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Cleaning up Mississippi’s Supermax: Conditions Suit Settled

Cleaning up Mississippi's Supermax: Conditions Suit Settled

by David M. Reutter

A class action lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman charged that the totality of conditions are so "hellish" that it makes "Unit 32 the worst place to be incarcerated in Mississippi, perhaps the nation." The suit forced prison officials into a consent decree to upgrade Unit 32's conditions.

Unit 32 is a supermax facility that comprises five buildings, housing around 1,000 men. It imposes forced lockdown of 23 to 24 hours a day in total isolation. Many prisoners have been there for years. Often, they are confined for arbitrary reasons such as being HIV-positive, have special medical needs, are severely ill, or have requested protective custody. Generally, prisoners are not given advance notice or an explanation why they have been placed in Unit 32, nor do they receive information on how they can be removed from there.

With enforced idleness and isolation being imposed, the mentally ill regress, making the unit into a miniature hell. Those prisoners scream, moan, curse, make animal noises, engage in maniacal laughter, and have hallucinatory ravings. This prevents those holding onto their sanity from being able to stay focused or sustain intelligent thought.

The prisoners are not allowed radios or televisions and are only permitted two books from the library every three to four months. They are not allowed jobs, and guards discourage the sporadic exercise allowed by requiring prisoners to remain fully shackled in handcuffs, leg irons, and waist chains even after they are placed in the "outdoor exercise cage" that is scarcely larger than a cell.

The air in Unit 32 is dank and has the stench of filth and human excrement. This condition is exacerbated by mentally ill prisoners who throw excrement, which guards allow to decompose where it lands for days or weeks or who floor their cells into the Unit. Because no type of cleaning of the Unit or of individual cells is done, prisoners must live in the filth with the only ability to clean the cell being to use shower soap, towels, and tee shirts to clean the filth. These conditions have caused drug-resistant staph infections to become wide spread.

The physical plant is so deteriorated that clouds of mosquitoes, gnats, horseflies, and other insects infest the Unit. The weather conditions outside are the same as in the Unit, as rain water floods the cells and freezing weather makes the cells cold. In summer, the hear is unbearable, subjecting prisoners to heat stroke, especially the mentally ill.

Those mentally ill are basically warehoused, for they receive no mental health care. This is consistent with the medical care provided by Correctional Medical Services (CMS). While the mentally ill are hidden behind steel doors, those with medical conditions are often transferred off to private prison or have to be taken to the hospital because their condition has become life-threatening.

In June 2006, the prisoners, who were represented by the National Prison Project of the ACLU, and prison officials entered into a consent decree. The first provision of that decree requires that all cells be cleaned when a prisoner moves and prisoners be provided the opportunity to clean their cells at least once weekly. Next, prisoner's cells must be equipped with a fan and each prisoner must be provided a 32 ounce cup of ice at least three times daily during the summer months.

Prison officials also agreed to implement an insect and pest control program; medical and mental health services must meet American Correctional Association standards; exercise pens will be built with regular out-of-cell exercise being provided; and prisoners will receive due process hearings at least bi-annually to review their status with full appeal rights.

The cost of improvements has been estimated to cost around $800,000. Some of that cost will come from the "inmate welfare fund," which derives money from the exorbitant fees charged to persons that accept prisoner phone calls. This relieves taxpayers from paying for what they so ardently support: Locking up prisoners. See: Presley v. Epps, USDC, ND MS, Case No: 4:05CV148-M-D.

Additional Sources: Sun Herald; Clarion Ledger; Associated Press

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Related legal case

Presley v. Epps

The complaint and settlement are available in the brief bank.