PLN quoted re photos taken by prisoners using cellphones to show prison life
Photos from prisoners reveal what public never sees
The state Department of Corrections bars inmates from being interviewed by reporters.
So do private prisons, which also refuse to release prison records and videos, saying they are not required to follow Mississippi's public records law, even though they house those convicted in state court and receive $79 million in taxpayer money.
"Prison walls don't just keep prisoners from getting out," said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center. "They keep the public from looking in. One reason why our prison system is chronically overcrowded, dysfunctional and abusive is because people rarely get to see — and understand — what prisons are really like."
It is perhaps ironic that cellphones, considered contraband in prisons, have enabled inmates to do what officials have blocked for decades — give the public glimpses inside the walls.
Photographs from inside Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, managed these days by MTC, show how inmates have torn reinforcing steel from the walls, leaving holes big enough to reach through.
Issa Arnita, director of communications for the private prison company, said when they took over in summer 2013, they found structural problems, hiring a company to reinforce walls inside cells.
"These projects are ongoing and will continue throughout the facility to minimize offenders' ability to access materials that can be used as makeshift weapons," he said.
For instance, MTC has replaced old metal light fixtures in cells with "basic, small, ceramic fixtures that are very difficult to turn into contraband," he said. "We have been relentless in our fight against contraband which is a big problem in the corrections industry, including in Mississippi."
Another picture from inside Wilkinson shows a handmade sword. Inmates told The Clarion-Ledger there are plenty more like that throughout the prison.
Arnita said after taking over the facility, MTC found makeshift weapons and has taken steps since to block contraband, including instituting unannounced shakedowns, body scanners at front entrances, a K-9 team and 30-foot netting to prevent people from throwing contraband over the security fences.
"It's an ongoing challenge," he said, "but we've got several tools in place to help us prevent contraband from entering the facility and prevent inmates from accessing materials that can be used as contraband."
Another picture shows inmates roaming about the pod during a time last February that the prison reportedly remained under a lockdown.
Even if the photo was taken during a lockdown, Arnita said, "there are different security levels and in some cases, offenders do have access to the day room for a certain period of time."
There is also a June 18, 2013, photograph of a corrections officer sleeping outside what inmates say was a "suicide watch" cell.
Inmates have also distributed pictures of mold on Wilkinson prison walls, smoke-filled pods and photographs of inmates who have been beaten or killed.
Arnita said the company has made "and will continue to make improvements and repairs to the building for both security and sanitation."
One inmate's photograph captured a meal at Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, where mold can be seen on a hamburger bun.
In Alabama, an inmate posted 60 videos last year to document "inhumane" conditions, showing roaches climbing the walls in a break area and rodents killed in traps outside the showers.
"A photo taken in prison is worth a 1,000 words about the realities of life behind bars," Friedmann said.
While some argue those behind bars deserve the treatment they receive, offenders deserve humane treatment regardless, said former Corrections Commissioner Robert L. Johnson. "It is one of the costs of a civilized society."
In Mississippi, cellphones have enabled inmates to talk with The Clarion-Ledger about what life is like behind the walls.
Since cellphones are contraband and possessing one can add five years to an inmate's sentence, the inmates who provided The Clarion-Ledger photos asked the newspaper not to share their names.
But they were happy to share their stories.
One talked about an inmate pulling a knife on a correctional officer, promising to kill her. What surprised him was the officer never took the knife away.
Not long after, that same knife was used in a stabbing, the inmate said. "That's protective custody."
He described Wilkinson's protective custody as "the most violent protective custody I've ever seen. The guards found two homemade axes made out of lights."
Gang wars continue, with one retaliatory attack after another, he said. "It's never going to stop."
Gangs find it easy to communicate through cellphones, he said. "Are you familiar with online free conference calls where you can have up to 100 people? We had one not too long ago."
He can pay a correctional officer $200 to $300 for a cellphone and resell it for more than twice the price, or he can sell an ounce of marijuana for $250 to $300, he said. "There's a lot of money to be made in here."
Another inmate talked of an officer threatening to beat him if he insisted on requesting protective custody. He said he didn't ask again and had seven inmates stomp him that night until he went unconscious.
Sometimes he fails to get fed, he said. "The gang members pass out the food trays."
Asked how that was possible with the prison in lockdown, he replied, "There ain't no lockdown."
Asked if there was supposed to be, he replied, "Yeah."
A third inmate said gang members roam while the prison is supposed to be in lockdown.
"There are armed, roving members of gangs," he said. "Under gang law, you must be toting a weapon."
The prison has descended into "chaos, and absurdity has become the norm," he said.
He and a number of other inmates want to live where the gangs don't rule and where they can quietly serve their time, he said. "We want a change in the system."
He can't understand why in what is supposed to be a system of corrections, so little correction takes place, he said. "If you want to correct me, you would make me work. This does not happen."
Asked what he would say to those on the outside, he replied, "Instead of sending your kids to schools with computers, you are paying millions of tax dollars for this place."