattern or practice” investigations into Parchman and three other state-operated Mississippi prisons in February 2020 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. The probes into the Southern Mississippi Correctional Institute, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility are ongoing, Clarke said.

Federal investigators determined that state officials had committed systemic violations of the prisoners’ civil rights under the Eighth and 14th amendments, including offering inadequate mental health and suicide prevention measures, allowing uncontrolled violence and improperly restricting prisoners to solitary confinement for months at a time. In lieu of adequate oversight from prison officials, federal officials said, gangs moved in to fill the void.

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The Justice Department investigation — which included interviews with prison officials and inmates, tours of the prison facilities and a review of thousands of documents — found evidence of “an abundance of weapons, drugs, gang activity, extortion and violence,” Joyner said.

He told reporters that Burl Cain, a former state warden in Louisiana who was named commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections in May 2020, has already implemented some changes intended to improve prison safety. Clarke said the Justice Department will seek to negotiate additional changes with Mississippi officials, who she said had cooperated with the investigation. Clarke did not lay out a timeline for that process.

Parchman’s largest facility is Unit 29, which can house up to 1,500 people, the Justice Department report said. Following the rioting, the corrections department moved 375 inmates from Unit 29 to a private prison elsewhere in the state, and Reeves instructed the agency to work toward closing Unit 29. Parchman’s average daily population has dropped from 3,255 in December 2019 to about 1,989, according to the report.

The Justice Department found that inmates were kept in restrictive settings, under dilapidated conditions, for long stretches — in some cases for years. During those periods, some harmed themselves, including cutting themselves and ingesting excess blood pressure pills or other medications. Prison guards and staff failed to conduct mental health evaluations, the report said.

The facility routinely struggled to fill open positions, with staff vacancy rates consistently above 40 percent and peaking at 53.5 percent in February 2020, shortly after the weeks-long riot that began after a fight broke out on Dec. 31, 2019.

The report determined that the fight and other violence in the prison was connected to gang affiliations. Three homicides took place in a single week in January 2020; one inmate was stabbed 89 times and another 75 times, while a third died of strangulation, the report said. Investigators found evidence of more than 100 assaults inside the prison from 2018 through May 2020, and they concluded that many more attacks probably went unreported.

“Mississippi has the third-highest incarceration rate in the country but provides few resources to ensure that the people held in its prisons are treated humanely,” the ACLU of Mississippi said in a statement Wednesday. “People who are incarcerated still have Constitutional rights. Yet the DOJ report found that MDOC violated those rights at Parchman Prison by failing to protect people from violence and provide them with necessary medical care. Mississippi leaders must take this as an opportunity to fix our broken and inhumane prisons.​”

Rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc, hip-hop mogul Jay-Z’s social justice advocacy group, had filed lawsuits on behalf of inmates at Parchman. In a statement, Yo Gotti said: “My heart goes out to the incarcerated men who have suffered without access to clean water, food and healthcare and the families that tragically lost loved ones in the process. … I’m grateful for the U.S. Department of Justice’s thorough report to hold the Mississippi Department of Corrections accountable for the cruel and inhumane treatment of the incarcerated population.”

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