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Three Murders in Three Months at Mississippi Control Unit Lead to Improvements And New Consent Decree

"Taken as a whole, I am convinced the conditions in Unit 32 are as bad as anywhere in the whole country," observed Margaret Winter, a lawyer with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Unit 32 is otherwise known as the supermax at Mississippi's State Penitentiary in Parchman.

In 2005, the ACLU sued over the treatment of prisoners in Unit 32. A 2006 consent decree obligated prison officials to make improvements. However, a June 29, 2007 letter sent to U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis disclosed that there had been "a total breakdown in basic sanitation" at the supermax unit.

"Prisoners are being moved into cells without lights, fans, properly functioning toilets, disinfectant, or any other cleaning supplies," the letter stated. "The cells are filthy. Food trays are delivered filthy. Prisoners have been fed a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for days."

According to prisoner Steven Farris, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, the conditions on Unit 32 began to deteriorate after the spearing death of prisoner Boris Harper in June 2007. As Harper passed by the cell of prisoner Lamarcus Lee Hillard, Hillard fatally stabbed him with a spear fashioned from a broken mop handle.

Following Harper's death, prisoners sent letters to the ACLU saying that sanitation on Unit 32 had been reduced to nil. "There are 1,000 men in Unit 32. One of them committed the stabbing. We don't know what the circumstances were, but one thing we do know is that it does not do the public any good to have people treated like beasts," Winter said. "It's just outside the standards of civilized society by forcing them to live in excrement."

"It is my staff's job in Parchman to try to change behavior," said Mississippi Dept. of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps. "That's why it's called correction."

Not all prisoners on Unit 32 are there because of alleged deviant or violent behavior. Prisoners with life sentences are sent to Unit 32 for observation. Prison officials contend the purpose for putting such prisoners in supermax is to see how they will adapt to prison before assigning them to the general population. Prisoners, however, contend the practice is to break them down by showing them the conditions they can expect if they misbehave.

Most prisoners in Unit 32 are there for disorderly or unruly behavior, for refusing to work as unpaid slaves on the prison farm, or for not attending school or other programs. More than half have been written up for disciplinary infractions more than 19 times, and a few have been written up 100 or more times. There are 89 charges of escape among the prisoners held in Unit 32.

An April 2007 beating of a prisoner demonstrated that the "correction" dispensed by Parchman's staff can equate to physical violence. Kevin King is one of the tens of thousands of prisoners nationwide who are mentally ill; he was diagnosed with impulse control disorder. Since 2002, King has received 165 disciplinary infractions that include failure to follow commands, taunting guards and prisoners, and physical acts such as throwing urine at staff members.

An unnamed guard had had enough of King. While the cause is uncertain, what is certain is that the guard beat King in the shower with a pair of handcuffs. King was then forced to kneel while restrained as another guard sprayed pepper spray into the wound. Pictures taken after the incident show King with a jagged cut on his head and his shirt drenched in blood. The unknown guard resigned shortly thereafter.

"We investigated, and the investigators reported to me. We found the officer didn't do his job, and the officer resigned," said Epps. "We policed ourselves and got rid of that bad apple. But we've still got Kevin King."

Epps called King "one of the worst inmates in the nation," citing him as a prime example of the need for Unit 32. "He's constantly into something. He thrives on pissing inmates and guards off," Epps continued. "Kevin King is a fruitcake. He's just a nuisance."

Most people who are untrained in dealing with the mentally ill come to the same conclusion. Critics say that is exactly why the criminal justice system is ill-equipped to handle an influx of prisoners with mental illnesses; prisons have become the nation's largest provider of mental health services in the decades since the psychiatric hospital system was dismantled.

"He is mentally ill, and the problem does not get any better when a feisty guy with a mental illness is constantly gassed," said Winter. "It's not good control. It's not good therapy for a mentally ill person." Sadly, though, it seems that is the most likely type of therapy King will receive in Unit 32 for the remainder of his nine-year sentence.

