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Mississippi DOC Closes Unit 32

A settlement agreement was reached in June 2010 to close the notorious Unit 32 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. The agreement provides for the dismissal of a lawsuit that challenged conditions at the supermax unit.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in collaboration with the Holland & Knight law firm, originally filed suit in 2002 on behalf of death row prisoners held in Unit 32. After remedies were obtained in that lawsuit, a new suit was filed in 2005 that extended to all prisoners housed at the unit.

While prison officials portrayed Unit 32 prisoners as the “worst of the worst” who deserved confinement at the supermax, the reality was that a significant percentage of the population was there only because they had HIV, were seriously mentally ill, or needed protective custody. “They were permanently locked down in solitary confinement with no possibility of earning their way to a less restrictive environment through good behavior,” the ACLU stated in a press release.

In the original suit, death row prisoners described profound isolation, unrelieved idleness and monotony, denial of exercise, intolerable stench and pervasive filth, grossly malfunctioning plumbing and constant exposure to human excrement. Each cell had a “ping-pong” toilet that allowed waste from one cell to back up into the toilet in the adjoining cell. Temperatures in the cells during the long Delta summers, with heat index, reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

The cells were so infested with mosquitoes that Unit 32 prisoners had to keep their windows closed and their bodies completely covered even in the hottest weather. Leaking rainwater and foul water from flooded toilets on upper floors soaked prisoners’ beds and personal items, and prisoners weren’t provided with clean water, soap or other basic cleaning supplies, even when they were moved into a cell smeared with excrement by the previous tenants.

Lighting was so dim that prisoners could not read, write or groom themselves. Basic medical, dental and mental health treatment was denied. Screams and ravings of mentally ill prisoners filled the unit day and night. The administrative segregation wing of Unit 32 suffered from the same hellish conditions plus more profound isolation and unrelieved idleness than death row.

Unit 32 came under intense scrutiny after three prisoners were killed and a fourth committed suicide in a serious of violent incidents in the summer of 2007. [See: PLN, April 2008, p.22]. The warden was replaced, and a new classification system that resulted from a 2006 consent decree reduced the solitary confinement population in the unit from 1,000 to 150 by late 2007.

The settlement agreement reached on June 4, 2010 specifies that within one year the “entire current population of Unit 32” will be relocated to other facilities. The agreement also provides for prisoners to receive adequate medical and mental health care, which can be verified by the ACLU having experts review the prisoners’ files. Prisoners with serious mental illness will be moved to the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian.

The settlement is a huge victory. “We applaud MDOC Commissioner Christopher Epps’ decision to take the important step and the work that he and his staff have undertaken during the course of the Unit 32 litigation to reform one of the worst prisons in the nation,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

“This facility was truly a dangerous and degrading environment for prisoners and staff alike. The fact that this facility is now being closed is a great end to the long road that we have been on,” she added. Of course, Mississippi prison officials only took action as a result of litigation – not because they cared about the wretched conditions in Unit 32. See: Presley v. Epps, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Miss.), Case No. 4:05-cv-00148-JAD.

Additional sources: ACLU Press Release, Associated Press, Clarion Ledger, ABA Litigation Journal, Commercial Appeal

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Related legal case

Presley v. Epps