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East Mississippi Prison Nightmare

On May 30, 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and law office of civil rights attorney Elizabeth Alexander filed an 83-page complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, seeking class-action relief for mentally ill prisoners confined in “barbaric and horrifying conditions” and “a perpetual state of crisis” at the privately-operated East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF).

According to the complaint, prisoners at EMCF live in dangerous conditions and are constantly at “grave risk of death and loss of limbs” due to a lack of adequate food, sanitation and basic medical care and medication.

The suit alleges that many prisoners are housed in cells with no lighting and broken toilets, forcing them to defecate on food trays or in plastic bags that they toss through slots in the cell doors. So filthy is EMCF that rats often climb over prisoners’ beds, and some prisoners catch them and put them on leashes as pets.

According to the lawsuit, one prisoner went blind from glaucoma and another had a finger amputated after receiving no treatment for gangrene. Another prisoner had a testicle removed after it swelled to the size of a softball from cancer that went untreated.

“Prisoner-on-prisoner stabbings and beatings are frequent because the locking mechanism on the cell doors can be readily defeated, and some officers are complicit in unlocking doors to allow violence to occur,” the lawsuit alleges. One section of the prison used for solitary confinement is known as “the dead area” or “the dead zone,” because guards avoid the area, leaving prisoners to set fires to get their attention while the guards simply let the fires burn out. “The air is so contaminated from frequent fires that some prisoners expel black mucus from their noses,” the complaint states.

Opened in 1999, EMCF was designated to house and treat mentally ill prisoners for the Mississippi Department of Corrections (DOC). The facility holds up to 1,500 prisoners and has been operated by a series of for-profit companies since it opened. The current contractor is Utah-based Management & Training Corporation (MTC), which has run the facility since July 2012 after private prison firm GEO Group pulled out of its contracts to operate EMCF and two other facilities. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.30].

In June 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a report indicating it had fined GEO $104,000 for health and safety violations at EMCF in 2011 – including exposing employees to workplace violence, failing to take action to reduce the risk of violence and not repairing malfunctioning locks on cell doors.

MTC was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit concerning conditions at EMCF. Company spokesman Issa Arnita said in June 2013 that the situation had improved since the time of the incidents alleged in the suit; for example, prisoner-on-prisoner assaults had dropped 74% while use of force incidents decreased 60%.

“Operationally, it’s a much better place, not just for the offenders, but the employees,” said EMCF Warden Frank Shaw.

Jody Owens, executive director of the Jackson, Mississippi office for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), disagreed. “We were there two weeks ago,” he noted. “This is happening right now.”

According to the complaint, Mississippi DOC officials have known about the “grossly inhumane conditions” at EMCF but failed to take steps to protect prisoners at the facility. “Rapes, stabbings, beatings, and other acts of violence are rampant,” the lawsuit states, noting that a 16-year-old was placed in a cell with an adult prisoner who sexually assaulted him. Another prisoner, William Eastwood, was repeatedly raped at knifepoint in February 2012 by a prisoner who snorted cocaine during the assault. Eastwood’s cries for help were ignored by a guard who walked away when the assailant told him everything was okay, the complaint alleges. Other mentally ill prisoners have committed suicide at EMCF after guards ignored repeated warning signs.

In 2011, a national correctional healthcare expert, Dr. Terry Kupers, wrote a report criticizing EMCF for inadequate mental health staffing. At that time EMCF had only one full-time psychiatrist despite its mission to treat mentally ill prisoners. According to the lawsuit, the psychiatrist’s hours dropped to two days a week after the state hired Health Assurance, LLC, a for-profit company, to provide mental health care at EMCF. Kupers also reported that prisoners were “much thinner, almost emaciated” due to “significant weight loss.”

Gabriel B. Eber, staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said conditions at EMCF are “the worse I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in prisons all around the country.”

The ACLU has filed suit against Mississippi over prison conditions before. It sued on behalf of prisoners in Unit 32 at the State Penitentiary at Parchman concerning inhumane conditions [see: PLN, Feb. 2011, p.22], and again in 2010 over abuses at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility; the SPLC was co-counsel in the latter case. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.30]. The lawsuits ultimately led to major reforms.

“The East Mississippi Correctional Facility is a cesspool,” said Eber. “When you combine solitary confinement, abuse, lack of medical and mental health care, and denial of basic human needs, it’s a recipe for disaster. [EMCF] is a throwback to the brutal prisons of decades ago, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections must do better.”

“Do we still have issues?” asked EMCF Warden Shaw. “Sure. It’s a prison. It’s the nature of the business. But we do everything we can to make it better for the offenders and the employees.”

At a gathering of prisoners’ family members outside the DOC’s headquarters in Jackson on May 30, 2013, Katie Autry said that her son, who is incarcerated at EMCF and has bipolar disorder and a form of schizophrenia, had been “in isolation, in chains, for the past three months.” She stated, “I saw him yesterday, and he looks terrible. He’s lost probably 100 pounds.”

Owens said the SPLC and ACLU had raised the concerns described in the lawsuit in a May 15, 2012 letter sent to Mississippi DOC Commissioner Chris Epps, but there was no reply. Epps claimed through a spokesperson that he never saw the letter and, in a written statement, noted the Department of Corrections had met with the ACLU and SPLC in the past and had “taken their suggestions” as to other prison-related issues.

The gathering of prisoners’ family members at the DOC’s headquarters focused on what they called the inhumane treatment of prisoners and EMCF’s management by a series of for-profit contractors. “Please don’t put a price tag on our loved ones,” said Autry. “Make sure they get the help they desperately need.” She added, “Since my son has been in East Mississippi, I have seen his mental state – his mental state got worse, not better.”

On November 22, 2013, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a protective order in the lawsuit related to production of prisoners’ confidential medical records during the discovery process. The case remains pending. See: Dockery v. Epps, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:13-cv-00326-TSL-JMR.


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