The conditions on Unit 32 are bad enough to drive even the sane to suicide. Tacoma Elmore, 29, was an intelligent person, yet he landed in prison and ended up in supermax. In mid-June 2007, Elmore was found hanging by a sheet in his cell. The frequency of suicide attempts and levels of violence at the supermax unit concern the ACLU.

"The ACLU hasn't a clue about running a prison," retorted Epps. Considering the conditions at Unit 32, some could say the same about the Mississippi Dept. of Corrections.

"There is unquestionably a small number of prisoners who are so exceedingly dangerous they need to be held under the tightest possible security, but that is a very small number, relatively speaking," Winters said. "Even with that small number, there is no justification for holding them in conditions as harsh as Unit 32."

The larger question is what effect the conditions at Unit 32 have in terms of rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them to reenter society. Nearly half of Unit 32's prisoners are scheduled to be released within the next seven years, and the vast majority will one day be set free.

MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps visited Parchman while the ongoing consent decree in the ACLU lawsuit was in effect. "I went to every building, and [Unit] 32 is doing fine," he said. "This is a group that is unappeasable. All they are doing is racking up attorney fees for you and me in tax dollars."

Looks, and rhetoric, can be deceiving. Things were not "doing fine" on the morning of July 17, 2007. While patrolling Unit 32, a guard noticed a gun in a prisoner's cell. As he was going to tell prison supervisions, he advised another guard, Marcus Fairley, of the situation.

Fairley went to investigate and saw the gun lying openly in the cell of prisoner Patrick Hawkins. "The inmate was sitting on the toilet, and he just looked at me and said, 'get this thing away from me before I shoot somebody or shoot myself,' " said Fairley. "He just kicked it out of his cell. He didn't want it."

While the .380 semi-automatic pistol was unloaded, a search of the cell uncovered two clips of ammunition wrapped in plastic wrap and a letter instructing Hawkins to use the gun on a specific guard. The letter was from another prisoner affiliated with the Gangster Disciples and appeared to be connected to Boris Harper's death.

Finding a gun in a supermax prison is a big surprise, but Fairley was in for another one. "I had an even bigger shock at the end of the day," he said. "They fired me." Prison officials accused Fairley of bringing the gun into the prison; on August 3 he was arrested and charged with introducing contraband into Unit 32.

Prison officials claimed that Fairley was associated with the Gangster Disciples. A search of the prison discovered the prisoners were well armed, with over 100 shanks found in a shakedown that ensued after the gun was recovered. According to Fairley, cross-gang rivalries abound in Unit 32, with a volatile mix of Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords and Aryan Brotherhood members crammed into the building.

Prison officials did not say whether gang violence contributed to the July 25, 2007 killing of prisoner Donald Reed, Jr. In that incident, Reed and 17 other prisoners were in recreation pens. Two prisoners with shanks kicked their way out of their pens, took a guard's keys and released five other prisoners. The group then attacked Reed and several other prisoners. Reed was stabbed in the head, chest, shoulder, back and hand. Two other prisoners were wounded.

Although Unit 32 is a supermax, another fatal attack a month later cast doubt on the control that guards hold over the prison. On August 28, 2007 prisoner Jessie Wilson stabbed and killed death row prisoner Earnest Lee Hargon, 46. Hargon was "stabbed 30 times all over his face, head, and body," according to Coroner Douglas Card. Recognizing that Unit 32 was not "doing fine," Commissioner Epps vowed to spend millions of dollars to make improvements. The prison has added X-ray and drug detection machines to the metal detector that guards must pass through. An additional 50 security cameras will be installed at the prison. Approval has been granted to spend $1.8 million to add full metal doors to replace the open bar doors on the cells. Guards will be prohibited from bringing food or drinks onto the unit.

Perhaps Epps should listen to former Parchman warden Don Cabana, who presided over the construction of Unit 32. "I think what we're doing in supermax is, we're taking some bad folks and we're making them even worse. We're making them even meaner," Cabana said. He added that his "biggest regret was building the supermax unit at Parchman."

While there isn't a happy end to this story, there is at least a hopeful one. Much-needed improvements at Parchman began in August 2007. The warden was replaced; guards were fired; some restrictions on prisoners were lifted; and more education, treatment and religious programs were instituted. Prisoners were allowed out of their cells for longer periods of time, according to Epps.

Four of the fired guards allegedly had connections to street gangs, including a lieutenant who was in charge on July 25 when Reed was killed. To boost employee morale, the guards at Unit 32 received a 20 percent pay raise. By November 2007, use of force incidents at the unit had dropped by two-thirds. The number of prisoners taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries dropped by 75 percent.

These changes came a month before a federal court hearing to determine whether the MDOC was in violation of the consent decree in the ACLU's lawsuit. Although no doubt spurred by the civil rights litigation and the court's oversight, Epps denied that was the case. "It's not about the ACLU. It's not required by the consent decree. We're doing it because it's working," he stated, despite having previously called the Unit 32 prisoners "parasites."

Even the ACLU admitted that Epps had "shown a lot of leadership" in making the recent improvements at Unit 32, albeit under the threat of federal court intervention. The federal judge over the case hailed the reforms at Unit 32 as a "model" for other state prison systems.

"I think we are looking at a situation where this is not a case of foot-dragging or grudging obedience to the letter of the consent decree," said ACLU attorney Margaret Winter. "It's not to say that it is a paradise by any means ... but it's impossible not to feel very, very hopeful."

On November 15, 2007, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis approved a supplemental consent decree in the ACLU's class action lawsuit, which includes directives to remove mentally ill prisoners from supermax confinement, to reduce the use of force by guards and to improve the MDOC's classification system at Unit 32.

The consent decree prohibits the use of supermax "for long-term housing of prisoners with severe mental illness, other than those on Death Row." Long term was defined as more than 14 days. As such, non-death sentenced prisoners with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mental retardation or any disorder characterized by repetitive self-harm can not be subjected to long term confinement at Unit 32.

Prisoners with such conditions will be sent to the East Mississippi Correctional Facility or another prison to receive appropriate care. Further, a Mental Health Step-Down Unit is to be created at Unit 32. The Step-Down Unit will be used to house mentally ill prisoners who require an immediate level of psychiatric care, which includes prisoners in suicidal or other psychiatric crisis. Security staff in that unit must complete 40 hours of training to work with mentally ill prisoners.

In regard to use of force, Kenneth McGinnis, a former head of Michigan's prison system, wrote in a report that Unit 32 guards used chemical sprays on prisoners "as a method of enforcing orders of any nature." Under the terms of the supplemental consent decree, physical force "including chemical sprays" is not to be used unless a prisoner's actions "are creating an immediate threat of serious self-injury or of physical injury to another person or of property damage causing a threat to security and not unless reasonable efforts to use verbal persuasion and other non-physical methods of gaining control have been attempted and failed."

Audio-visual recording of all use of force incidents must be instituted. Except in emergency situations, force is to be used only after the Shift Commander or Warden has been notified and consented; whenever possible, prison officials are to visit the prisoner before authorizing use of force.

One of the most significant changes wrought by the consent decree relates to how prisoners are classified for placement in the supermax unit. Prisoners may only be confined in Unit 32 if they have behaved violently or aggressively while imprisoned, are actively involved in disruptive gang activity, have escaped or attempted to escape, committed a felony while on escape, or there are other factors that meet specific criteria that the prisoner poses a significant risk of physical harm to others.

All Unit 32 prisoners who have remained free of serious disciplinary violations and completed recommended rehabilitative programs will be released to the prison's general population within two years unless they murdered another prisoner, planned or participated in a major riot, escaped, or are deemed a significant risk of harm to others. See: Presley v. Epps, USDC ND Miss., Case No. 4:05cv148-JAD (Nov. 15, 2007). The consent decree and complaint in the case are available on PLN's website.

Sources: National Public Radio, Clarion-Ledger,, Commercial Appeal

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Related legal case

Presley v. Epps